by R. Lieber
Growing food in whole new ways
A while back a fellow Master Gardener forwarded some interesting topics they felt I should write about. Some were more controversial (at least among gardeners) and others were difficult for me to relate to everyday gardening, but a few stuck with me as being pretty interesting topics for most gardeners. This is one of them. The original suggestion was to write about the incredible farming juggernaut, the Netherlands, which has a new take on greenhouse growing while still growing healthy and organic produce. Initially, it didn't look like there was anything to relate to growing small home vegetable gardens in Tennessee. However, a very silent revolution has been going on within our country too, and there seemed to be some really big changes that may eventually filter down to the home food crop garden! As it becomes obvious with more examples of urban farms cropping up every year I thought even the casual home gardener would like to learn about changes that are happening ever closer to home. Maybe there is even a home gardener about to become Blount County's first true year round produce grower?
The Dutch have been quietly turning standard farming practices on their collective ears with vast greenhouses and technological fixes to ages old problems in producing food in quantity. A quick Google map "bird's eye view" of an area outside of Delft (the city of blue pottery and porcelain fame) highlights the change. That particular view will give one a small inkling of an agricultural revolution taking place. Huge greenhouse complexes stand right next to more traditional and bucolic fields dotted with grazing cattle. At one time many of these huge greenhouse complexes were fields that probably were given over to the more well known Dutch products of tulips and flower bulbs. While no one was paying attention, the Netherlands has quickly been rising in the ranks of produce growers to the world yet has the smallest agricultural footprint. However various sources list the "under glass" growing areas totaling to an area close to the size of Manhattan and still increasing.
Most of us might be aware of a few Dutch agricultural products like their organic and colorful peppers that dot the supermarket shelves for a good portion of the year. Few are aware that their tomato production is the highest in the world, even more than the US or China. It's been a quiet revolution 2 decades in the making and shows no sign of slowing down. If that isn't enough the Netherlands is also one of the world's largest vegetable seed exporters. Much of their work is geared to organic production so this is even more astounding on its face.
Some of the statistics that have come with this growth have been the real surprise as the claims are a reduction of water needs by as much as 90% in many crops and use pesticides to very close to nothing at all. Much has been achieved with the use of beneficial bugs and the recognition that zero tolerance of pests means beneficial bugs can't survive either! Instead of bug free zones the tactic is watch and let good bugs work and only interfere when something appears to be going wrong, and followed by mechanical removal. That is pretty much in line with more local organic growers have been leaning towards.
Technical research is ongoing, but include new lighting systems which make our home "grow lights" look pretty dim. Research also is ongoing in bacterial made fertilizer and all sorts of organic methods have pushed change with an engineering twist These incredible changes recalls the 'can do' engineering feats of the Dutch that have been reclaiming land lost to the sea for generations.
Other countries are seeking to learn how to repeat this agricultural phenomenon and catch up with the Dutch agricultural steam engine. The Dutch have been very willing to share much of it to those who show interest. Others have their own home grown ways to find new methods and spaces to grow the food we need despite ever reduced arable land as cities expand. Here in the USA there are several new wrinkles on the ground floor of another growers' movement.
For many years we have been seeing urban and suburban land reclamation in the form of beautification and restoration projects. Blighted city lots, old train right of ways and suburban hell strip have all been renewed, repurposed and beautified. This form of planting have become popular all over the country, often with local flavors reflecting local climates and the heavy use of natives. Most have been wonderful examples of decorative planting as well as a way to save local ecosystems, especially the pollinators.
The farm to table movement has also encouraged the growing of vegetables and fruits in places not normally considered farmable or to encourage the last of farming families to stay on in increasing suburban and urbanized areas. Some of the creative answers to getting local produce to local consumers all year round have been increased use of greenhouses and some old traditions such as high tunnels (crop covers).
Like the Dutch, many Americans are becoming avid users of technology in the name of wholesome, safe organic produce with a low carbon footprint by stretching crop production to near year round without shipping Additionally the trend of local food is crystallizing with the more and more successful urban and suburban collective farms. We have seen their increasing success locally in Knoxville with Abbey Fields Farm and Old City Gardens. It may only be a matter of time before we begin seeing farmer's markets open for longer seasons as the local growers begin working with aeroponic towers and mini greenhouses and we will be coming full circle to how people just a few generations back grew their own food for year round consumption.
The Dutch may have had the jump on greenhouse and warehouse farming and have been also working on urban vertical gardens but they are hardly alone. There is a more grass roots approach to in the USA that is seeing some form of urban farming in most cities. The approaches are varied from vertical gardens to incredible, lush rooftop farms as well as the more familiar smaller empty lot farms and gardens that have cropped up in the last decade, often as community garden efforts.
For some smaller growers hydroponic, aquaponics and aeroponic plant production combined with automated harvest and care reduces not only pest and disease problems it also reduces contamination of the kind that causes food borne illnesses. Keeping their plants in naturally sterile conditions, using UV sanitizing between crops or select culling if there has been a problem, reduces the need for any chemicals on crops. All three are being heavily researched for use in tomorrow's new farms.
One offshoot of all these various attempts to increase our access to fresh produce already seen in our local Kroger is hydroponically grown lettuce, sometimes sold as "living lettuce" but many more are promised including herbs ready to stay and grow on our window sills for a longer periods. Gotham Greens, one of the larger established urban rooftop and warehouse farms has been reported to be working with Whole Foods to make roof top greenhouses so it is only a matter of time before the larger supermarket chains follow suit.
Part of the charm of all these grown at the market farming methods is both the unusual produce and access to fresh grown food for those who can't or don't want to grow their own. It is a universally sought after commodity. A supermarket in Berlin, Germany has been reported to have a greenhouse inside the store! In the USA a company called Bright Farms is marketing to smaller supermarkets for growing their own produce at or on the store.
The green revolution has come, are you ready?
References and further reading:
Dutch greenhouse and food growers
National geographic article on the surprising and still growing Dutch ultra modern agricultural phenomenon: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/09/holland-agriculture-sustainable-farming/
Plans for having supermarkets grow produce on their own roof: