Solar energy is the future and it keeps getting better. Not only are renewables cheaper than destructive gas and coal energy they also have other positive effects. Recently it’s been discovered that solar fields can be used as a really good place to grow crops. This is counterintuitive as the solar panels block the sun which plants typically love and to service the panels there needs to be a pathway where crops would thrive.
However, by planting shade-tolerant plants beneath the panels it means workers can still do their job and the plants can do theirs. The plants do well in the shade thanks to the ambient light and the increased humidity from the panels themselves. Neat!
The researchers see potential here (and in similar “agrivoltaics” experiments elsewhere) that is worth investigating and optimizing. Solar panel installations may not be compatible with the machinery used to harvest many crops, and boosting the panels higher off the ground costs extra. But there are configurations for certain crops in certain areas that can make a lot of sense. Farmers could save water, make money from a solar lease, and might even find that workers are much more comfortable and safe working under some shade—all while allowing solar arrays to expand in those areas without competing for land with agriculture.
Supporters of vertical farms envision a future that has skyscraper farms beside work places and residences in urban centres. Their thinking is that by growing food where people are will help alleviate pressure on our soil and land use – and they’re right. Indeed, a recent realized spinoff benefit of vertical (or just indoor) farming is after a natural disaster these insulated farming systems can feed people in the impacted area.
In a way, Harvey was a test for Moonflower Farms. Founded by Marques in December 2015, it was one of the state’s very first indoor “vertical” farms—where plants are stacked in trays on shelves, instead of laid out horizontally across larger plots of land. In these high-tech structures, plants don’t rely on sunlight or soil, rainwater or pesticides, but LED lights and minerals instead. The goal of vertical farms isn’t just to save space; it’s also to find a more economical way of producing food for the growing population—and to reduce the costs and consequences of getting that food to where people actually live.
“We are kind of at the beginning of a revolution,” Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a graduate-school professor at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, told me. “We’re at the beginning of a very rapid development in the use of indoor controlled facilities for producing vegetables and some fruits,” he said. “No matter what happens with climate change, you still have your controlled environment.”
Farms in the UK and Switzerland are trying a classic approach to reducing their use of pesticides: flowers. Yes, the flowers provide nutrients for insects that eat crops, but they also provide for predators. The difference in the approach for these experimental farms is how they arrange the flowers so the insects get what they need while not enough to damage the crops. Rows of flowers are spaced precisely so that insects can’t travel to far on these factory farms. Smaller farms might naturally benefit from insect proximity already.
As a bonus, the flowers make the farm a little prettier and smell better.
Similar studies have tested the same approach elsewhere. In one study in Switzerland, researchers planted poppies, cilantro, dill, and other flowers along fields of winter wheat. The plants fed and sheltered insects like ladybugs that ate the bugs that eat wheat, and ultimately reduced leaf damage 61%. The researchers estimated that choosing the right mix of flowers could increase yield 10%, making it economically self-sustaining or even profitable to keep planting flowers.
They also want to understand the economic value of the approach, and how it can be incorporated with modern farming tech. “We hope this will underpin a rethink of farming practice to include a more ecological approach to agriculture where farmers actively enhance the underlying ecological processes that benefit crop production,” they say. “We also intend to use this experimental network to demonstrate this approach to industry and to train farmers–our experience has shown that farmers often need to see these approaches in action on real farms before they adopt them.”
Green roofs are great for collecting water and cooling neighbourhoods, they are also useful for feeding their local communities. In the densely built urban environment of Hong Kong there is a network of green roofs that used for farming. These farms are used to grow crops sold in local stores and to encourage the people of Hong Kong to get their hands dirty and understand where their food comes from.
Here the team tell me about their other goal: education. By running regular workshops, the team hope that Hong Kong’s city-dwellers will become a little more aware of the resources needed to grow the food they are eating. Pointing to a bed of broccoli, for instance, Hong remembers one recent group who had never seen the whole plant. “They didn’t realise that the florets that we eat are actually quite limited,” she says. “And if you look at the quantity we see in the supermarket, you begin to see how much space we would need to grow that,” she says.
Ultimately, Tsui’s dream is that a restful break on a rooftop farm will become ingrained in everyone’s daily routine. “I use the analogy of coffee,” says Tsui – something that was once a luxury, but which became a lifestyle, through sheer convenience. If he had his way, a trip to the farm would be as essential as a morning caffeine fix. “We do have a mission, in a way – to make farming cool.”
Detroit is a city that has been witnessing a lot of change thanks to poor urban planning and bad economics. The past decade has been very rough for the people of Detroit and they are turning to old, but innovative, ways to revive the city. We have seen artists move to Detroit and even some tech companies. At the other end of the spectrum is a return to the land in the form of farming.
The low density neighbourhood design of the suburbs contributed to Detroit’s fall and now it might be saving the city by returning to arable land.
We were sitting at a picnic table nestled between his house and farm. Greg was in his early 40s, compact and wiry, with flecks of gray in his close-cropped black hair, his arms and face leathery from the sun. As he spoke, his leg jittered like a sewing-machine needle, and I got the impression that sitting still was torture for him. Most of our conversations occurred in moving vehicles, at his booth in the farmers’ market, or as we hacked at weeds or laid irrigation hose through fields.
Suburbia, Greg told me, was the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world: big, thin-walled houses that take loads of gas and electricity to heat and cool, acres of farmland and animal habitat bulldozed for useless lawns that guzzle water and gobble poisons, barrels of food scraps hauled across the county and buried in a landfill, sprawling subdivisions requiring cars and gasoline for the simplest of errands—mailing a package or buying a gallon of milk. What’s more, he said, suburbs encouraged isolation, cultivated a fear of strangers, and created enclaves that segregated the white middle class from poor people and brown people.