10.21.2012

When Tomorrow Comes….

I was sitting with my cup of coffee, checking out the latest news on the newspaper and thinking how long I would continue reading the newspaper. The feel of the paper, the smell of ink and all of that is going away soon. Newsweek just announced that their December issue is going to be its last on print. Reading the WSJ, I am wondering if that fine paper too will take the same route. Well, I for one would be sad about it, for there is nothing like stretching back and unraveling the big and wide paper, listening to the crackle and scanning back and forth, top to bottom, side to side. Whatever said and done, you can never get that right on a 10 or 12 inch screen, e-ink or not, even for a tech savvy guy like me. But then you cannot question economics, profit and loss and such things, for they drive decisions, not some longing reader’s mindset…


Before the reader wonders what all this has got to do with the subject line, I better get to the topic. It did have something to do with the first paragraph, for I read about these astonishing advances from the very paper I talked about, the Wall Street Journal, and it set my mind in motion.

I come from a family of farmers, though on my father’s side, there were a few connections to the ancient rulers of Malabar. But at Pallavur, like the rest of the people of the village, we are a farming family, an activity that my brother takes care of these days. Each time I go on vacation, he tells me about some of the new things that have happened and I end up thinking wistfully about days long gone, the days of my childhood, and all those fascinating vacation days spent at my mother’s Tharavad, the harvest festivals, the seeding period, the monsoons, the implements of the farm, the farm animals, the smells, sounds and sights of the village. The sound of vehicles, the gasoline fumes, the glitz and glamor of a city, the steel and glass on the buildings, the many conveniences, they are all nice, but you know how it is, your mind takes you back to your roots, every once in a while…and you wonder….

I think back and see all those days vividly in my mind, of the days when we would wake up early on Vishu day and go to the fields for the festivities, when the gods of prosperity are addressed. I had written about this earlier. This was the day the child of the house always looked forward to, for it was the only successful day in a monetary sort of way, the only time money was given to the children in older days, days when terms like pocket money were not in vogue in Kerala. So when your pocket bulged with coins by the end of the day though not liberal in a value sense, coming from various uncles, aunts and elders of the family, the child had a beaming smile on your face for the next few days. The following days were spent in animated discussions with cousins as to who got how much and from whom and what was to be done with all the money. But then Vishu was more than the ‘kainettam’. It started early that morning and had so much going on for the rest of the day. Starting with the Vishu Kani, then the ‘chal pooja’ at the Chira, the fireworks, the sumptuous lunch followed by all kinds of happenings at home and the temple, the day was a joy for any Malayali, though it differed a bit from location to location..

In Palghat, when you visit places like Pallavur, even today, you can see age old practices of farming, where seeding is done by hand, and sometimes even harvesting and threshing is still done by hand in some homesteads. These days some amount of modernization has taken place in bigger farms, tractors have given way to harvesters and big tilling machines that come from nearby Tamil Nadu, and these things are done in a jiffy. The land that was tilled by bullocks and what took many days is now done by the Tamilian and his big machine in a day or two. Harvesting that took an overseer like our Keshavan Nair and Eacharan, supervising many hunched women with straw hats, who laboriously worked in the fields, with their ari-vaal or the curved rice stalk cutting knife. Finally the paddy was brought to the cement para (a concreted area near the granary for this very purpose) and threshed to separate the stalk from the seed.

Well, as you can imagine, things are slowly changing out there too, and with higher salaries for factory work, better education and the lure of office jobs, you will not have farm hands anymore. Machines will take over and soon the situation will be akin to that of Punjab where the farming will be highly mechanized (out there the water tables are dwindling fast but we in Kerala may be saved by our great monsoons). Nevertheless who will continue with farming, especially when produce prices are regulated and margins are wafer thin? Perhaps it is time to farm exotic stuff or start organic farming, which is more profitable. My brother tries his hand at some of these new ideas at times and complains a lot when they do not find any support among the traditional lot out there. Sometimes he tries new crops like Chinese potatoes (my favorite – Koorka) and comes up with bumper produce, with great taste even appreciated by the likes of our Koorka eating ex-chief minister Achuettan.

In Sweden, and in many other countries they have gone to other extremes. The old methods are fast changing to new ones. The logic is that when production has to meet demands, that too specific demands from far separated places, farming becomes somewhat complex and disconnected from nature. You see, nature determines what crop is produced when, in traditional farming. As an example, what if you wanted to produce something removed from nature, for example, rice in December, due to an increased rice demand predicted in winter? Then you have to reproduce nature, correct? And how would you do it? That was roughly the concept behind what I was reading about in the newspaper. No, it is not about making genetic changes to seeds or organic farming, which again is an interesting topic, but something else entirely. It is not about greenhouses, but connected to a massive greenhouse concept. So let’s take a look at what is going on. Let me give my history mind and history cells and history genes some rest and go activate my farming genes now…

And thus we come to the topic at hand, which is what they call vertical farms…and a time when the future of agriculture as WSJ puts it, is up, and up, not flat and flat. Can you imagine a situation when you grow crops in vertical multi storied high rise buildings in the middle of other buildings? A time, when you look out of your apartment window and see another massive glass and steel building, not full of people but full of plants? That is how it could be, I have no doubts about it, for sooner or later, land will not be available horizontally, and so man will be forced to think vertically!!

The complainers complain about the rains, they complain about all the effluents that are going into the soil; they complain of development and human greed, they complain of our complete lack of environment friendliness. What if you are able to create a situation where you isolate farming from all those environmental issues? Will your food be cleaner, untainted but perhaps not possessing just the right taste? Is it but a wasted thought?

To start with, it a new idea? As the economist article reminds us, perhaps not – Do you remember something from our ancient wonders, something that people still do not have a good idea about? Do you remember the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built around 600BC? Quoting the Wiki entry - Philo narrates - "The Hanging Gardens [is so-called because it] has plants cultivated at a height above ground level, and the roots of the trees are embedded in an upper terrace rather than in the earth. This is the technique of its construction. The whole mass is supported on stone columns, so that the entire underlying space is occupied by carved column bases. The columns carry beams set at very narrow intervals. The beams are palm trunks, for this type of wood – unlike all others – does not rot and, when it is damp and subjected to heavy pressure, it curves upwards. Moreover it does itself give nourishment to the root branches and fibres, since it admits extraneous matter into its folds and crevices……….. Streams of water emerging from elevated sources flow partly in a straight line down sloping channels, and are partly forced upwards through bends and spirals to gush out higher up, being impelled through the twists of these devices by mechanical forces. So, brought together in frequent and plentiful outlets at a high level, these waters irrigate the whole garden, saturating the deep roots of the plants and keeping the whole area of cultivation continually moist. Hence the grass is permanently green, and the leaves of trees grow firmly attached to supple branches, and increasing in size and succulence with the constant humidity. For the root [system] is kept saturated and sucks up the all-pervading supply of water, wandering in interlaced channels beneath the ground, and securely maintaining the well-established and excellent quality of trees. This is a work of art of royal luxury and its most striking feature is that the labor of cultivation is suspended above the heads of the spectators.

Complainers would now say, well, scientists said the same thing when you started growing chicken and cows indoor in environments they were not supposed to be in, in overcrowded farms set up only for human consumption where the result was hormone enhanced milk or eggs or meat with huge amount of antibiotics and other chemicals in them. Was that done wrongly or was it greed?

My uncle, a great student of history (MA history), and a student of law, left all that and a good job, to come back the village to manage our farm lands many a moon ago. The dear old man is no longer alive, but still prods a nerve in our minds, for he was the person who steered the tharavad along for a long time, with his gentle, but firm and new ideas, though rooted in tradition. At that time we did not quite understand, but thinking back, he was a one great guy. He would have done well in the corporate world, though I am happy he did not. Sometimes I think in the same way, when I am not happy with the terrible ways of the corporate world I am in and long to go back to the simple life at Pallavur, but cannot.

Would these vertical farms produce food which would carry the same problems as meat and eggs and milk? Let’s take a look at this revolutionary concept sooner than later, for it will not be too long in our lifetimes that we will see this germ of an idea taking root and spreading. Spread it must, for man is producing and reproducing large numbers who will need even more space to live and compete with space needed by the very farms that have to feed them. Greed will displace these farm lands as we see on a daily basis, and so where would you go for food? Where would you grow food? This vertical farm concept has to be a way, perhaps the only way.

Can you imagine multi storied buildings where these plants travel in tracks from the top of the building gradually to the bottom, tracking the sun? Well, this is how they are trying it out in Sweden and Canada; and there are quite a few smaller vertical farms in USA, and other countries. Can you imagine vegetables grown on floating rafts in a meat packing plant in Chicago where the waste from the fish tanks enriches the plants? Would you believe it if I told you that there are a number of farms in the USA where plants actually hang in air and the roots are sprayed with nutrients? Well I guess that is the future of farming, not like the farms of Pallavur that I remembered from my younger days.

If these compact farms are right in the middle of a metropolis, do you need those huge trucks to bring the food from farms many a hundred or thousand miles away? Perhaps not! The supporters cite many other reasons to adopt these new ideas, explaining that this can help combat climate change, that this can help reduce the use of chemicals and pesticides. They state that prices can be maintained, is greener than traditional farming and so on. And overall, it provides food security and less dependence on others, for any country.

And that gets me thinking of the bullock cart, the one I wrote about some years ago There was a time when we had a bullock cart at our maternal home in Pallavur. I remember the chap who drove the cart, Eaachran, who was also our supervisor in the fields (I guess only trustworthy positions got the exalted cart driver status). The cart was not used very much though. In our times, it was parked in the shed (yes, it had its own garage) and once a week, our man used to get the two bulls yoked up in front and take the cart to get stocks from the nearby Alathur market. The cart would come back late at night, loaded with sacks of cattle feed, vegetables, oil tins, fertilizer and provisions. The cattle knew the route back and forth; Eaacharan was normally asleep at the wheels (a few bottles of toddy maybe?) on the way back, but no problems….

But is that right? Can you really grow basmati or koorka in a vertical farm? I am not sure, but there is no reason why they cannot be, what I am not sure is if the taste will change, for taste is determined by the soil, by the local methods and so on, and not in any way enhanced by an enclosed atmosphere. Perhaps you can grow technically perfect vegetables, maybe not the tastiest. To get the right tastes, you do make hybrid versions or indulge in genetic modifications, but are they right? On the other hand, will the citizens of the future have a real choice when it comes to taste? Perhaps not! Just like you ruminate about the past, when your grandmother used to hand grind the perfect chutney, and you complain about the blander version coming out of your grinder…these things will happen, while man will adopt, and as the memories fade, the tastes will change. As another writer once wrote, huge companies like McCormick will decide the tastes of the future food.

Look at a typical example - my second son, always states that his favorite is the chicken tikka masala which a connoisseur of Indian food will scoff at, as he may put a lucknowi chicken dish at the top, but for my son, the CTM is the best because he has been eating it all his life, while the other dishes are mainly pictures and words in articles or found only in hotels that he would not normally go to or are many a thousand miles away.

Back to the vertical farm, how do they grow the plants? One of the concepts employed in a vertical farm is hydroponics. Economist mag states There are a number of ways to do it, but essentially hydroponics involves suspending plants in a medium—such as gravel, wool or a form of volcanic glass known as perlite—while the roots are immersed in a solution of nutrient-rich water. A constant flow of air keeps the plants bathed in carbon dioxide. Any nutrients and water that are not taken up by the roots can be recycled, rather than being lost into the soil. According to Dr Giacomelli “You can grow anything with hydroponics.

Light was another issue in glass houses or greenhouses, and while earlier farms had their own power plants to drive these lights, the new ones use energy saving LED lighting, or as I explained earlier, moving tracks which track sunlight and augmented by LED light when needed. So answers are found with developing and innovative technologies.

It is not these buildings will be just vertical farms, but they will use one side of it or two sides where sunlight hits them, with the rest of the space leased to offices so that the cost of building the vertical farm is offset to a certain extent. But these farms are not cheap by any means, they need expensive lighting, they need clean water systems, huge upfront investments on the machinery & conveyer systems and large investments in LED lighting. We still do not have a clear business model available to an entrepreneur.

According to one of the people behind the very idea of vertical farming Dr Dickson Despommier- By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth's population will reside in urban centers. Applying the most conservative estimates to current demographic trends, the human population will increase by about 3 billion people during the interim. An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA).

Agriculture also uses 70 percent of the world’s available freshwater for irrigation, rendering it unusable for drinking as a result of contamination with fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and silt. If current trends continue, safe drinking water will be impossible to come by in certain densely populated regions.

The monsoons of Malabar - yes, without those rains, we would not have any farming in Palakkad. remeber the story of how that happened? The story when the kings prayed for rain in Malabar…In days of yore, there was, at one time, no rain in the kingdoms of Chera, Chola and Pandya, and all living beings were dying of starvation. The kings of the three kingdoms could not find means to mitigate the sufferings of their subjects. They consulted with one another and resolved to do penance to the God of rain. Temporarily leaving the administration of affairs in the hands of the ministers, they went to the forest, and did penance to Indra, the God of rain, who, at the intercession of the great Gods, took pity on them and blessed each of them with rain for four months in the year. Well pleased, they returned to their kingdoms. They soon become discontented, because the first (the Chera king) had not enough of rain, while the other two had too much of it. They again went to the rain god and conveyed to him their grievances. He thereupon directed the kings Cholan and Pandiyan to give two months' rain to the king Cheran. All the three rulers now felt quite satisfied. The king Cheran thus got 8 months' rain for his kingdom, while the other two were satisfied with two months' rain in their own kingdoms.

Or will it be as the Zamorin of Calicut, my grandfather many eons over told the Vasco De Gama (not really, it is just a myth that sounds good) - When asked by Vasco De Gama for some pepper seedlings, the Zamorin, his old leathery face twisting in sarcasm told the Gama, that he could take pepper seedlings back home and wished him the best in growing them, but added that what he would never be able to replicate the monsoons of Kerala and the sun, signifying that Vasco will have to come back to buy the pepper from Malabar.

Perhaps the person who wants to make money in the long run should take heed of humorist Mark Twain who once said: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.”

Vertical farm images – Plantagon/Sweco, Farm images, Hindu, thadeus

Note: After I decided on the heading, I found out that there is a song by Eurythmics with the same title. Originally I headed this as ‘farms of tomorrow’, but thought it a little drab and changed it to the new one, signifying what could be in store for us tomorrow. The similarity is therefore a coincidence, though I must admit that the Sidney Sheldon book ‘If tomorrow comes’, was definitely an inspiration.

8 comments:

tolifetolifelachaim said...

Nice. "Change". No one can stop that, which we know is permanent. Yes, many things are likley to disappear in the years to come like newspapers, books, music, privacy,landline, CHEQUE books, etc . My only hope is that we (human beings) do not destroy all those forests and wild animals that are left now.
Life in 2050 will be definitely much more different as you have explained and it might be a ROUTINE without any challange - may be our generation may not enjoy or accept that life but furutre generation will have to accept and move forward.

P.N. Subramanian said...

Very interesting post. I am scared learning about Vertical Farming. Yes there are changes we never dreamed about but I find people accepting them as they come. I find a little obstinacy in your psyche when you say you can not return to the simple life at Pallavur. Incidentally I wanted to visit your village but could not recollect the name while I was in Kerala.

Happy Kitten said...

This concept of farming was a new info!

But then one has to change with times and forgo taste one acquired. Atleast one shall not starve. If everything can be cultivated even in a big city, why not.
Here in Kuwait there is the "living" wall in one of the shopping malls. Variety of ferns and such other plants grow on a very high wall. Hope they will also try their hand at this new kind of farming, at least before the oil runs dry!

Maddy said...

Thanks tolifetolifelachaim..
yes, of course things are going to look different, what will remain is nostalgia...

Maddy said...

thanks PNS..
Pallavur is off the beaten track, sometimes i wonder how my ancestors ever reached there..we have a fascinating Siva temple there...
returning to all that? well..wish it were so easy, i will talk about it someday in more detail...

Maddy said...

Thanks HK..
Indoor farms have been there for a while now, it is just that new ideas are springing up and some remain out of the limelight for various reasons..

Brahmanyan said...

Good Blog. When I visited Mela Poodanur near Tiruvarur (Tanjavur area) in Tamil Nadu, I saw my relatives using Paddy seeding Machines from Japan for planting.I am told these machines can plant seedlings one acre per hour. The Agricultural department of Tamil Nadu gives all assistance for mechanise forming in view of large scale migration of farm labourers to cities.

Maddy said...

Thanks Brahmanyan,
It is nice to see how manual labor gives way to machines.
Know what, we had a catastrophe last week with the hurricane Sandy where the lower parts of manhattan were hit badly and had no power & water.
Just imagine what happenes to one of these vertical farms when power and water fails..food for thought

it is time they beefed up the essential need sustems - electricity & water, that is more important in countries like India.

Here in US they will always adapt & change, sooner or later.