Monday, May 18, 2009

Green Greenhouses

Bittman linked to a pretty interesting LA Times story from last week about 21st Century Greenhouses:
Climate change is a serious threat to California's $36-billion agricultural economy. The farming company behind this $50-million complex sees it as insurance against perpetual drought, volatile fossil fuel prices and resilient pests.

The facility generates its own renewable power. It hoards rainwater. It hosts its own bumblebees for pollination. And it requires a fraction of the chemicals used in neighboring fields to coax plants to produce like champions.

Much more than local food movements and organic farming, I think it's greenhouses that will be the future of sustainable agriculture. Maybe it's because I live in New England, and don't really want to give up green things in the winter... and yet think the apples you get from Chile in January kind of suck... but being a pure "locavore" strikes me as something only reasonably attractive in places like California. Sure, I can't wait to start visiting my Farmer's Market, but that's not going to feed anybody in Africa sustainably.

Greenhouses seem to have the greatest possibility for neutral environmental impact while still taking advantage of economies of scale. The problem, of course, is that they're expensive... and what they're talking about in this article is greenhouses getting more competitive mainly because regular farming is getting more expensive... which is not really what we want.
Although they need just a fraction of the land taken up by conventional farming, greenhouses require far greater capital investment. The expansion to Houweling's Camarillo farm -- which includes the two greenhouses; the climate, energy and environmental technology; and a new packing plant -- amounts to about $1 million an acre, not including the land.

Houweling said he expected the investment to take as long as 10 years to pay off, depending on the price of tomatoes. More tomato-linked salmonella scares and bad weather during the growing season in Florida would shorten the pay-back period.

I would be curious to see what the costs would be to run a similar farm up here in Massachusetts... what would the ROI be then? I'm guessing a lot longer... if at all.