The sea of greenhouses stood in neat rows at Half Moon Bay’s Rocket Farms, as if someone had taken a model and reproduced dozens of exact versions of the same glass building.
But Rocket Farms President Nick Bavaro walked past the rows of faded white buildings to point out that the buildings represented multiple eras of greenhouse technology — from the inefficient 70-year-old wooden buildings to those built with cutting-edge art technology, where legions of high-tech robots performed everything from planting to packaging.
As California agriculture continues to suffer from the state’s historic drought, Bavaro explained how indoor farming, with its ability to reuse irrigation water and grow year-round in air-conditioned buildings, could reach its prime.
“Unlike traditional outdoor growing, this allows us to grow our product year-round with consistency,” Bavaro said.
Greenhouses have long been used to grow crops; from flowers to vegetables such as tomatoes, strawberries and herbs. But cultivation technology has evolved to the point where large trading companies can scale and offer significant amounts of food products.
Where Rocket Farms traditionally grew flowers, most of its operations are now devoted to potted plants, which are sold at places like Trader Joe’s and Walmart.
“This is a part, a percentage of the agriculture that feeds this country,” Bavaro said, “and I think it’s going to play a bigger role over time.”
Bavaro guided us through the “21st Century Greenhouse,” where machines busily planted basil sprouts in pots of soil while other machines sorted and moved more mature basil plants, with only a few actual human workers visible.
But the systems deployed didn’t just replace people — they were also designed to reuse irrigation water, a precious commodity in the drought-stricken state.
“We’re able to recover 100% of that water,” Bavaro said. “The recovery of 100 gallons; 30% is absorbed by the plant, the other 70% is recycled and reused.”
But perhaps nature’s most significant competition on this farm has come from recently installed LED lighting systems that can target the plants’ preferred spectrum, which is particularly valuable in a fog-prone region like the San Mateo coast.
“You can have exactly the kind of light you need for exactly the kind of plants you need,” said Bryan Fried, CEO of Pangea Global Technologies, a lighting systems company that provided Rocket Farms’ technology.
Fried said lighting can now be coupled with technology systems that also measure soil moisture, humidity and temperature, light levels – and provide real-time monitoring that can be quickly adjusted.
As greenhouse technology slowly advanced, Fried said it was the development of California’s other famous indoor crop — cannabis — that accelerated the advance of the technology.
“And so it just became a smart thing,” Fried said, “to try and develop cannabis plant technology for different purposes that would also apply to agricultural technology.”
What it means now is the possibility that an indoor farming belt can emerge beyond the confines of geography and climate.
“So you can grow strawberries in the middle of a town in the dead of winter,” Fried said, “and still have a big, ripe, delicious strawberry that you can pick that day and eat that night.”
But Bavaro, who is at home in the breadbasket of California’s Central Valley, warns that indoor farming isn’t a panacea for the state’s water problems.
“It’s really the future of farming for certain produce, it’s not going to work for all produce,” Bavaro said. “Will it replace traditional farming? No, but it’s definitely an addition.”
Bavaro zipped through the Rocket Farms greenhouses, where massive green indoor plants produced potted cherry tomatoes, basil, rosemary, thyme and even Venus Flytraps.
In a way, it’s a farm without seasons, where the pervasive fog of the area has little effect on the mood.
“Here in California, you can grow these products maybe six months out of the year,” Bavaro said. “We are able to do this 24 hours a day, 12 months a year.”