Projected Water Scarcity Prompts Need for Farming Ingenuity

The common refrain that fresh water is the next gold is ringing true as drastic changes in our climate are resulting in greater competition and a need for more efficient water uses, especially in the agricultural industry.

National Geographic points out that while the amount of fresh water on the planet has remained fairly constant over time — continually recycling through the atmosphere and back into our oceans, lakes and rivers — the global population has exploded in the last century. This means that competition for a clean supply of water for drinking, cooking, bathing and sustaining life intensifies every year. There is only so much water to go around.

Essentially, when taking saltwater into account, only about .007 percent of the earth’s water supply is usable for the planet’s 6.8 billion (and counting) people, National Geographic says.

The vast majority of freshwater  — about 70 percent by most estimates — is used for agriculture, and when you consider that feeding a planet of 9 billion people in 2050 will require an estimated 50 percent increase in agricultural production and a corresponding 15 percent increase in water withdrawals, the future becomes a lot clearer, according to World Bank.

Without proper governance, there is likely to be increased competition for water between sectors and an escalation of water crises of various kinds, triggering emergencies in a range of water-dependent sectors, according to a U.N. report.

Emerging technologies are quickly trying to find ways to get the most bang for each drop of water. Efficiencies have been identified, including vertical hydroponic farming, which drastically reduces the amount of water needed to grow crops. FarmBox Foods, a Colorado company that builds automated hydroponic farms inside repurposed shipping containers, has set its sights on creating a tangible shift in the approach to farming.

FarmBox Foods’ innovative, closed-watering system only uses 3-5 gallons of water per day and it does not contribute to groundwater contamination the way that traditional farming does. Furthermore, one farm is able to produce the same yield as 2 – 2.5 acres of farmland on an annual basis.

“Our container farms are built in such a way that it takes only a fraction of the amount of water to grow that same amount of produce,” said Rusty Walker, CEO of FarmBox Foods.

Climate change is projected to increase the number of water-stressed regions and exacerbate shortages in already water-stressed regions. It’s those regions that will realize the most benefit from vertical hydroponic farming and more efficient water usage in general.

An integrated view on water, the biosphere and environmental flows is necessary to devise sustainable agricultural and economic systems that will allow us to decelerate climate change, protect us from extremes and adapt to the unavoidable at the same time, the U.N. says.

The automated hydroponic farms use approximately 90 percent less water than traditional farms, and have a secondary benefit, as they can grow trees that contribute to the overall health of the environment by helping reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One container farm from FarmBox Foods can grow 35,000 tree saplings per year.

For more information, go to www.UNwater.org or www.FarmBoxFoods.com.

Natural Grocers Growing Its GardenBox Program

GardenBox manager harvesting lettuce

Lakewood, Colo.Michael Boardman knows it takes exactly 82 steps to get from the GardenBox to the produce display at Natural Grocers’ store in Green Mountain – Lakewood.

Boardman manages the first of what could eventually be more Natural Grocers GardenBoxes, a shipping container-based farm that grows several organic lettuce varieties right behind the store it supplies. That means instead of spending about 10 days going from a farm to a distribution center to a truck to a display case — losing about half of its nutritional value and shelf life in the process — the fresh greens go immediately from the container farm to the aisle.

That’s how Boardman knows it takes precisely 82 steps to walk to what ends up being a vibrant, colorful produce display: he’s done it a few times.

The use of a GardenBox could be a sign of what’s to come. More retailers (and consumers, for that matter) that specialize in healthy living are learning that produce doesn’t need to be shipped in from elsewhere. Natural Grocers is taking its pilot program to the next level, with the help of Colorado-based FarmBox Foods, an innovative company that designs, builds and sells the automated, controlled-climate container farms.

Boardman is creating the GardenBox playbook from scratch. He spent weeks developing a nutrient blend that allows Natural Grocers leafy greens to maintain their certified organic status, while enabling the produce to thrive in a hydroponic farm. So far, the company has tried 8 types of lettuce with great success.

To help promote the idea of produce growing outside the store where it’s sold, Natural Grocers gave away about 1,000 heads of lettuce in late June. The produce is now being sold at the Green Mountain – Lakewood location.

“People have loved it. They have been really impressed with it. It’s definitely a much better tasting green, and it’s fresher,” he said.

Boardman, who has spent 8 years with Natural Grocers and also has a background as a produce buyer, said there are “very few products on the market that are living,” pointing out that shoppers who buy heads of lettuce grown in a GardenBox can actually keep them alive in water until they’re eaten.

From alkindus, brentwood to hampton lettuce and mirlo lettuce, there’s plenty to be excited about. Boardman, who particularly enjoys the incredibly flavorful Marciano red butterhead lettuce grown in the GardenBox, says his favorite aspect of the process has been learning what works best to get the plants to thrive.

“Figuring out the solution to it, how to do this organically and sustainably, and watching this grow and be successful has been the best part,” he said.

The Vertical Hydroponic Farm used to grow the produce can simultaneously hold about 11,000 plants in various stages of growth, including about 7,000 seedlings. The plants go from seed to harvest all within the 320-square-foot space in the GardenBox purchased from FarmBox Foods. It’s a game-changer for helping decentralize the food supply chain and empowering individual communities.

To learn more, go to www.naturalgrocers.com/gardenbox. For more information about FarmBox Foods, visit www.farmboxfoods.com.

Prototype of FarmBox Foods’ Vertical Hydroponic System Turns Heads at Valor Christian High School

SEDALIA, Colo. – Valor Christian High School’s project-based learning environment is helping to lead the next generation of agriculturists to the greener pastures of the future.

The Applied STEM Program, led by director Rick Russon, enables students to put into practice what they learn in the classroom, preparing them for successful careers in a number of industries, including agriculture. Members of Valor’s agriculture club, in particular, have an infectious enthusiasm for ideas that combine brain power with a desire to make a positive impact on the world, and it’s already leading to groundbreaking results. For their capstone project, Russon and the club members built a four-tube vertical hydroponic unit using prototype parts donated by FarmBox Foods.

“I told Tony I’d like to have a farm here, but I don’t have the money to do that,” Russon said, referring to FarmBox Foods founder Tony English, whom he met on LinkedIn.

The unit — based at the school — began producing huge quantities of fresh lettuce, and quickly grabbed the attention of students and faculty at the private Highlands Ranch school. Russon estimates that more than two dozen teachers have approached him about constructing a home unit for them. FarmBox Foods also shared the know-how and the tools necessary for students to conduct “shoebox mycology” experiments, and soon, the Valor students were growing gourmet mushrooms on a small scale in their classroom.

Russon’s foray into academia was not exactly planned. He volunteered to be a parent advisor, and that quickly morphed into a role as director of the Applied STEM Program, where he and the students have flourished.

“I have always loved gardening and growing things,” Russon said. “I brought in some projects from home and the students saw a germination station I brought in and said ‘can we grow something?’ That’s how the agriculture club started.”

Now, Russon, who in his professional career has helped lead innovative projects related to tank gun stabilization, torpedo guidance and even flight simulations for NASA’s first five space shuttle missions, is developing a control system for an 8-tube vertical hydroponic system using Raspberry Pi controllers typically used in video game systems. It will help run a network of sensors that monitor temperature, nutrient levels and pH, and control ventilation fans and full- spectrum LED lights also used by FarmBox Foods. The Applied STEM Program is aiming to modify the four-tube hydroponic system and build several models to bring them into food deserts to feed people in need. Valor Christian sends nearly 40 teams throughout the world each year on missions, and Russon’s hope is that they can help deploy a workable system in areas with little arable land and few resources.

The Valor-based vertical hydroponic setup, meanwhile, continues to draw interest from students and faculty who want to grow their own farm-fresh greens and potentially help others learn the science behind the hydroponic growing process.

“I feel honored to have this (system),” Russon said. “Someday when FarmBox is enormous, I’ll be able to say we had this.”

Ongoing Shipping Logjam Makes a Case for Decentralized Food Supply

SEDALIA, Colo. – A post-pandemic resurgence in sales across multiple industries has put an unprecedented strain on shipping, and the logjam shows few signs of easing. 

In recent months, ships have stacked up at ports worldwide, waiting weeks to deliver their imported goods. Likewise, demand for flatbed trucks and dry vans has skyrocketed, resulting in longer delivery timeframes and significant logistical entanglements. 

 

According to the American Trucking Associations, a national trade association for the trucking industry, manufacturing output is expected to rise by 7.2% in 2021. The transportation system’s capacity is being tested, and for those shipping food, it’s becoming an even tougher task to get goods from point A to point B. The ever-increasing rate of online sales and consumers’ growing expectations of quick delivery have resulted in a reprioritization of what is shipped and when.

 

The American Trucking Associations anticipates a 3.7% rise in food manufacturing this year, and U.S. exports of food could climb as much as 10%. 

 

It’s only in times like these that massive shifts in behavior manifest themselves, and the idea of decentralizing the food supply chain begins to look better and better. For businesses that grow produce in the communities where that food is then consumed, the shipping challenges are a peripheral issue.

 

FarmBox Foods, a Colorado-based company that builds automated farms inside repurposed shipping containers and sends them to food deserts around the world, has had its eye on decentralization from the start. The company’s leaders say empowering communities by placing container farms within a short distance of consumers could have positive ramifications on low-income populations for decades to come, and render supply chain woes inconsequential.

“We’ve got an unpredictable supply chain with a bunch of variables, and the expenses can add up quickly,” said Rusty Walker, CEO of FarmBox Foods and a veteran of the supply chain industry. “Our solution makes things more reliable and eliminates some of these vulnerabilities.”

The strategic placement of controlled-climate container farms in places that have traditionally lacked access to farm-fresh food has side benefits, like lower cost for food, a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels to transport goods, a longer shelf life for the produce, educational opportunities for local populations, and greater nutritional bang for your buck because the fruits and vegetables won’t lose any of their nutritional value while in transit.

It also allows consumers to sidestep the headaches that arise when a backlog in the shipping industry puts everyone else at a standstill.

Donation to Ministry Helps Feed People in Need

ministry donating to people in need

Sometimes, a helping hand goes a long way.

On June 22, members of the FarmBox Foods team brought a dozen boxes of fresh-picked vegetables from one of its Vertical Hydroponic Farms to the Christian Riders in Faith Motorcycle Ministry in Denver. The ministry hands out boxes of food to those in need every other Tuesday, and in just the first 30 minutes, more than 50 boxes were given out.

There is a critical need for fresh produce in low-income areas, and FarmBox Foods was humbled to be involved in such a good cause. It was an example of one of the ways in which FarmBox Foods and its customers can partner with nonprofits to get nutritious food in the right hands. The kind people at Christian Riders in Faith M/M are truly on to something. They recognize the need in their community and work hard to provide a balanced selection of foods in the boxes they give out.