Pictured: Globe Economic Development Director Linda Oddonetto (left) and Southern Gila County Economic Development Corporation Director Karalea Cox field suggestions for the possible creation of an indoor growing facility in the Glob-Miami area.
In order to find sustainable, long-term solutions to feeding the community and providing citizens with fresh vegetables in a region considered to be a “food desert,” the Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA) hosted an indoor farms workshop in Claypool last week.
The workshop featured several experts on modern hydroponic growing techniques as well as business and economic professionals to discuss the creation of a self-sustaining system that could feed local populations and produce surpluses that can be marketed outside the area.
In addition to AZDA representatives and University of Arizona business and technical leaders, local indoor farming advocate Elvin Fant and Southern Gila County Economic Development Corporation Director Karalea Cox were among those in attendance to represent local interests.
Joel Cuello, Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Director of the Global Initiative for Strategic Agriculture in Dry Lands from the UA, addressed a global need to increase food production by 70 percent in order to feed the existing population. He said that human food production consumes 70 percent of the water used by humans, 50 percent of the land and 30 percent of the energy.
“We have to come up with innovative solutions,” he said.
He presented “three paradigms” of indoor farming that include warehouse farming, indoor hydroponic farming and vertical industrial farming that features modular growing pods that can be designed in several different configurations.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a water-based, nutrient-rich solution, anchoring the plant’s roots to an inert medium such as perlite, rockwool, clay pellets, peat moss or vermiculite, a type of growth media that contains no nutrients.
This allows the plant’s roots to come in direct contact with the nutrient solution, with enough oxygen to ensure proper growth. With the proper setup, plants will mature up to 25 percent faster and produce up to 30 percent more than the same plants grown in soil.
Indoor growing generally uses artificial lighting in different spectrums that maximize growth and quality of the food, but there are also hybrid models that are more like greenhouse that utilize both artificial and natural lighting. Cuello also showed speculative drawings of possible structures, some phantasmagorical in scope, as well as simple shipping containers with photovoltaic panels installed on the roof.
He also said that the V-Hive Green Box his students use for classes can harvest up to 15 crops per year and that food grown in a controlled environment is much safer for the consumer.
Cox devoted a significant amount of time discussing the purpose and form a potential indoor farming organization might take and suggested it could take at least two years to get any project off the ground.
From the educational aspect — including teaching the importance of fresh food in schools to teaching adults who may not have access to fresh food — to organization and funding, community members on hand discussed the advantages to for-profit versus nonprofit and the possibility of growing enough food to both feed the local population and search for a niche market to sell locally grown product.
“We need to educate consumers and make people aware,” Cox said. “There might be a lag before the locals catch on.”
Mike Pastor, Regional Training Center director at Gila Community College, informed the gathering that there is already an agricultural education program at the college and encouraged anyone interested in signing up for the program.
He also pointed out the need to teach a younger generation the importance of being able to grow food.
“The average age of a farmer in Arizona is 62,” he said. “Youth can [also] teach us with fresh eyes and fresh minds.”
Fant, a local expert on hydroponics, has done a lot of research on the subject and has even proposed creating a year-round, indoor growing facility at the abandoned Safeway store in Miami.
He has created his own indoor system, as well as a mobile unit used to demonstrate his techniques, and currently grows strawberries, bell peppers, tomatoes and lettuce.
Fant wants to use his knowledge to feed as many people as possible and is willing to share his knowledge with anyone interested in learning about indoor farming.
For more information on hydroponics, call Fant at 928-310-7110.
For information on potential involvement contact the Southern Gila County Economic Development Corporation at 928-812-3056, or go to sgcedc.com.