Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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Sara Rubin here, thinking about what’s for breakfast—and where it comes from. Increasingly, there’s a focus on following our food back to the source. In Monterey County, we’re supremely lucky to live in the place that is the source of so much of the best fresh food. (Whenever I’m traveling, I always get a kick out of seeing local produce; Salinas Valley lettuce on shelves in the Caribbean?) 

Even if it means drawing a long and not-quite-straight line on a map, we tend to think that wherever those lines originate will be a farm. We’ve grown used to farms that are big and industrialized. But I think it’s safe to say that when we think of where vegetables are grown, we think of a farm—plants come from seeds, in dirt, that get water and sunlight and fertilizer. Right? 

In this week’s cover story, you can read about a different idea of what a “farm” is and where our vegetables might someday come from (and, to some extent, they already do). The story is an excerpt of the book Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat by Larissa Zimberoff, which explores how the technology industry is busy doing what it does naturally: disruption. The book looks at some sectors you might more readily think of when it comes to disruption, things like meat alternatives. But the chapter “The Pied Piper of Plants” takes a close look at Plenty and its South Francisco Tigris Farm facility, which looks more like a sci-fi movie set than a farm. 

At a vertical indoor farm like this, everything is controlled—the light, the water, the temperature (no unexpected freezes, for example, might wipe out a crop). There are no pesticides, and there is no dirt. 

The idea of farming without dirt isn’t entirely novel. In 2014, we ran a story about an upstart aquaponics company in Watsonville. Around that same time, I remember taking a tour of a pilot farm site near Moss Landing, where growers were experimenting with growing strawberries in substrates (think coconut hulls) other than soil—soil is prone to various pests that demand treatment with various pesticides, and pesticides present their own challenges, including concern from consumers. But I remember touring that farm and wondering: Do consumers want strawberries that aren’t grown in dirt? 

Companies like Plenty are banking on it. I called Chris Valadez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, to ask if he thinks indoor vegetable farming companies have a real shot. Given that Valadez represents a trade association of old-fashioned in-the-dirt type growers (and I say old-fashioned lovingly—there’s a lot of technology at work in Salinas Valley farming, in everything from plant breeding and seed selection to irrigation to measuring crop sugar content), I was surprised by his answer: Yes. 

“I think there’s too much large-scale, large-capital investment into controlled-environment, indoor agriculture,” he says. “Do I think it will grow and become even more real? I do. There’s too much investment for it not to catch on somewhere.”

It’s unlikely but not impossible that such indoor growing operations could come to compete with outdoor farming in a place like the Salinas Valley, he says. At present, it’s no match for meeting demand consistently and at prices consumers are used to, but that could change. And if it does, that would bring about the types of tradeoffs we see in every major disruption: Maybe urban indoor farming means less trucking, and maybe these farms have less water usage. But they might consume a ton of power for their lighting. And maybe we suddenly put Monterey County’s 60,000 farmworkers—not to mention all of the ancillary businesses—out of work.

Zimberoff looks at a number of tradeoffs in her book, including questions about nutrition and soilless farming. A lot of the trade offs remain hypothetical, because these industries are not yet at a scale to compete with the likes of the Salinas Valley. But one day, they could be and it might force a reckoning with what we as consumers value about our food and where it comes from, and whether it’s grown by farmworkers or by engineers. 

“I wish everything could use 90-percent less water and zero pesticides, I am in that camp,” Valadez says. “But I am really interested in workers. My grandparents came here from Mexico as farmworkers; I have an appreciation for people who are working their ass off. [Agriculture] that requires a high degree of labor gives people an opportunity.”

Food for thought.

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