Tasra looked down from a sky filled with anvil shaped clouds that promised rain, then bent her right knee until it touched the ground. Dark hair shaded her infant daughter’s eyes as she held her securely in her left arm. She reached into a woven basket slung over her shoulder and removed a handful of grain seeds. With measured hand movements that valued every seed, she planted them in the shallow furrow she had prepared only an hour before. It was a small field and the group would return to it several times during the summer season to weed, and if the rains came as they normally did, the group would collect a small crop of grain. This action would add to the harvest of wild grains from an area around a high tarn in a hanging valley in the Zagros mountains near the modern border of Iraq and Iran. These two grain harvests along with gathered nuts, roots, and dried meats would allow them to stay at the protected campsite they had used briefly last winter and hopefully for a much longer period this winter, perhaps even until spring. Tasra’s young son had perished last winter during a foraging expedition, and she desperately wanted to avoid repeating that tragedy again this winter.
This is how modern agriculture may have begun.
When human society made that great leap from hunting and gathering to agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago, a technological and biological race began which created the agricultural system that now provides food year round for most of human society. The original domestication of plants and animals occurred almost simultaneously in various locations (Meso-America, the Fertile Crescent – present day Iraq/Iran, West Africa, and China to name a few) around the world. The resulting patterns of plant breeding and animal husbandry produced increasing yields from the limited number of species that been selected. Fast forward to the late 19th century and agriculture begins to benefit from the emergence of scientific research and techniques, which produces an agricultural system that is the precursor to the industrial agricultural system we have today. Based on the easy availability of land, petrochemical-based fertilizers, extensive weed and pest controls, and powerful mechanized equipment, we now find ourselves trapped in a world of basic food stuffs so radically altered from their original state that most grocery stores have only a small percentage of their floor space devoted to food in its natural state while processed foods dominate the shelves and checkout lanes throughout America.
8000 years after the first agricultural villages were established, the first greenhouses were employed to extend the growing season and provide out of season produce for royalty and those who could afford such luxuries. Starting with “transparent stone” greenhouses that allegedly provided fresh cucumbers for Roman Emperor Tiberius in the first century CE and progressing to the ornate Orangeries and glass houses of Padua, Italy (1545) and Versailles, France (1617) through the early 20th century. Glass enclosures solved some problems but created others. Disease and soil conditioning in greenhouses presented unique challenges that were not solved without expensive and heroic efforts and thus keeping greenhouses as the hobbies of the rich and powerful for several centuries.
Hydroponic foods and agricultural systems in combination with greenhouses as we know them today are products of the 20th century. In 1925, the first experiments with hydroponic growing methods were conducted at New Jersey Experimental Agricultural Station with the sand culture method but were ultimately rejected due to high set up costs. In the 1930′s, more experimentation with subirrigation helped move hydroponics further along. But it was not until the advent of plastics for greenhouse glazing and hydroponic infrastructure in the 1970′s that costs became manageable. Hydroponics in the 21st century incorporates computer monitoring of all aspects of nutrition, air movement, temperature, water volume, and lighting. The most recent innovations in greenhouse hydroponics is the use of High Intensity Focused Spectrum LED light sources which provide only the specific light wave frequencies that plants use for growth. This technology is being pioneered in The Netherlands and is finding potential applications in the US and worldwide. Researchers foresee large numbers of small LED Hydroponic gardens placed in urban apartments, suburban grocery stores, restaurants, and homes throughout the world providing fresh produce year-round for minimal space and cost considerations.
While under-counter hydroponics with high tech lighting may be a few years away for most home gardeners, there is no shortage of local gardening going on. The holy grail of most gardeners’ season will continue to be the first vine ripened tomato from the garden. This annual neighborhood competition can be won in a variety of ways, but the more advanced techniques usually win the day.
Cherry Capital Foods primary hydroponic tomato supplier, TLC Hydroponics will be in operation a touch earlier this year to be more competitive in this all important segment with an eye towards shifting the first hydroponic tomato harvest date a few weeks earlier and extending the fresh local tomato season in Northern Michigan as far as possible.
Speaking of TLC, the last of the Bibb lettuce and hydroponic tomatoes have been harvested for 2012 and the greenhouses have been put to bed for the winter. The process of getting the four greenhouses ready for winter takes a couple of weeks for Jim Beaton and his crew at TLC Hydroponics. Sanitizing and storing the lettuce growing trays, emptying perlite from the tomato pots, and cleaning and draining the hydroponic system are among the major tasks being completed during this period.
2012 was as successful year with loads of tasty Bibb lettuce, “Trust” red tomatoes, colorful heirloom tomatoes, and a zesty cherry tomato mix. 2013 will feature the aforementioned earlier production schedule along with larger quantities and more varieties of hydroponic tomatoes. Heirloom varieties will include an elongated type “Roma,” “Orange Wellington,” “Tie-dye,” “Great White,” “Chianti Rose” (Brandy wine type), “Cherokee Purple,” and “Aunt Judy’s Green.”
Judy’s German Green Tomatoes
Cherry Capital Foods will be able to to return with last year’s hydroponic cherry tomato mix that will include the spectacular “Sun Gold” cherry tomato and four other colors to insure a bright and tasty mix for our clients. We hope to offer mixed cases of the seven types of heirloom hydroponic tomatoes and cases of single varieties as production allows. I will be personally involved in most aspects of tomato and lettuce production in 2013 and will post germination updates, our successes (many!), and disappointments (few, hopefully) when the season commences this spring.