At the start of February, Annette and I traveled to Orland, FL for the Southern Region ASHS conference. Annette was the moderator for the vegetable section of the conference, and we each presented research findings from various studies we have conducted at UT’s Organic farm. Annette spoke on our high tunnel tomato research from the summer of 2009, which compared tomatoes grown inside and outside of the high tunnels for disease pressure, insect and physiological damage, yield, total marketable yield, fruit quality and also nutritional qualities including sweetness and amount of lycopene. I presented results on weed abundance from our spring reduced-tillage broccoli research, which utilizes living mulches as a method of weed management. Other topics at the conference included irrigation and water loss, high tunnels for strawberries during the cool season, methyl bromide alternatives, disease resistant pumpkin breeding, tomato grafting, cultivation of edamame, and many more interesting topics. It was really great to hear about work other universities are conducting that is similar to, and could influence, our own research.
Of course, the most exciting part of the trip was our visit to Epcot on our free day. How could we go to Orlando and not go to Disney? While on the lookout for Disney stars, we learned about life under the sea with the characters of Finding Nemo, “visited” and learned about many countries (and got to taste lots of yummy food!), were taught the urgent need for recycling from the characters of The Lion King, and had a chance to relive the development of human culture starting with the ancient Egyptians. My favorite part, though, was getting the chance to visit Disney’s greenhouses. We signed up for a behind the scenes tour of the greenhouses and associated labs where we learned about their IPM program, plant tissue culture, and toured through the greenhouses to see their amazing plants. Their plants are produced hydroponically in sterile media, aeroponically where they are suspended and occasionally wetted, and, in some instances, aquaponically where fish and plant culture are combined. Each greenhouse was set for a different climate zone, allowing for the production of a wide range of crops – from coffee and bananas to strawberries and lettuce. In each greenhouse there were interactive exercises – we got to taste a Mickey shaped cucumber, release lady beetles, and try to name various spices in their unprocessed form. All of the produce is used within the park at the finer restaurants.
I found the greenhouse to be fascinating because I am not familiar with hydroponic systems, and have never visited a greenhouse before that was so extensive and used many different methods of cultivation. It was neat to actually be able to see the things I have read and learned about in my coursework at UT. However, Disney claims that this is “the future of agriculture” and “will help make the Earth a healthier place to live.” Unfortunately, hydroponic, and many greenhouse production systems, rely heavily on the production and usage of synthetic chemicals and require excessive amounts of energy to moderate the inside environment. I can only help but wonder how sustainable this is, and fear to think that agriculture around the world should head in this direction.