No Soil. No Growing Seasons. Just Add Water and Technology. – The New York Times

By Kim Severson

  • July 6, 2021

MOREHEAD, Ky. — In this pretty town on the edge of coal country, a high-tech greenhouse so large it could cover 50 football fields glows with the pinks and yellows of 30,600 LED and high-pressure sodium lights.

Cooking: Feast on recipes, food writing and culinary inspiration from Sam Sifton and NYT Cooking.

Inside, without a teaspoon of soil, nearly 3 million pounds of beefsteak tomatoes grow on 45-feet-high vines whose roots are bathed in nutrient-enhanced rainwater. Other vines hold thousands of small, juicy snacking tomatoes with enough tang to impress Martha Stewart, who is on the board of AppHarvest, a start-up that harvested its first crop here in January and plans to open 11 more indoor farms in Appalachia by 2025.

In a much more industrial setting near the Hackensack River in Kearny, N.J., trays filled with sweet baby butterhead lettuce and sorrel that tastes of lemon and green apple are stacked high in a windowless warehouse — what is known as a vertical farm. Bowery, the largest vertical-farming company in the United States, manipulates light, humidity, temperature and other conditions to grow produce, bankrolled by investors like Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, and the chefs José Andrés and Tom Colicchio.

“Once I tasted the arugula, I was sold,” said Mr. Colicchio, who for years rolled his eyes at people who claimed to grow delicious hydroponic produce. “It was so spicy and so vibrant, it just blew me away.”

The two operations are part of a new generation of hydroponic farms that create precise growing conditions using technological advances like machine-learning algorithms, data analytics and proprietary software systems to coax customized flavors and textures from fruits and vegetables. And they can do it almost anywhere.

These farms arrive at a pivotal moment, as swaths of the country wither in the heat and drought of climate change, abetted in part by certain forms of agriculture. The demand for locally grown food has never been stronger, and the pandemic has shown many people that the food supply chain isn’t as resilient as they thought.

But not everyone is on board. These huge farms grow produce in nutrient-rich water, not the healthy soil that many people believe is at the heart of both deliciousness and nutrition. They can consume vast amounts of electricity. Their most ardent opponents say the claims being made for hydroponics are misleading and even dangerous.

“At the moment, I would say the bad guys are winning,” said Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer and the executive director of the Real Organic Project. “Hydroponic production is not growing because it produces healthier food. It’s growing because of the money. Anyone who frames this as food for the people or the environment is just lying.”

“At the moment, I would say the bad guys are winning,” said Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer and the executive director of the Real Organic Project. “Hydroponic production is not growing because it produces healthier food. It’s growing because of the money. Anyone who frames this as food for the people or the environment is just lying.”

The technical term for hydroponic farming is controlled environmental agriculture, but people in the business refer to it as indoor farming. What used to be simply called farms are now referred to as land-based farms or open-field agriculture.

“We’ve perfected mother nature indoors through that perfect combination of science and technology married with farming,” said Daniel Malechuk, the chief executive of Kalera, a company that sells whole lettuces, with the roots intact, in plastic clamshells for about the same price as other prewashed lettuce.

In March, the company opened a 77,000-square-foot facility south of Atlanta that can produce more than 10 million heads of lettuce a year. Similar indoor farms are coming to Houston, Denver, Seattle, Honolulu and St. Paul, Minn.

The beauty of the process, Mr. Malechuk and other executives say, is that it isn’t limited by seasons. The cost and growing period for a crop can be predicted precisely and farms can be built wherever people need fresh produce.

“We can grow in the Antarctic,” he said. “We can be on an island. We can be on the moon or in the space station.”

That’s easy to picture: The farms are staffed by a new breed of young farmers who wear lab coats instead of overalls, and prefer computers to tractors.

…(read more).

Food-matters,

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