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Growing up, and up


WORLD Radio - Growing up, and up

A new generation of farms holds hope for solving a looming global food crisis

Beanstalk's greens, inside its vertical farm Photo by Jenny Rough

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday the 26th of May, 2022. This is World Radio and we thank you for joining us today! Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler. First up on The World and Everything in It: farming.

Walk into a grocery store, and you’ll usually see the produce section first. It looks fresh and appetizing. But chances are, that food has been trucked in before it’s ripe from hundreds of miles away.

REICHARD: What if that produce could be grown locally, no matter where you live? WORLD’s Jenny Rough reports.

MIKE ROSS: So let’s walk around here.

JENNY ROUGH, REPORTER: Mike Ross points to a row of leafy green lettuces.

ROSS: So pause here just to kind of show you…

He’s giving a tour of his farm in Northern Virginia.

ROSS: That's where we germinate the plants. And germination is when its first two leaves kind of pop out.

Mike and his brother, Jack, grow salad greens, herbs, and microgreens.

ROSS: So that could be, you know, sprouts or shoots. We grow an Italian arugula, so we actually import seeds from Italy. We do baby spinach, baby kale. We'll do, you know, things like spring mix and then basil cilantro, dill, parsley, mint.

No scorching sun withers the plants. No flooding erodes the soil. No pesky insects eat up the crops. The Ross brothers never worry about those things. That’s because their farm is indoors.

And instead of sprawling out, the farm goes up…

ROSS: So it's nine levels of plants.

… and up …

ROSS: Up to 20 feet.

… and up.

ROSS: So we’re going to be growing about 50 acres worth of produce in about 20,000 square feet.

A 50-acre terrestrial farm on a plot of land takes up more than 2 million square feet. So the Ross’s farm?

ROSS: Big, big space saver. It’s all protected. So rain or shine or snow, we’re growing.

They named their farm Beanstalk. It’s what’s known as a vertical farm. Dickson Despommier is credited with coining the term. He’s an emeritus professor of public health and microbiology at Columbia University. He defines a vertical farm as a multiple story greenhouse.

DICKSON DEPOMMIER: If it’s more than one story tall, it’s a vertical farm.

It’s a relatively new trend. When Despommier first published a book about vertical farms in 2010, he knew of only three.

DEPOMMIER: None of them were in America.

One was in Japan. One in Shanghai. And one in Singapore.

DEPOMMIER: Today, they’re everywhere.

So many, he’s lost count.

Advocates say vertical farms could hold the key to solving food insecurity amid increasing urbanization and unpredictable weather patterns. And they view vertical farming as a solution to another big problem in the food system: Many people don’t live anywhere near a food source.

DEPOMMIER: Half the world lives in cities. Cities don’t produce any food. All their food, all their water, all their energy comes from outside the city.

And that sometimes makes it hard to find and expensive to buy.

Andrew Kellam is the director of operations at Grow Local, a company based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Its stackable, vertical AquaTree can grow edible plants, like broccoli sprouts. It’s small enough to operate as a kitchen appliance. More of a vertical garden than a full-fledged farm.

ANDREW KELLAM: You can plop it down anywhere and all they need is a seed source, and they can grow their own food, wherever they are. Fresh, nutritious, very healthy food.

Kellam says the potential of vertical gardens and farms can go far beyond helping city dwellers snip some greens for their smoothies, salads, and omelets. People anywhere could rely on its technology. Those who live in arid climates. In food deserts. Those serving on military missions overseas. Or living in war-torn countries.

KELLAM: I mean, our first endeavor is to have a container sent to Thailand to help with the conflict at the Myanmar border where there’s tons of refugees that aren’t getting fed. We have a former missionary on our staff who is a former missionary to Thailand and he’s already been over there. So it’s not just about a business, it’s about helping people around the world who need nutritional solutions.

Today’s vertical farms are mostly limited to leafy greens. But Columbia professor Dickson Depommier foresees a day when they can grow anything from root vegetables and bush berries to melons and squashes. For all of their benefits, vertical farms do have some drawbacks. Instead of sunlight, the plants are cultivated under LED grow lights. No soil either. Instead, the roots go into a hydroponic solution. Depommier sees that as a benefit.

DEPOMMIER: So indoors, for once, we can control everything about our plants, including what goes into the plant. We already know what the nutritional requirements are for plants and animals. Indoors, I can make a diet for plants. They’re liquid diets.

But that lack of soil is controversial. Joel Salatin operates a multigenerational family farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

AUDIO: [Chickens clucking]

His farm is unconventional too, but not because it’s vertical.

SALITAN: We look at God’s creation templates. How did God set this up? For example, herbivores in nature don’t eat meat. They don’t even eat grain. They’re not locked up in confinement eating corn and soybeans.

That’s why cows on his farm graze in fields eating as many as 40 varieties of plants. What he calls the “salad bar.” His vegetable garden grows in organic soil free from artificial chemicals and fertilizers. Outside, he holds a fistful of it in his hand.

SALATIN: The soil is actually a teeming community of beings. One handful, double handful, of healthy soil there are roughly 9 billion microorganisms. That’s more people than there are on the face of this earth. I want to fill you with wonder and awe about this invisible community.

Depriving plants of the intricacies of the soil microbiome has tradeoffs. It may affect the nutrient density in food. And gut health.

The Ross brothers do use soil at their vertical farm. But theirs is one of the few indoor farms that does. They also practice vermicomposting: using worms for decomposition of scraps. Joel Salatin says earthworms are another of nature’s beneficial wonders and can thrive in stackable containers and vertical farms.

Soil or not, the experts say it’s important to learn where your food comes from and how it’s grown. Mike Ross adds this:

ROSS: The difficulty of running a farm is something most people don’t quite understand. How you have to deal with the weather, labor markets, and all the input costs, especially today. So the fact that at least some people are able to feed themselves is pretty amazing.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jenny Rough in Northern Virginia.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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