SoCal farm incorporates renewable energy

July 23, 2009 8:25:20 PM PDT
The "farm of the future" is here. It has renewable energy and recycled water to protect against drought, climate change, and rising electricity costs. It is a $50 million farm that some say is the future of sustainable agriculture.

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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 Houweling Nurseries CEO Casey Houweling calls the "farm of the future."

Inside, you'll discover a scene worthy of a science-fiction movie but one born of sound ag science. The intense brightness of each 20-acre hothouse encourages clusters of plump tomatoes to reach for the sky.

"That's basically a buffer zone that keeps the heat up and keeps a very nice micro-climate for all the plants," said Houweling.

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

Houweling says he can produce 25 percent more tomatoes per acre than a regular farm. and they're always in season.

"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," said Houweling.

The Canadian company's committment to going green is astonishing. Plants are fed through plastic tubing.

"Any excess water runs into a drain channel down here and goes all the way down to the reservoir for disinfection and re-circulation," said Houweling.

A complex filtration system cleans the water of any particles.

"Then it goes through an ozonation treatment to completely disinfect it," said Houweling.

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

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

Five acres of solar panels soak up enough rays to power what Houweling believes is the first energy-neutral greenhouse.

"We won't be subject to the high price spikes of energy," Houweling.

Kawamura was impressed with the $50 million 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.

"What you saw at the Camarillo tomato hothouse there was a combination of about five to six different dynamic technologies all brought together for the purpose of a very reliable, very predictable food supply," said Kawamura.

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 and so do the bumblebees which buzz every row; flowers don't become tomatoes without them.

"A third of everything we eat has to get pollinated," said Kawamura.

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 these large plastic tubes.

"What goes in never comes out. We utilize everything to the max," said Houweling.

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

Written and produced by our sister station in Fresno, KFSN.

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