Only Sort of Controlling the Weather

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A little piece of Disney World is coming to the Triangle – sort of. And no, I don’t mean the Disney store in Crabtree Mall has opened back up. Maybe it has (who hasn’t been waiting to get their Lilo and Stitch on), but that’s not the point. I’m thinking more along the lines of EPCOT and Living with the Land. The ride referenced is an exploration of horticultural technologies and sustainable agriculture, and though I doubt there will be any mouse-ears involved, LL Urban Farms is instituting even more controlled environment agriculture in their production process.

While LL Urban Farms has been using greenhouses to grow their lettuce since the beginning, they’ve been growing heirloom tomatoes outside for the last three years. This is all about to change. LL Urban Farms is moving their tomatoes indoors with the introduction of two new green houses. I spoke to Glen Lang (one of the “L’s” of LL Urban) about the change, and he provided me with both a timeline and some very compelling reasons for the switch.

For the timeline, the greenhouses are being built now. The tomatoes will be moved in and growing in the second week of October, and the tomatoes will be ready in January after a period of sixty to seventy days. I say moved in instead of planted, because the plants will be grafted onto disease resistant root systems, fighting disease and staying consistent with their method for the quality heirloom tomatoes they’ve produced. During the summer months when the availability of local tomatoes is highest, the old plants will be taken out and replaced with fresh plants. After a year’s growth, stems can reach a length of 40 feet and become unwieldy and cause difficulties in growing sustainable produce.

When I asked Mr. Lang about the reasons behind the switch, he first told me about the lack of local tomatoes during the winter months in our area. With the plant change during the peak season, fresh, local tomatoes will be available to people virtually year round. The second reason was to move their tomatoes into the realm of controlled environment agriculture.

Cool? Yes. But to convince you of the benefits of controlled environment agriculture, I should probably explain a bit of what it is. Controlled environment agriculture is the production of plants and produce in greenhouses or other similar structures. CEA can increase both the quality and productivity of crops by controlling environmental factors involved in the growth of plants. Rain and humidity are the two biggest factors of disease in plants, and CEA reduces, if not eliminates, both major risk factors. Healthier plants mean better produce and higher quality food. Temperature also plays a roll, and being able to keep tomatoes in their comfortable range of roughly 84° during the day and 62-65° at night helps fight problems like frostbite, wilting, and dehydration.

While some may suggest CEA sounds a bit newfangled, the concept has been around since the days of the Roman emperors . Around 14-17 AD, a doctor ordered Tiberius Caesar to eat a cucumber a day for health. I had always heard it was an apple a day, but I suppose either one was better than a Big Mac at keeping the doctor away. So ole’ Tiberius had movable plant beds that could be placed indoors or outdoors depending on the weather, and during sunny winter days, they were placed outside covered by a frame glazed with transparent mica. Greenhouses similar to what we use today were in use in 1670, and greenhouses were even used by George Washington at Mount Vernon around 1780. These were heated by decomposing manure, but thankfully technology has progressed since then.

Groovy. But how does CEA affect us today? Locally speaking, it means we’ll have high quality tomatoes in abundance year round. While field growing tomatoes may result in around 20 lbs. of tomatoes per plant per year with many having to be turned into tomato paste, CEA can raise that number to around 60 lbs. with 95% of them being at maximum, not-for-paste quality. Add on the fact that this produce will be local and free of pesticides and herbicides, and you’ve got a pretty sweet deal. From an environmental perspective, CEA growth environments can be closed, meaning there’s no liquid discharge into surface or ground water. Add on the fact that CEA facilities can be located in urban areas so open and agricultural land doesn’t need to be converted to greenhouses, and the prospect becomes even sweeter.

In summary, controlled environment agriculture is good for the environment and the increased production is good for sustaining produce for a world whose population keeps increasing. On top of that, one gets to eat fresh produce in the style of presidents and emperors, but with that option available to everyone near a farm that employs the techniques of CEA. Sometimes parts of us want things the traditional way, while other bits want to embrace the future. Controlled environment agriculture and greenhouses could be the best of both worlds.

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