The Chef’s Garden, in Huron, Ohio, is perhaps the most extreme example of agriculture you’ll encounter. Here, tiny vegetables, like cucamelons and miniature purple eggplants, are grown for discerning chefs in fine restaurants throughout the country. Shipped virtually anywhere in a day, these veggies carry a hefty price tag, in carbon emissions and currency, as well. However, several lessons are found here about the future of agriculture.
“We will need to produce more food in the first half of this century than we did in the previous 100 centuries combined,” says Tony Kajewski, an engineering manager at John Deere and president of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. He spoke to TechNewsWorld in 2013. That is an overarching agricultural concern. It transcends debates about GMOs, pesticides, and all manner of farming methods. Nine billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050, according to the U.N.
One way The Chef’s Garden produces its exquisite crops is through controlled environments. Hoop houses help them produce for chefs year-round. Even the seed that goes into the ground at this farm is tested and sorted for best germination. That is information that’s compiled before a single vegetable is planted, to gain efficiency and reduce waste.
Controlled Environment Agriculture can be seen as the future of local. Growing can happen in areas of demand, so shipping long distances isn’t necessary. CEA makes it possible to grow in extreme climates, and urban habitats. It also is efficient, producing in smaller spaces, and with less waste. This doesn’t only mean greenhouses, it also means indoor operations under lights. Here, growing can happen 24/7 for quick harvest. Plant beds are often stacked, leading to efficient use of space.
Controlled Environment Agriculture often means growing indoors, under lights.
Cosmetic imperfections are one source of food waste. This sort of waste is often caused by pest damage. Inside, pests are non-existent. So, too, the use of pesticides. Money and headaches (perhaps literally) saved. Pesticide-free produce is often worth more to consumers, and, since poor market prices can also lead to food waste, that’s insurance against such problems. So, too, is local produce often worth a premium to consumers.
Mechanized harvesting can leave perfectly good produce in the field, but in a controlled environment, everything can be harvested by hand, since there’s not as much ground to cover. No produce is damaged or missed during the harvesting process.
The Chef’s Garden was born of an ordinary, and too common, tragedy: in 1983 the then-conventional vegetable farm went bankrupt and the Jones family lost all but a few acres of land. Growing highly specialized produce for chefs meant they could bring in the kind of cash they needed to sustain a business with the remaining land. A web page on CEA at Cornell University also says that it can bring diversification and expansion to family farms, allowing growing families to support adult children who want to stay in agriculture.
The Jones family also jealously guards the health of the soil. Only one-third of the farm is under cultivation at any given time; the rest is under cover crops. Cover crops are planted to reduce soil erosion, add nutrients and organic matter to soil, and conserve water during times when a particular field is resting from production. It is often said that the exportation of technology to agricultural systems in developing countries doesn’t mean GMO seed, it really means common-sense know-how like the use of cover crops. It means employing best practices to locally available resources like different crops, water, and soils, thereby allowing small, local farmers to do their part in feeding a growing world.