Peek Inside a Hydroponic Spinach Farm

Farming has always been a risky endeavor, dependent on the assistance of forces that are completely outside of human control, like weather. But today there’s a growing interest in hydroponics, an indoor farming technique that leaves little up to chance. The latest installment in the web series "How Does It Go?" takes viewers inside BrightFarms, a spinach farm in Pennsylvania, that makes use of that method.

Hydroponic agriculture is both futuristic and strangely quaint. As host Nicole Cotroneo Jolly explains in the video, humans have been growing plants in water for thousands of years, but the practice nearly vanished here in the last century. Again and again, Americans tried to modernize the concept, but each time the technology was just not quite developed enough. By the 1970s, the movement had more or less died out in the U.S.

But now, with the help of plastic and computers, hydroponic farms like the one featured above have begun cropping up around the country. Supporters of the practice say hydroponic farms, especially those that recycle their water, are more environmentally friendly, less labor-intensive, and more productive than conventional farms. But that doesn't mean that maintaining them is easy: Hydroponic farmers have to contend with high start-up costs, and the fact that plants grown in water are especially susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections.

To combat the latter issue, BrightFarms head farmer Jason Jackson has turned to another age-old practice: companion planting. It seems to be working; his farm produces more than 75,000 pounds of spinach each year. Check out the video above for a tour of the farm.

Header image from YouTube // How Does It Grow?

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How You Act at Starbucks Might Reflect Your Ancestors' Farming Style
Greg Baker, AFP/Getty Images
Greg Baker, AFP/Getty Images

What you do in Starbucks may be linked to more than just your personal coffee preferences. As Science reports, a new study on coffee-shop behavior in different parts of China indicates that farming practices that date back generations still influence how people behave in public. It found that in regions where agriculture traditionally focused on wheat, people were much more likely to be sitting alone at coffee shops compared to people in areas where rice was the dominant crop.

The study, in Science Advances, sounds kind of crazy at first: What my great-grandfather farmed has nothing to do with how I drink my latte, surely. But the design of the study, which involved observing almost 9000 people at 256 coffee shops in six different Chinese cities, is a surprisingly clever way for scientists to observe cultural differences in the real world, researchers who weren't involved in the study told Science.

The study's authors, from the University of Chicago’s business school, Beijing Normal University, and the University of Virginia, wanted to know if the cultural differences of farming wheat and rice persisted through non-farming generations. Rice paddies require twice as much labor as a crop like wheat, as well as massive irrigation systems that would require cooperation between multiple farmers to build and operate. Thomas Talhelm, the study’s lead author, has previously proposed what he calls the "rice theory of culture." That is, the cooperation between neighbors necessary to grow rice led to an interdependent culture that is more collectivist and community-oriented, compared to cultures that grow wheat (like the U.S.), which have developed to be more focused on the individual.

What does this have to do with coffee? The researchers examined how people behave in public in northern China, a wheat-growing region, compared with southern China, a rice-growing region, as a way to examine how cultural differences that arose from agricultural practices still persist in urban life. Across local coffee shops and big chains like Starbucks, they observed that on weekdays, an average 10 percent more people in northern Chinese coffee shops were drinking their coffee alone compared to southern Chinese coffee shops. That number varied by day of the week and time of day, though the researchers didn’t explore why. (Possibly, people just don’t hang out with their friends much in the middle of a Monday morning.) On weekends, the difference was slightly smaller—5 percent—but still significant.

The difference held even when controlling for the type of coffee shop (international chain or local shop), age demographics of the area, and the percentage of workers in the city who are self-employed (and thus, more likely to do their work in a coffee shop).

To further study how regional differences affect behavior, the researchers decided to rearrange some chairs. They went to Starbucks and pushed chairs together in a way that would inconvenience people trying to walk through the cafe, then waited to see how many people would push the chairs out of their way. They found that in a sample of 700 Starbucks customers that were subjected to what they call “the chair trap,” people in wheat-growing areas were more likely to move the chairs out of their way (an individualistic move) while those in rice-growing areas were more likely to adapt themselves to the situation, squeezing their bodies through the tight space without disturbing the chair setup (a collectivist move).

"The fact that these differences appeared among mostly middle-class city people suggests that rice-wheat differences are still alive and well in modern China," the researchers write. This included in Hong Kong, which is located in a rice-growing region but is both wealthier and, due to its time as a British colony, has more Western influence than mainland Chinese cities. In general, the southern cities studied were denser and more developed than Beijing and Shenyang in the north, according to the researchers, and yet economic growth and urbanization didn't seem to make the culture more individualistic.

The researchers have proposed doing a similar study in India, a country that also features a split in wheat- and rice-growing regions. Since China's north-south split means that rice-growing and wheat-growing cities feature significantly different climates, it may be useful to see whether the difference holds in cities in India that share the same climate but have different crops.

[h/t Science]

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How Colorful Stripes of Wildflowers Could Reduce the Need for Pesticides
David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

The UK is emerging as a global leader in the effort to reduce our dependency on pesticides. In November 2017, the nation moved to restrict a class of pesticide that’s deadly to bees, and now 15 farms across the country are testing a natural supplement to the chemicals. As The Guardian reports, colorful strips of wildflowers have been planted among crops as a way to combat pests.

The floral stripes add vibrant pops of color to the farmland, but they’re not there for show. By planting wildflowers in the fields, farmers hope to attract predatory insects like hoverflies, parasitic wasps, and ground beetles. These are exactly the type of bugs farmers want flocking to their property: They don’t eat crops and instead prey on the insects that do. With more natural predators to control pest populations, farmers may be able to reduce their use of harmful pesticides.

The wildflower strategy isn’t entirely new. Farmers already knew that planting borders of wildflowers around their fields is an effective way to lure in good insects, but this method still leaves the center of their farms vulnerable. By dispersing flowers throughout the area, they can broaden the predatory insects’ range.

The 15 farms planted with wildflowers last fall are part of a trial run put together by the Center for Ecology and Hydrology. The organization will monitor the farms for five years to see if the experiment really is a viable alternative to pesticides. In the meantime, farmers will have plenty of room to plant and harvest as usual, with the flower beds only taking up 2 percent of their land. The selected flowers include oxeye daisy, red clover, common knapweed, and wild carrot.

There's a long list of reasons for farmers to phase out chemical pesticides, from the damage they do to local wildlife to the threat they pose to our own health. As lawmakers around the world begin to crack down on them, you can expect to see more natural alternatives gain attention.

[h/t The Guardian]

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