"Preliminary indications are that hydroponic greenhouses in New Mexico, for example, could reduce the current 800,000 acre-feet of water to 11,000 acre-feet to produce an equivalent amount of livestock forage," according to a statement from Sandia. There are about 260,000 acres used for growing alfalfa in New Mexico alone, and the scientists think they could produce just as much with 1,000 acres of greenhouses. That's an enormous savings of both land and water, especially considering the fact that more than 80 percent of the water used in New Mexico goes to agriculture, mostly for food for farm animals.
The key to the concept is something called "network sensing," and it was developed primarily with funding from the Pentagon's Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, which underwrites all kinds of cutting edge research.
"This is a touch, feel and see kind of sensing capability," says Pate, and the Pentagon's idea behind it was to built a network of autonomous sensors that could talk to each other and relay data on their own in the search for things like chemical weapons. The research led to the creation of several companies that have begun manufacturing systems for commercial use, and the Sandia team seized the moment.
The researchers are using a network of 42 wireless sensors that sense light, temperature and humidity in the Santa Teresa greenhouse, telling them constantly of the health and needs of their plants. So far, it has worked pretty well, but as Pate puts it, the system "isn't quite ready for prime time yet." The plumbing system wasn't up to par, introducing mold that spread quickly through the closed environment, and now that system is going to have to be reworked.
But the greenhouse produces crops that can be harvested in 10 days, although at this point they leave much to be desired. Animal nutritionists at New Mexico State University who are analyzing the crops find that they contain far too much water.
"It's got about 80 (percent) to 90 percent water, which is way high when it comes to feeding a cow," Pate says.
It's also not as nutritious as it needs to be, but the researchers have come up with a creative way of addressing that problem. The plants are currently grown in trays that have to be washed and cleaned, so why not develop trays that can be eaten by the animals? Additional nutrients, and good stuff like fiber, could be included in the material used to make the trays.
That way, the cow can eat its lunch and the box it came in, reducing the workload for the farmers and insuring that the animal gets all it needs for a happy life.
At this point, no one is saying that hydroponic farming is going to solve all our problems. It's an expensive, high-tech operation that will require skilled technicians. But it could solve some major problems down the road.
Most of the water used for agriculture is wasted through evaporation, or soil saturation. And there isn't much incentive to change that because water is still pretty cheap and the underlying philosophy is "use it or lose it," Pate points out.
But someday that's going to change.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.