Wired Greenhouses May Help Beat Droughts

Someday down the road water may become so scarce in America's Southwest that it will be more valuable than oil, and that has unleashed a flurry of activity among scientists who think the best way to save water may be to do away with the soil.

Hydroponic farming, in which nutrients are fed directly to the roots of plants which never touch dirt, isn't new. But modern technology has spawned a mini-revolution in its development and that could have a profound impact on regions around the Earth.

Examples abound.

This year, researchers in Antarctica are harvesting their own salads in an outpost that is 9,000 feet above sea level and so isolated that fresh vegetables were little more than a distant memory for workers in Antarctica in past years.

Near Baltimore, Alfons Casteel has tomato plants that are 25 feet tall, serving the agricultural needs of communities around his hydroponic greenhouse. Other hydroponic farmers across the country tell similar stories, although not everybody is successful.

And down near the border between the United States and Mexico, scientists are experimenting with using hydroponic technology to grow feed for cattle threatened by a persistent drought that has left ranchers high and dry across much of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Water as National Security

What may be at stake here is an answer to a question that has plagued experts from CIA spooks to farmers: How are we going to head off potential water wars as water becomes increasingly scarce and populations continue to grow in regions where rainfall is a mere pittance of what will be needed?

"I view this as a national security issue," says researcher Ron Pate of Sandia National Laboratory, who is heading up the experimental greenhouse near Santa Teresa, N.M., where forage crops are already being harvested only 10 days after they were planted. "Disputes over water are possible, if not likely, causes for war in the 21st Century," Pate maintains.

Pate knows something about farming. His dad was a cotton and alfalfa farmer in Arizona for years, so after Pate earned his degrees in applied physics and electrical engineering he returned to his roots. Although Sandia is not all that much involved in agricultural issues, it's big in sensors, especially for the Pentagon, and Pate and his colleagues thought there ought to be a way to make the best of both of those worlds.

What came out of all that is a collaboration between several institutions in the development of a high tech greenhouse at Santa Teresa, near El Paso, Texas, to see if they could grow crops for livestock efficiently and economically. Joining in that effort are scientists from Mexico who have built a number of similar greenhouses for ranchers in the northern Mexico state of Chihuahua. Ranchers are running out of food for their animals in that increasingly parched region, now in its fifth year of drought.

Why such an effort? The numbers speak for themselves.

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