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Monday, October 17, 2016

At Science Cafe, a look at technology to move farming indoors

By DAVID BROOKS

It's hard to think of a technology older than farming - chipping flint? creating fire? hitting people with sticks? - but that hasn't stopped agriculture from adopting new technologies with enthusiasm.

From drones to microbiomes, GPS to GMOs, the ancient task of growing food is trying out plenty of different tools these days. But maybe the most interesting and radical idea is to move some or all of the growing into controlled environments, often indoors, with an eye toward boosting yields, cutting pollution, expanding the growing seasons and reducing costs. ...

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It's hard to think of a technology older than farming - chipping flint? creating fire? hitting people with sticks? - but that hasn't stopped agriculture from adopting new technologies with enthusiasm.

From drones to microbiomes, GPS to GMOs, the ancient task of growing food is trying out plenty of different tools these days. But maybe the most interesting and radical idea is to move some or all of the growing into controlled environments, often indoors, with an eye toward boosting yields, cutting pollution, expanding the growing seasons and reducing costs.

That's why Science Cafe Concord will be discussing the issue on Tuesday, Oct. 18, featuring a representative from the area's biggest example of the trend: The soon-to-open Lef (pronounced "leaf") Farms in Loudon.

"Here in America we're kind of behind the technology; we're not the leaders by any means," said Donald Grandmaison, sales and marketing manager at the facility, which is about to harvest its first crop from the automated hydroponic operation inside a huge greenhouse that they say represents a $10 million investment to generate salad greens year-round.

This is a radical change from my usual idea of farming, which is expressed in a hymn I sang as a kid: "We plow the fields and scatter / the good seed on the land / but it is fed and watered / by God's almighty hand."

There's no plowing and scattering at Lef Farms - not even any land as far as the crops are concerned, because they're grown in nutrient-rich water. Nobody leaves the feeding and watering up to the hand of the Almighty, either; it's all carefully controlled through automation and software.

Lef Farms isn't alone in growing things indoors to grow more of them, or in growing them at unusual times of the year or in unusual places. The most extreme example is "vertical farming," which grows crops in high rises using wavelength-specific LED lighting, but variations of greenhouse technologies and fish-farming are being developed.

That explains other guests scheduled for Science Cafe: Todd Guerdat, an agricultural engineer with the new UNH Aquaculture Farming Project, which aims to do research and education about raising fish the way we raise chickens, and Andre Cantelmo of Heron Pond Farm in South Hampton, which is using greenhouse technology for its unusual year-round CSA program.

All these panelists have the same goal: Feeding a growing population in the face of challenges including climate change that makes traditional farming at least a little less dependable.

"How do we feed more people with less?" said Grandmaison, describing one of the driving forces behind Lef Farms.

Good question; you should ask it because as always, the panelists aren't there to give lectures but to respond to your questions. So show up!

The free event starts at 6 p.m. in The Draft Sports Bar (yes, kids can come - it's a restaurant, too). First come, first seated.

For more information, check the website sciencecafenh.org.

David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.