Monday, April 26, 2010

Farming With No Soil

Most of us were taught in grade school that plants need sunlight, water, and soil to grow. For those of you who still hold tightly to this assumption, be prepared for a shocking shift in your world-view, comparable to the discovery that Pluto is not a planet.
Indeed, some farmers grow crops with out soil!

John Bruce of "Miss Emily's Tomatoes" uses soil-less growing methods, such as hydroponics and coir-filled pots, under the cover of a greenhouse. My jaw dropped (some drool might have escaped out of the corner of my mouth as well) when we arrived and my eyes feasted on over 30 foot long tomato vines, with green tomatoes the size of grapefruits hanging in clumps. Apparently, John harvests the fruit of this dutch tomato variety from the end of October to the beginning of July - practically all year round!

John plants his tomatos in bags of coir. Coir is ground up coconut fibers. It is not nutritionally valuable to plants by itself, but is an excellent absorbent for water and nutrients, which makes it very useful for plant roots. John's green fingers show us how fluffy the coir is:

John has to tap the tomato plants about every other day so that the leaves and flowers are vibrated and pollinate themselves.
John purchased this water nutrient system from HydroGardens. The device measures the humidity and temperature in the air and waters the plants acording to how muh water they need at any given time. Thus John invests very little time, energy and attention to concern over watering his plants. This is avery different method of farming than that practiced at many farms, such as Snow's Bend, where natural river water or well water is chaneled through drip tape into open fields of vegetables.
These trays each have many little cells, in each of which is placed one little lettuce seed. One the seed germinates, the plant in given nutrients in a hydroponic pool and grows into a big head of lettuce.

Lydia admiring the root ball of the lettuce grown without soil. There is no evident bug damage to the lettuce because it is grown indoors where there are more barriers to the natural elements that can damage outdoor crops.
John has been selling out of tomatoes every day for the past several weeks, and he has not even had to leave his home! People come to his farm to pick up tomatoes and other seasonal produce, like asparagus, strawberries, or (soon to come!) blackberries. He participates in the Homegrown Alabama Farmers Market near the UA campus because he wants to.
John shows us how this filtration system made of rocks and cement and gravel purifies his well water of excess iron before it is fed to the strawberry fields.

The Farm Inspection Team, with farmer John Bruce.

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