Open Letter to California

The following is a letter from Adam Jorge to his home state of California about water use and recirculating farms:

When people think of California, most envision sunny beaches, surfing, skiing, and those famous “Board Meetings” commercial spots that fueled the state’s tourism campaign. It seems like a true paradise—and, I can tell you, after 23 years of living here, it usually still feels like it.

Still California is ripe with ironies – spend a day in LA and you feel a world away from those sunny beaches. Similarly, the state is the strongest agricultural entity in the nation, boasting a $37 billion+ agricultural economy. But at the same time it falters in the face of a phenomenal water crisis.

The vast majority of water in the state’s Central Valley comes from a combination of groundwater pumps and water carried through the California Aqueduct, which transports water from the San Joaquin Delta to the Valley and into Southern California. This means that to irrigate the over 400 different types of crops that this state provides, we are employing traditional irrigation techniques and flooding fields. On top of that, it’s the same watershed that provides water for one of the world’s most famous cities- Los Angeles.

During years of drought, both farmers and citizens call for more water; and when the Delta cannot provide enough, groundwater pumping increases dramatically. This has some rather complicated side-effects. Groundwater is a finite resource. Just like any other natural system, it takes time and years of saturation to build underground water stores, and increased pumping during drought years (especially as climates are experiencing changes and becoming drier),  depletes groundwater resources. After years of stability, the Central Valley began sinking again as groundwater became increasingly necessary. Makes sense right? Bringing water up makes space for the earth to sink. Above just a general concern, a sinking Central Valley could create severe damage to California Aqueduct- the lifeline of both agriculture and communities in the southern half of the state.

Maybe this should make us wonder: Will our methods be sustainable, or even, reliable as we increase our agricultural economy and continue to build populations in water-dependent Southern California?

The overall point of this piece isn’t to critique the way California operates; we are, after all, looking at an incredibly diverse state, and its needs are no small matter, especially with respect to water. California’s water policy is increasingly important, and the only sure way to manage water usage is through conservation and better practices.

There are existing methods which can conserve water agriculturally, allowing more for populations, and simultaneously providing local, healthy and sustainable food throughout the state. Recirculating farms provide a unique and interesting alternative to traditional farming practices in a water-concerned state.

To introduce the idea: recirculating farms use continually cleaned, recycled water as the basis of food production. Instead of planting crops in soil, crops are provided nutrient rich water. Some folks are familiar with hydroponics – this is a form of that. Some recirculating farms grow more than plants – the water used in to grow the produce is the same water that these farms use to raise edible fish. This is called “aquaponics” (a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture – fish farming). The waste the fish produce provides important nutrients for plants and may even be used as fertilizer for soil-based farming practice. The combination of fish and herb/vegetable/fruit production makes these farms very viable, while the space and water requirements make them convenient, maintainable and accessible in almost any community.

Recirculating farms are remarkably sustainable, clean, and possess the rare gift of spatial efficiency. In a fractional amount of space, these small farms can produce an incredible amount of food. And, as an additional bonus, these farms can produce many of the same crops with approximately half(or even less) the water use.

Water loss in a well-designed recirculating system is minimal- between approximately 1 and 1.5% daily. In this system, water is conserved and reused; it doesn’t drain out, contaminate or relocate. The only notable water loss is through evaporation, absorption and water removed with waste. Because of recycling techniques, water only needs to be regularly added in limited amounts. Can you feel that? The valley just stopped sinking for a moment! And keeping the water in one place requires much less imported water from other areas of the state. I think the Aqueduct just breathed a sigh of relief!

This should ring especially loud in the ears of Californians. With 70% of fresh water being used in agriculture, alternate innovative farming practices should be considered. And with the potential damage to California waterways, finding ways to reduce the need for groundwater pumping and water transportation will become priority both for agriculture and consumption. As illustrated by ideas such as Props 13 and 50 (decade-old drinking water conservation efforts) to protect thirsty populations, populations need water every bit as badly as almonds. By conserving water locally, we could redirect fresh water away from fields and into homes.

This doesn’t suggest that recirculating farms are the silver-bullet to California’s water problems. But when you consider just how much lettuce comes from Salinas, CA or how many strawberries from Watsonville, CA, it might be a very important new opportunity to grow fresh food. Not only could the same amount of produce be generated from these recirculating farms, it could be through a smaller space, without the use of harmful chemicals, without constant drip or sprinkler irrigation and it could help farms moving toward the organic side to create a clean and efficient system while simultaneously adding a sustainable fish-farm into the business model.

While California agriculture may not change overnight, adding recirculating farms into the equation could greatly expand its agricultural potential. Imagine Los Angeles- the desert city of So Cal- growing fresh organic strawberries on rooftops. No shipping, no harmful chemicals and no runoff pollution.

All this using so much less water? From where I stand, L.A. could look a lot less like a desert and a lot more like an oasis.

Recirculating Farms in Cities

While the prominence of industrial agriculture still remains, the urban farming movement has been experiencing a steady rise in participation, favorable local legislation, and positive media coverage. A recent article in the New York Times, which gave heavy praise to the thriving urban farming community in New York City, is a testament to how far farmers with an eye towards local food production can reach into the national consciousness. Likewise, some recent ventures and proposals in urban farming have shown that people are thinking on grander scales than ever before. For example, New Orleans is welcoming a new food and farm center that joins innovative recirculating agriculture with traditional soil-based growing. Amidst the many urban farms sprouting up across the country, recirculating farming has begun to establish itself as a particularly sustainable and efficient method of food production. So, why might recirculating farms be particularly suitable for growing food in confined urban settings? Here are a just a few reasons why:

1.  Soiless. As our population becomes increasingly more urbanized and the availability of contaminant free arable land is reduced, we will need to find alternative spaces for food production. Luckily, urban rooftops and vacant city lots in cities provide ample unused space for food production. Although some urban rooftop farms have found success in soil-based growing, recirculating rooftop farming could eliminate the costs and problems associated with transporting soil to inner cities. Furthermore, recirculating farming involves recycling your water supply so that water consumption can be reduced significantly. Without the need for soil, this method of farming could be easily integrated into crowded urban settings.

2.  Space efficient. One of the greatest advantages of recirculating farming is that it can happen in odd shaped or small spaces while still providing high yields. Most traditional farming is done in soil, on horizontal surfaces. Recirculating farms can even be be built vertically to consolidate the overall area that is used for growing. Take, for example, EnviroIngenuity’s recently completed hydroponic vertical greenhouse in Laguna Beach, California, which takes up a mere 260 square feet. These farms can move toward commercial-scale operations like Gotham Greens, a start-up farming company that will build a 12,000 square foot rooftop farm in New York City that will produce “30 tons of fruit and vegetables every year.”

3.  Fish! Most of the fish we consume here in the U.S. comes from somewhere else – in fact, often far far away. This means that we pay in transportation costs (and thus also environmental costs as we expend fossil fuels to move the fish thousands of miles) and a reduction in quality by the time it reaches our plates. Raising fish through recirculating methods, on the other hand, can allow people access to more locally produced fish (or be a new source of fresh local seafood for people living away from the coast or lakes and rivers). For example, a commercial aquaponic rooftop farm, located in Basel, Switzerland, and operated by UrbanFarmers AG, is expected to produce up to 800 kilograms of fish per year, feeding around 100 people. Certain kinds of fish, namely tilapia, thrive in a variety of environments and grow so rapidly that they can be harvested on a nearly constant basis. This means that urban dwellers can have greater supplies of fish and produce, even in spite of problematic weather conditions.

So check out recirculating farms and jump in on the good food revolution!