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.