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Urban farm takes root in Great Park

11-09-2014 | by Don Curlee |

In urban Southern California, a tiny farm is demonstrating dramatic water-saving and space-saving methods of producing nutritious food in abundance. Interested observers are curious neighboring urbanites and, perhaps many of the farmers throughout the most productive agricultural state.

Alegria Fresh is the spectacular demonstration farm that makes its home inside Irvine’s Great Park, the huge combination recreational, educational, environmental and entertainment preserve that occupies most of the acreage that used to be El Toro Marine Base in Orange County’s Irvine, 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

The creator-sustainers of this wonder ranch on 1-1/4 acres are producing large, colorful and nutritious vegetables and flowers with practically no soil, and offering them in limited quantities to the park’s visitors who are allowed to tour the growing areas, observe demonstrations and hear explanations of the production techniques used there.

Basically Alegria Fresh is a huge hydroponic farm. That means several things, but primarily and essentially it describes a method of growing food and floral crops in water, where their roots never touch soil. The water carries controllable portions of essential nutrients tailored for each crop, applied in precise, recorded measures. Many of its 50,000 plants are in a vertical orientation.

Hydroponic production is not new, but the way it has been put together, updated and displayed by Alegria makes an eye-catching demonstration of this time worn method. Much of the space is given over to pots stacked to mimic small towers containing living plants. Plant roots languor in moisture supplied from a dripping orifice above them. They respond and thrive, producing oversized salad vegetables and flowers with spectacular color.

Another application is through what the farm’s operators call SOXX, horizontal tubes that include a growing medium that is not soil, but mostly ground up coconut hulls. Plant roots mingle with the growing medium as nutrient-rich water is applied continuously from emitters. The growing medium gives the larger-than-usual plants support as they soak up the nutrient and the sunshine, and ensures against contamination by soil borne diseases.

Small diameter PVC pipe plays a big part in transporting various blends of nutrient-enriched water to and above the carefully laid-out farm. Generous amounts of Orange County’s native soil and paving allow walkways and observation points throughout the farm. A staff member or worker is generally near to answer questions for visitors and explain how hydroponics works.

Alegria Fresh is the brainchild of Erik Cutter, who can usually be found at the site, helping to guide visitors and explain the process and its purpose. He offers convincing evidence that plants grown hydroponically can produce infinitely more of almost every essential crop using 90 percent less water, 70 percent less land and 50 percent less fertilizer than traditional production. He established Alegria in Laguna Beach in 2009, and moved to the Great Park as it became established and made space available.

One of Cutter’s enthusiastic supporter-partners is A.G. Kawamura, who served as California’s Secretary of Food and Agriculture from 2003 to 2011. An Orange County resident with a career in producing and selling produce commodities, Kawamura returned to his roots after serving in state government.

Cutter and Kawamura are consistent promoters of the colorful hydroponic bright spot among the plethora of displays, rides, adventures and surprises at the huge Great Park facility.

But more than that they are focused on teaching and demonstrating for urban dwellers how they can produce food in confined spaces at low cost. They are committed to hydroponics in a vertical profile, maintaining an agricultural showplace in minimum space, a stark contrast to the vast acreage and open space of Orange County’s Great Park.

Don Curlee is a freelance writer who specializes in agricultural issues.

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