Drought, flood impacts create uncertainty for food producers

farmbox foods - drought

Drought, flood impacts create uncertainty for food producers

farmbox foods - drought

An alarming pattern has emerged in the farming industry over the last two decades, and experts believe the impact on food production won’t relent anytime soon.

A recent analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that payouts to U.S. farmers for crops destroyed by droughts and flooding climbed by more than 340% between 1995 and 2020. During that time period, farmers received over $143.5 billion in federal crop insurance payments, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that analyzes research data and spotlights breakthrough findings to inform decisions that govern everyday life. 

While the conditions threaten the current livelihoods of farmers across the country, there are also intangible, permanent effects that can’t be ignored, such as the exodus of families who have been farming for decades and, in some cases, centuries. They’re simply giving up due to variables that are beyond their control. 

The EWG points out that while crop insurance provides a crucial safety net for farmers, the program is doing little to mitigate climate-related risks. Taxpayers pick up about 60% of premiums, which means farmers cover the other 40% to get a crop insurance policy. EWG says the “costs are expected to go up even more, as climate change causes even more unpredictable weather conditions,” according to an article on CommonDreams.org.  

This inevitability has decision-makers at the federal and state level considering drastic alternative measures, especially ones that help farmers adapt to changing conditions, enabling them to produce crops regularly without external factors.

One of those solutions is farming in controlled environments that eliminate outside impacts and promise reliable yields. Shipping containers are being repurposed and outfitted with a network of sensors and high-tech systems that regulate temperature, humidity, nutrient concentrations, watering and lighting. They enable farmers to grow food year-round — regardless of weather or climate — and drastically reduce the amount of water needed to grow crops, because the water is recycled and filtered and not lost to evaporation or transpiration.

“We see ourselves not as a replacement for traditional farming, but rather a tool that allows farmers to have that steady source of income throughout the year, without the stress,” said Rusty Walker, CEO of a Colorado-based company called FarmBox Foods, which designs, manufactures and sells enclosed hydroponic farms.

The containerized farms are also a critical element for crop production on islands, which currently import the vast majority of their food. The automated farms essentially add acreage to an island for the purpose of food production, cutting out potential supply chain issues and shipping costs that inflate food prices.

As Congress develops a new farm bill in 2023, the EWG is calling on lawmakers to consider focusing on “how to effectively fund farm programs so that farmers can adapt to and fight the climate crisis.”

Prototype Vertical Hydroponic System at Valor Christian High School

Valor Christian High School

Valor Christian High SchoolSEDALIA, Colo. – Valor Christian High School has a project-based learning environment that 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.”