Farm Of The Future

July 15, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Life on the farm has changed dramatically. The "farm of the future" incorporates renewable energy and recycled water to protect against drought, climate change and rising electricity costs. The soothing surf allows Ventura County beachgoers to relax as they soak up some sun. But the cool ocean breeze also offers change in the air. Camarillo is a place where traditional farming is being left in the dust.

Two self-contained, climate-controlled greenhouses make up what Casey Houweling calls the "farm of the future." Houweling said, "We certainly think it is.."

Inside you'll discover a scene worthy of a science-fiction movie but one born of sound agriculture science. The intense brightness of each 20-acre hothouse encourages clusters of plump tomatoes to reach for the sky. Houweling explained, "That's basically a buffer zone that keeps the heat up and keeps a very nice micro-climate for all the plants."

The plants are grown not in soil but recyclable coconut fiber. Intertwined vines create a massive maze of tomato plants held up by hooks high above.

Houweling said he can produce 25-percent more tomatoes per acre than a regular farm. And they're always in season. He said, "The key here in this greenhouse is to try to keep the pests and diseases out of there. This greenhouse, if we're successful and I think we will be, we'll produce tomatoes for the next ten years non-stop, day in day out, 365 days a year."

The Canadian company's commitment to "going green" is astonishing. Plants are fed through plastic tubing. Houweling showed, "Any excess water runs into a drain channel down here and goes all the way down to the reservoir for disinfection and re-circulation."

A complex filtration system cleans the water of any particles. "Then it goes through an ozonation treatment to completely disinfect it."

The filtered water is piped into a pair of one-million gallon tanks. A reservoir captures rainwater so when it rains it stores.

State Ag Secretary A.G. Kawamura said, "That was the first time though I've seen that solar panel on top of the sistern - that was pretty unique."

Five acres of solar panels soak up enough rays to power what Houweling believes is the first energy-neutral greenhouse. He said, "We won't be subject to the high price spikes of energy."

Kawamura was impressed with the 50-million dollar facility because it addresses several challenges faced by the industry. A third year of drought has forced many Valley farmers to idle their fields but this is a self-sustaining farm. Kawamura said, "What you saw at the Camarillo tomato hothouse there was a combination of about 5-6 different dynamic technologies all brought together for the purpose of a very reliable, very predictable food supply."

Workers don't have to stoop in the hot sun to harvest. They walk the rows and reach for low-hanging tomatoes.

These are not seasonal jobs. 450 employees work year-round. So do the bumblebees which buzz every row. Flowers don't become tomatoes without them. Kawamura explained, "A third of everything we eat has to get pollinated."

Nothing goes to waste in this enclosed bio-farm. Heat from the exhaust of a unit which cools the warehouse is stored for later use. A computer determines whether warm or cool air needs to be pumped through large plastic tubes. Houweling said, "What goes in never comes out. We utilize everything to the max."

His dad may be the face of the company but Casey Houweling is charting a new course for an entire industry.

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