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Pesticide-Free Hydroponic Crops Grow Rain or Shine but They Cost

Associated Press

A company is harvesting a steady year-round crop of spinach from seeds germinated in tiny polyester blankets, unaffected by the vagaries of the weather and nourished without soil or sunshine.

This spinach feeds on a stream of liquid nutrients and grows during the night under the light of 1,000-watt bulbs. The manufacturer says its method works better than Mother Nature.

“It is a quality product and it commands a quality price, but it has no competition after you’ve tasted it,” said Kevin Wallick, plant scientist for the manufacturer, Phytofarms of America.

Rain or shine, the company’s 50,000-square-foot production center turns out a weekly crop of 10,000 pounds of spinach, along with smaller quantities of lettuce, basil, dill and the expensive and nutty-flavored arugula.

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These products of hydroponics--agriculture without soil--are shipped to gourmet restaurants and supermarkets from Washington state to New York and from Texas to Canada.

The produce is more tender than the field-grown variety, Wallick said. It’s also clean and safe because it has never been in soil or sprayed with pesticides, he added. There’s a dependable harvest every weekday of the year.

As a result, customers pay five times the price of conventional greens for the company’s crops, Wallick said.

A four-ounce bag of the company’s Kitchen Harvest spinach, its main product, retails for $1.98. One Illinois grocery store was offering garden-variety spinach for 89 cents a pound.

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General Mills built Phytofarms’ plant in 1978 for about $10 million. Noel Davis, a pioneer in the design of agricultural-growth chambers, directed the project and then bought the business in 1982.

Company officials believe the concept will attract growing interest from consumers worried about pesticide residue and regions where the weather is adverse for conventional agriculture. Inquiries have come from Canada, Japan and the Soviet Union, the officials say.

Officials say the plant produces 100 times the volume of lettuce per acre as conventional agriculture, and nearly six times as much produce per acre as a greenhouse.

The lights come on at 10 p.m. each night at the center.

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“The plants don’t grow according to their own physiology,” Davis said. “They grow in response to utility rates, which go down at night and go out of sight during the day.”

The center, located 60 miles west of Chicago, has 15 growth chambers, each covered on all sides by shiny silver shades.

Seeds are nestled in soft blankets that absorb water and are placed in small plastic cubes, about an inch square. After the seeds germinate, the cubes are placed over an opening in a conduit that carries liquid nutrients to the plants’ roots.

Each patented light bulb is surrounded by a water-filled globe that captures the heat and keeps the crops from getting scorched. In winter, the captured heat is redistributed to warm the building, greatly lowering energy costs.

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The 18-foot-long aluminum conduits that hold the plants lie across a long table in each chamber and rotate slowly and automatically from the front of the chamber after planting to the back for harvest. It takes just 28 days for each conduit to pass down the roughly 150-foot chamber and bring its crop to harvest.

“The crop comes to the workers rather than having the workers crawling on their hands and knees to get to the crop,” Wallick said.


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