The other day my wife and I went to a local, open air food market that has part of its operation in an old building. There were the typical go-green organic foodies and soap sellers, along with people who were “upcycling” (taking discarded items and making useable stuff) by creating jewelry out of beer bottle caps.
We were there for the vegetable sellers, the local dairy producers who bring in farm fresh eggs, and the local butcher. I have to admit that I am usually skeptical of such places, but there is no question that the food does taste better. I use this point to give me a reason for being there in the first place.
It always strikes me as odd that we spent over 100 years perfecting ways to grow, harvest, store, and transport food so that it would be right there at the grocery store, available and inexpensive, and yet people with disposable income want to go backwards.
We (and yes, I’m in the group, whether I like it or not) gladly pay two or three times more for food if it has been grown by some recluse in his yard down the street versus being grown on some 10,000 acre farm by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the middle of the country.
But like I said… the “fresh” food does taste better, and since it is our disposable income, we can spend it how we choose.
Even if that choice seems silly…
In this particular open air market, inside the old building, was a “grow wall.” Being not-so-informed about new growing techniques, I was not privy to this process. I was the guy staring at the wall, wondering what idiot would grow things sideways… on a wall… when there was a perfectly level field out back?
And this thing wasn’t just stuck up there. It was a man-sized erector set!
For those in the dark like I was, a growing wall is a wide expanse of a wall (this one was 20 feet high and sixty feet long) on which a farmer hangs plants to grow out from the wall.
On the one I saw, there were three columns of 3’ x 2’ boxes that were further divided into nine squares. These boxes and dividers were made out of stainless steel, and were packed full of dirt, with plants sticking outward from them. There were tomatoes, eggplant, spices, lettuce, and all sorts of other things. A drip irrigation system fed into each large box, which both hydrated the plants and kept the soil moist enough to stop the dirt from crumbling out.
About two feet away from the wall hung huge 2’ x 5’ light fixtures, with the lights pointing at the wall. They were connected to a long piece of steel, hanging down like a Calder Mobile. The lights slowly moved left and then right in front of the grow wall.
Like I said, this was an amazing set up.
The “farmer” tending to this crop was eager to explain it to us. I asked a lot of questions, which he enthusiastically answered. I hid my amazement that this could in any way be an efficient or cost effective endeavor… right up until the end, when he told me who buys the vegetables.
They deliver the trays – meaning the plants are still in the dirt – to high-end restaurants, who then put them on display and harvest the food for their menu.
Farmer Dave continued explaining…
His goal is to open a “pick your own” grow wall, where (gullible) consumers can come in and harvest right off the wall. “Wouldn’t that be cool?” he asked. Oh my.
I know I must be showing my heritage because I found all of this ridiculous. I couldn’t escape the simple conclusion that we, as a society, are incredibly rich… to the point that we would not only choose to go backward in food production, but would spend money at such a rate as to support a process whereby food is grown vertically on a wall!
As we left the place I expressed some of this to my wife, who reminded me that farming is not only a good thing to understand, but it also provides great ingredients for meals while helping local growers. And, as I mentioned above, there is no question that fresh food… even grown on a wall… tastes better than what you’d find from the local grocery chain, where the food is often picked more than sixty days, some 1,000 miles away, before your hands touch it.
Still, I can’t help but think how bizarre this situation has become.
With terms like locavore (a person who only eats what can be grown or raised in the immediate area) entering our daily lexicon, there has been an incredible move to focus on food production, even though we have more than enough.
At a time when more than half of Americans have little or no retirement savings, when 35% of Social Security recipients count on that measly check for over 90% of their income, why are we not focused on personal sustainability instead of local food?
Why are parents teaching their kids about how to grow tomatoes instead of, or at least in addition to, how to grow a savings account for college, marriage, a home, and retirement? It all seems sort of backwards.
The only thing I know for sure is that somewhere a bunch of farmers are laughing really loudly about all those city folk picking vegetables grown under lights hanging on walls. Unfortunately none of us will be laughing in 20 to 30 years when all those well-fed people are looking for financial support in their old age.
Ahead of the Curve with Adam O’Dell
The commercial food production industry has figured out how to control just about every variable of the growing process… from Monsanto’s patented wheat seed to precisely-controlled, automated machinery.