Sweet Tomatoes

The UA's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center is growing vegetables everywhere from Tucson to the South Pole--and next, they want to go to the moon

It's a warm night here in Tucson as UA grad student Lane Patterson looks over crops that he regularly monitors.

But at the South Pole, where the lettuce, tomatoes, herbs and flowers on his computer screen are growing, it's about 70 degrees below zero.

The plants, of course, aren't exposed to that frigid environment. They're in a UA-designed growth chamber inside Antarctica's Amundsen-Scott Research Station.

From his neat corner cubicle in a lab at the UA campus farms on Campbell Avenue just south of the Rillito River, Patterson uses the Web to keep an eye on the chamber. He can look around with a camera, check various sensors and adjust the temperature, humidity and watering schedule with automated controls.

"We run it from here," Patterson says. "We can't mix up the chemicals or dump a tank. But we see things going wrong--sensors aren't working; pumps aren't working; we're not getting the right results."

If he spots a problem, he picks up a phone and calls a number in Denver. The call is bounced to a satellite and relayed to the station, where he can ask someone to fix a malfunctioning sensor or a clogged water nozzle--all while he watches on his webcam.

Patterson knows the chamber as well as anyone. Less than a year ago, he came back to the United States after his second nine-month stint in Antarctica, where his job was to grow vegetables in the growth chamber. Every week, he would harvest a new crop so that researchers at the station could enjoy fresh salads.

Now Patterson is back at the UA, monitoring the growth chamber by remote control. When he's not checking on the plants, he's is working on his next project: Building a mock spacecraft that could land on the moon, expand and start growing crops that would both feed future astronauts and provide them with oxygen.

"It's a great job," Patterson says.

Patterson, 41, first became fascinated with the environment during a stint in the Navy just out of high school. As he stared out across the vast ocean, he began to ask himself questions about the planet: What is a human without a biosphere? How big does a life-support system have to be?

Those questions eventually led him to the UA's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, where he's now doing his graduate studies.

The Controlled Environment Agriculture Center was the brainchild of Merle Jensen, a professor emeritus in the UA's Department of Plant Sciences. Jensen grew up in a family that produced flowers in greenhouses, but it wasn't until he was in college at Cornell in the mid-'60s that he realized he could use the buildings to grow vegetables and feed people.

"I think I was intrigued by the fact that you could create artificial environments," Jensen says. "You could extend seasons with science and technology, independent of any constraints on climate."

Jensen moved to Rutgers to do his graduate work, but the natural-born salesman also traveled the country to spread the greenhouse gospel. He found himself attracted to Arizona because "it had tremendous light. We could grow here in the wintertime."

In 1968, he came West for good to work at the UA and ended up at the Environmental Research Lab, a bustling think tank that answered directly to the university's vice president of research.

But Jensen's reach went far beyond Tucson. Over the last four decades or so, he's set up greenhouses and hydroponics systems across the world, from the Sahara Desert to Disney's Epcot park in Florida. He still hears from people whose interest in agriculture and science was spurred by his display about the farming of tomorrow.

"Because of what we did at Epcot, I've had many teachers come to me to say, 'You're the guy who inspired me,'" Jensen says.

In the late '80s, he briefly broke from the UA and went to work for the group building Biosphere 2. But he abandoned that project over creative differences--"I couldn't in my right mind work with those people"--and found a new administrative gig at the UA's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Even then, he couldn't stay out of teaching. He got students together on weekends for special courses.

About the same time, he was cajoling the Dutch company Eurofresh to experiment with a greenhouse operation in Cochise County. The operation is a prime example of a commercial application of controlled-environment agriculture.

Since opening 14 years ago just outside of Willcox, the Eurofresh facility has grown into the largest greenhouse operation of its kind in the world. (Eurofresh also has a smaller operation in Snowflake.) The company now ships a staggering 3.4 million pounds of tomatoes a week to U.S. markets.

The tall greenhouses, which cover 274 acres (or the equivalent of 300 football fields), contain 4.5 million tomato plants. It's a model of efficiency, from the rows upon rows of tomato plants to the conveyor belts that carry tomatoes to the workers who place them in cardboard boxes and plastic containers for shipping.

The tomatoes are grown under "perfect conditions," boasts company spokesman Bill Mertz. Computers monitor every aspect of the environment, from the temperature and humidity to the amount of water and fertilizer the plants get. (A pound of tomatoes requires about four gallons of water.) The plants are pollinated by bees, which also eliminate insects that prey on the plants, so there's no need for chemical pesticides.

With about 1,700 workers, the company is a major employer in rural Southern Arizona. A new program in conjunction with the Arizona Department of Economic Security even buses refugees living in Tucson down to the facility.

It was the success of Eurofresh that helped Jensen persuade then-Gov. Jane Dee Hull and the Arizona Legislature to fund the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. Jensen had to hire his own lobbyist, but he managed to get $600,000 annually set aside in the budget to launch the program, which specializes in greenhouse research.

The money has allowed CEAC to hire staff, build several state-of-the-art greenhouses, assemble laboratories and even build a new administration building that bears Jensen's name.

Although he's now semi-retired from the university, Jensen hasn't lost his passion for teaching young minds. He regularly pops into the CEAC headquarters to catch up on the latest work and hopes a greenhouse display to inspire young minds will be part of the UA's planned Rio Nuevo science center.

"You've got to be creative," he says. "You have to make science dance."

In 2000, Jensen convinced Gene Giacomelli to leave Rutgers University and head up the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

Giacomelli, 53, has farming in his blood. His family owned a farm in New Jersey that grew watermelons, beans and other vegetables for sale at a nearby market.

When Giacomelli graduated from high school in 1972, he wasn't interested in studying agriculture. He wanted to join the space program and help put men on the moon, so he went off to college with plans to become an aeronautical engineer.

His timing was lousy: NASA shut down the moon program just as he was starting college, so Giacomelli turned his attention to agricultural engineering.

He can still remember the first time he entered a greenhouse. It was the winter of '75, and snow was covering the windows the building outside. But inside, small tomatoes plants were growing in beakers as part of a hydroponics experiment involving fertilizer.

"What amazed me was that in this environment, Rutgers in January, I could grow plants," he says, recalling that his family's farm was limited to growing crops between March and November. "I saw a lot of potential. I didn't know what the real potential was until now, until I came to Arizona."

Within a few years of his arrival here, Giacomelli's department won a bid to build the growth chamber at Antarctica's Amundsen-Scott Research Station.

The research station, which is managed by the Raytheon Polar Services Company on behalf of the National Science Foundation, is located in one of the most inhospitable place on Earth for human life. For about six months of the year, there's no sunlight at all, and temperatures can drop to lower than 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Giacomelli landed the contract to build the growth chamber with the help of Maricopa County machinist Phil Sadler, an Antarctica veteran who had built an earlier growth chamber at the Pole.

"Phil was vital to winning the bid because he had been there so much," Giacomelli says. "His design for the project was one reason we won the award."

Giacomelli asked for 18 months to build the chamber, but he got less than a year.

The team got to work in December 2003 and shipped the crates containing the chamber off in December 2004. By June 2005, the chamber was set up and producing food for Antarctic researchers--a moment Giacomelli calls "exhilarating."

It was the chance to work in the chamber that lured Patterson to Antarctica. He had helped with the construction of the chamber here in Arizona and saw it as an opportunity to learn "what it takes to design an environment that is hospitable to life in a hostile environment."

When he set off for the first stint, Patterson had no idea just how hostile it would turn out to be. "I can't tell you what it's like to be that cold," he says. "I can tell you some of the experiences, but there's no preparing for it."

He was surprised by how hard he found it to stay awake during the long Antarctic stay.

"From personal experience, being in darkness that long, being in cold that long, when the sun has been down for that long--when the sun was just coming up, I didn't realize how asleep I was during my waking hours," he says.

The Antarctic stays gave Patterson a sense of how much of a boost the growth chamber gave the spirits of researchers by supplying fresh vegetables during the long stretch after the last supply plane leaves in early March and the first plane returns in October.

"The fresh vegetables run out, and about two months in, people start peeking in and asking, 'What you got in there?'" Patterson says. The cooks were especially interested in herbs that he grew.

On top of that, the air inside the Amundsen-Scott Research Station has extremely low humidity, generally less than 10 percent. That means your skin and lips crack. "You always feel dry and parched," Patterson says. "You're always reaching for the Carmex."

But inside the growth chamber, the humidity rises to 70 percent. The UA team included a lounge area in the chamber that became an oasis for crew members who could find relief from the dry air.

Giacomelli says Patterson was able to increase the efficiency of the growth chamber to two-thirds of the yield in weight found at Eurofresh on a square-foot basis. He sees that as particularly impressive, because Patterson was growing a host of different crops in one area. That meant he couldn't set the environment to the optimal conditions for any one single plant.

Patterson used the experience to help design the model that's long been on his mind: a biological life-support system in which the carbon dioxide given off by people would be consumed by plants, which, in turn, would give off enough oxygen to let the people breathe. The system also recycles water, capturing the transpiration given off by plants and perspiration given off by humans so it can be recycled it into the watering system.

Patterson has put together a formula that he now wants a chance to test. "I can't say that it's the right answer, but I've thrown the dart and hit the board," he says. "How close am I?"

It's those sorts of questions that have Patterson, Giacomelli and Sadler now assembling a spacecraft prototype in a large building near the stables across the street.

They've already managed to grow food in the extreme environment of the South Pole, which is the closest place on earth to conditions on the moon, although, as Patterson notes, "the moon is by far more dangerous."

The plan: Have a craft land on the moon and drop a bulldozer that will dig trenches. Then the craft itself drops into the hole and extends arms that contain seeds, water, fertilizer and lights into the trenches. The bulldozer then buries the arms to protect them from cosmic rays and micro-meteorites. Then the plants begin to grow and when astronauts arrive, they have both food and a system that will help them produce oxygen.

For Giacomelli, it's a chance to fulfill that boyhood dream of going to the moon. He remembers telling his parents: "I'm gonna get to NASA, but I'm going to go through agriculture and the back door."

But it's not all space travel and South Pole growth chambers at CEAC. Giacomelli is also interested in finding ways to bring controlled-environment agriculture technology to the market. You can grow any plant in a controlled environment, he says, but the big question remains: "Is it cost effective?"

The tomato has helped answer that question. The Eurofresh experience has shown that Americans are willing to pay a little more for a tomato that has a long shelf life and good flavor. (Eurofresh has won national awards for the best-tasting tomato for several years running.) Eurofresh has also shown that once you have an efficient design, you can replicate it on a larger scale.

Now Giacomelli wants to find new commercial applications for controlled-environment agriculture. To that end, he's teamed up with Ron Richman of the Innovative Technologies Development Center, a nonprofit group designed to seek out and promote local economic opportunities. The group serves as a platform that can combine the talents of interns from the UA's Eller College of Management and the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale with the resources of local business owners, local investors and university technology to create companies that are a good fit for Arizona.

One upcoming venture: Sonora Transplants, which plans to combine Japanese technology with the CEAC's know-how to open a factory in Tucson to produce grafted tomato plants that have disease-resistant root stock and hardy tomato vines. Giacomelli and Richman hope Sonora Transplants will be able to provide tomato plants to Eurofresh in the not-distant future.

But that's just one potential application. Giacomelli and Richman also hope to develop a way of growing vaccines inside of tomatoes as part of a foray into agro-pharmaceuticals. They also foresee using the CEAC's resources to help local growers improve their crop yields.

They're enthusiastic about the idea of cleaning contaminated water by trapping heavy metals and other pollutants in the root system of plants. They even want to experiment with the idea of building a greenhouse next to a proposed power plant in Bowie that would use excess heat from energy production to heat the greenhouse and reduce emissions from the smokestacks by capturing the carbon dioxide in the plants. (See "Coal Scrap," Currents, Aug. 30.)

"We would need no fossil fuels to run the greenhouse and be able to grow crops," Giacomelli says.

Then there's the prospect of bringing controlled-environment agriculture to urban settings, with rooftop greenhouses that could help feed a building's residents or provide a crop to be sold at local markets.

Giacomelli sees great potential for field farmers who want to sell some of their land for development in the future. Since one acre of greenhouses can grow as much as 10 acres of field crops, the traditional farmer can make an investment in greenhouses and continue in the family business.

After more than four decades of singing the praises of greenhouses, Jensen is thrilled to see what's on the horizon.

"It's going to be awesome," Jensen says. "The foundation has been set, and they're taking off with it. I can sit back and watch it and just get excited."