UA hydroponic greenhouse leading way to sustainable urban farming

It's hard to imagine anything could grow sustainably in the Arizona desert this time of year, that is, until you step foot inside a hydroponic greenhouse.

The UA Controlled Environment Agriculture Center has been researching controlled environments for growing produce for decades.

The center researches the latest technology in hydroponics for the purposes of growing produce in an environmentally sustainable way. One of its greenhouses is currently home to hundreds of tomato plants grown using hydroponic technology.

"That's growing without soil. Just water and nutrients to try to grow these crops for commercial purposes, but to try to improve their quality, to improve their yield, and to develop new crops," said Dr. Gene Giacomelli, director of the UA CEAC.

The nutrient-rich water travels through a network of roots, while the air's moisture level is tailored to produce the most flavorful and sweet tomatoes around.

"They have a very high sugar concentration, like 12 or 13 percent. It's almost like candy," Giacomelli said.

Each plant consumes about a quarter of a gallon of water per day, according to Giacomelli. That is about the same amount a plant would need if it were planted in soil. The difference, however, is the water is recycled and thus more sustainable.

The center serves as both a research center for the UA, but it also teaches anyone interested in growing their own food.

"It benefits the economy in a way. Of course we're producing food for people to eat, but I think the education has developed here as part of the research. It benefits the private sector side of things," UA Sustainable Agriculture student Connor Osgood said.

The timing for hydroponics may be ripe for Tucson. The city has been accepting public input on proposals to revise its urban agriculture regulations.

Giacomelli's goal is to shape Tucson into what he calls, a locally grown agricultural center of the U.S.

"It could become an example to the country on how adding controlled environments to your outside gardens. Put a greenhouse next to it and produce more food, in a smaller area, with less water and less fertilizer," Giacomelli said.

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