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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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environment
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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History
Exploding Pants Were a Problem in 1930s New Zealand
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iStock

Liars apparently aren’t the only ones who should be concerned with having their pants catch fire. In 1930s New Zealand, a series of events conspired to threaten farmers’ trousers with spontaneous and lethal combustion.

According to Atlas Obscura, the problem stemmed from ragwort, a nuisance weed of European origin that began popping up in New Zealand in the late 1800s. Ragwort, or Jacobaea vulgaris, looks not unlike a dandelion but is far more harmful: Horses and cows react to it as a poison. With the rise of dairy farming in the country and a concurrent rise in grazing cows who knew better than to eat it, ragwort started proliferating.

To respond to the invasive species, farmers took up the Department of Agriculture’s suggestion to use sodium chlorate as an herbicide. It worked, but what the farmers failed to understand was that sodium chlorate was extremely flammable. With a fine mist of the stuff drying on pants and overalls, they were prone to bursting into flames when exposed to heat—like a fireplace where pants might be hung to dry. Among the victims was Richard Buckley, who described just such an incident and witnessed, as one research journal put it, “a string of detonations in his pants.”

Friction could apparently do the trick, too, with farmers on horseback finding that all that jostling could lead to a fiery result. Lighting a match to smoke or just to see in the dark could also be calamitous. A handful of deaths were reported, as these poor laborers were essentially turning themselves into unwitting Molotov cocktails.

Word eventually spread of sodium chlorate’s hazards and it fell out of favor. Ragwort continues to annoy the population of New Zealand.

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