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Agriculture

Camarillo-area greenhouses produce 21st century crops

High-tech facilities hoard water, generate electricity and produce 20 times more tomatoes per acre than conventional farms. But the seed money needed is also far greater.

May 14, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

On a coastal plain near Camarillo not far from a U.S. Navy base and an outlet mall, the future of California farming is taking shape.

Rising out of verdant acres of strawberries and artichokes between Highway 101 and the Pacific Ocean in Ventura County are two mammoth, high-tech greenhouses.

Climate change is a serious threat to California's $36-billion agricultural economy. The farming company behind this $50-million complex sees it as insurance against perpetual drought, volatile fossil fuel prices and resilient pests.

The facility generates its own renewable power. It hoards rainwater. It hosts its own bumblebees for pollination. And it requires a fraction of the chemicals used in neighboring fields to coax plants to produce like champions.

This fledgling movement to grow food crops in closed, sustainable environments could become as revolutionary to farming in the 21st century as California's development of massive farms was in the 20th, agriculture experts say.

"We are doing all of this not only because it will be good for our business but because it will be good for everyone else," said Casey Houweling, president of Houweling Nurseries, the Canadian farming company that is cultivating tomatoes at the facility, which will be fully operational in June.

The son of a Dutch immigrant farmer, the 51-year-old Houweling has helped build his family's agricultural business into one of the largest greenhouse-based growers in North America. But the California facility is no ordinary hothouse.

On a recent afternoon, he was eager to show visitors clusters of plump, sweet tomatoes hanging overhead from vines that reach high into the rafters. This arrangement allows the farm's 450 permanent employees to climb ladders to pick the fruit instead of stooping. The plants, which are fed individually through tubing that looks like intravenous hospital equipment, produce 20 times more fruit per acre than in conventional field production.

Virtually nothing is wasted in this ecosystem. Workers have dug a four-acre pond to store rainwater and runoff. This water, along with condensation, is collected, filtered and recirculated back to each of the 20-acre greenhouses. That has cut water use to less than one-fifth of that required in conventional field cultivation. Fertilizer use has been reduced by half. There are no herbicides and almost no pesticides, and there is no dust.

Five-acres of photovoltaic solar cells supply much of the electricity to run pumps and climate controls. Thermal systems collect solar heat and warehouse refrigeration exhaust to warm the greenhouses on cool evenings. Together, the two systems generate 2.1 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1,500 homes.

"We believe this is the first greenhouse in the world that is energy neutral," Houweling said.

Houweling envisions a day when greenhouses dot California's lush coastal plains, taking advantage of the abundant sunlight to grow thirsty crops such as lettuce and strawberries, using renewable energy to reduce their burden on the environment.

Until recently, that was a pipe dream. The cost of heating and cooling these structures was prohibitive for all but the highest-value specialty produce. The nation grows less than $1 billion worth of greenhouse fruits and vegetables annually.

But the rising expense of traditional farming is fast narrowing the cost gap. California farmers are coping with years of drought. They're also grappling with land degradation, an unstable migrant workforce and rising shipping costs.

"We are closer to parity than we have ever been," said Gene Giacomelli, a professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Houweling's greenhouses are at the leading edge of the type of facilities farmers will increasingly rely on for production, Giacomelli said.

Designed by Kubo Greenhouse Projects, a Dutch company, the temperature- and humidity-controlled glass-sheeted farm is expected to produce 482 tons of tomatoes per acre, 15% more than Houweling's previous generation of greenhouses. The plants live far longer than field crops and are replaced every six months.

Still, a shift to more greenhouse farming will be slow.

"Houweling is doing the demonstration," Giacomelli said. "He is going to have to prove to himself and his banker that this is the way to go."

Although they need just a fraction of the land taken up by conventional farming, greenhouses require far greater capital investment. The expansion to Houweling's Camarillo farm -- which includes the two greenhouses; the climate, energy and environmental technology; and a new packing plant -- amounts to about $1 million an acre, not including the land.

Houweling said he expected the investment to take as long as 10 years to pay off, depending on the price of tomatoes. More tomato-linked salmonella scares and bad weather during the growing season in Florida would shorten the pay-back period.

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