Southern Ag Center researchers look to vertical farms to end food desert _lowres

Photo provided by the Southern University Ag Center -- James Henson, left, and Marlin Ford set up an aeroponics system at the Southern University Ag Center. The researchers say vertical farming could provide a solution to food deserts, areas where residents lack access to fresh food

For years, government officials and activists have struggled to find a solution to the state’s food deserts, areas where residents lack access to fresh food.

Researchers at Southern University’s Agricultural Research and Extension Center believe they may have the answer: vertical farming. The researchers are looking at three different methods:

  • Aeroponics, or growing plants by nourishing their suspended roots with air or mist. No soil is required.
  • Hydroponics, growing plants using only liquid nutrients in water.
  • Aquaponics, growing plants and raising fish in one system. The fish waste provides the nutrients for the plants.

“Right now, we’re just setting it up as a pilot. We’re just trying to get some data so we can create a proposal and maybe submit it to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture),” said Marlin Ford, an assistant professor of sustainable agriculture.

Gathering that data will take at least one season, Ford said. The researchers are using the system to grow lettuce, tomatoes, basil, bell peppers and eggplants inside a greenhouse.

Some preliminary data could be available within four to six weeks, he said.

Vertical farming could help ease the fresh-food shortage that has long plagued the area. In the Baton Rouge region alone, access to fresh food is limited in an area that stretches from the bend in the Mississippi River near Addis north all the way to Baker, according to the USDA.

Vertical farming offers a number of advantages, Ford said.

Crops can be grown indoors, on balconies and in limited spaces. One indoor acre can produce as much as 4 to 6 acres outdoors. Crops can be grown year-round, without herbicides, pesticides or fertilizer.

Vertical farming also avoids flooding, drought and natural disasters, Ford said.

Vertical farming projects are underway in a number of areas throughout the country. FarmedHere, the nation’s largest indoor vertical farm, based just outside of Chicago, is launching a 24-acre operation in Louisville, Kentucky.

Detroit-based Artesian Farms says its indoor farm uses 10 percent of the water of a conventional farm.

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.