Using Space-Age Technology for Down-to-Earth Agriculture

University of Arizona students work in the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center vertical farming facility for research, education and outreach. (Photo courtesy of Austin Smith)

Astronauts and polar explorers can grow fresh foods in space and Antarctica. Now, it’s time for rural communities to get into the greenhouse game.

Similar to what Matt Damon portrayed in the movie The Martian, astronauts can successfully grow enough food to sustain themselves in orbit or on another planet. Researchers in Antarctica have been doing the same since 2004 in an environment where the average yearly temperature is minus 56 F. One of the researchers involved in these extreme environment success stories says that local communities can also benefit from controlled environment agriculture (CEA).

Dr. Gene Giacomelli, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at the University of Arizona, leads an internationally recognized, one-of-a-kind research and education program at the university’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC). Their studies and applications focus on the technical, and practical and business development aspects of designing, monitoring, managing, modeling and optimizing crop production.

Giacomelli and other researchers at CEAC have received grants from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study sustainable indoor growing systems (click on the video’s “Dr. Giacomelli” tab).

“We recognize the momentous historical change that CEA promotes for a non-famer without land who may now become a significant producer of food as never before possible,” he said. “This is a renaissance time for production agriculture.”

According to Giacomelli, the renaissance began in 2006 with increased use of “high tunnels” – low-cost, uncontrolled environments that extend growing seasons and produce more, high-quality crops. “The market brought demand, which created new businesses, or renovated older farm businesses,” he said.

In addition to growing food, greenhouses have the potential to become a social magnet for communities by bringing people together for planting and harvesting activities. More advanced greenhouses creates a need for non-seasonal jobs that require knowledge-based training in biology and engineering.

Giacomelli said, greenhouses can become the center of commerce for rural communities or communities that have fallen on hard economic times.

“Greenhouses production can be as diverse as the local user desires, extending beyond simple edible plant crops to include fish (aquaculture), fish and plants (aquaponics), or other tradable products, including flowers, seedling starter transplants, medicinal crops, oil crops, animal feed and pharmaceuticals.”

Developing an environment that can support growth in space or Antarctica may be beyond the reach of most folks, but advancing from backyard gardener to creating a sustainable CEA or hydroponics system need not be. Giacomelli says education is the key – he recommends taking classes and workshops, and working with Master Gardeners and local county Cooperative Extension offices to get hands-on experience.

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