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Missions Possible

You can find it in dark, icy landscapes and blindingly bright, oven-hot air. It’s in the depths of the sea and the canyons of the earth, and it rises above us along mountain heights. It’s even in outer space. The practitioners of this type of agriculture – and their motivations – vary.

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Missions Possible

Farming in Extreme Locations

For some, it is a matter of creating self-sufficiency and following desire. Farming in canyon depths and at its heights, for example, allows local crop development and the practice of traditional farming methods. For others, extreme agriculture is a matter of testing the boundaries of academic research and science: What are the limits of farming? What can be grown under water, in space or even in Martian soil?

What both groups have in common, perhaps, is the idea of independence: Food does not have to come from a few, central sources. Agriculture can exist in locations and environments you’ve never imagined. Of course, there is another question: How is this possible?

Here are some of the unique, unusual and fascinating places in agriculture where tradition, human ingenuity and desire meet.

Beneath the Sea – Nemo’s Garden

Where Plants Are Safe From Pests

Imagine a location where plants are safe from pests, have a constant air temperature and plenty of water and light.

Off the coast of Noli, Italy, in the Mediterranean Sea, lies “Nemo’s Garden,” a project created by the Ocean Reef Group.

Nemo’s Garden is composed of seven biospheres with different shapes and sizes.

Nemo’s Garden covers a surface of about 15 m².

Nemo’s Garden biospheres attach
to the sea bottom and float at different depths (from 5 to 10 meters).

Beneath the Sea – Nemo’s Garden

A Self-Sustaining System

Inside this dome, composed of polymeric film, condensed seawater drips down into the hydroponic, substrate or soil-based herb gardens and vegetable patches.

Once started, the system is self-sustaining. All that is needed are scuba-diving farmers to enter the dome and pick the fruit and leafy greens.

Iceland’s Dark Skies

A Land With Little Daylight in Winter

In Iceland’s cold, dark winter, there are only four hours of daylight. To compensate, farmers use geothermal heat and steam to illuminate greenhouses, where they grow fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, cucumbers and flowers.

Iceland’s Dark Skies

Where Glaciers, Geysers and Volcanoes Meet

Heating greenhouses using geothermal energy began in Iceland in 1924.
Source: Orkustofnun

Outside, the year-round cool climate means fewer pests.

Iceland’s median soil temperatures can range from 20 to 64 degrees Celsius.

In this oceanic (maritime) climate, relatively mild winters alternate with cool, wet summers. A variety of crops are grown here, including potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbage, kale and cauliflower.

Iceland’s Dark Skies

Warmth From Deep in the Earth

Geothermal power: Natural energy sources allow Iceland’s greenhouses to grow varied produce. By drilling 2-3 kilometers into the ground, high-pressure steam is released and piped into the greenhouse.

Another heating option is to pipe up hot spring water.

Lanzarote’s Dark Earth

Rising From the Ash

Volcanic eruptions in 18th century Lanzarote smothered farmlands under black grit. To adapt, farmers developed enarenado, a dry farming method that uses volcanic ash called picón. This is a mineral rock that absorbs moisture and prevents evaporation.

Lanzarote’s Dark Earth

Black Ash and Crater Crops

The Canary Islands are volcanic in origin and estimated to be 30 million years old. Lanzarote was the first of the islands to emerge from the ocean.
Source: Canaryforum

Saving water is crucial in the Canary Islands, where Lanzarote’s mere 14 cm of rainfall per year is less than in parts of the Sahara.

Despite this, farmers in Lanzarote harvest grapes, almonds and other crops in this charcoal-black soil.

Lanzarote’s Dark Earth

Protective Vineyard Rings

Craters and Circles: To grow wine, small craters are surrounded by Zocos, volcanic stone semi-circles.

Built for each vine, Zocos provide much needed protection from the sometimes fierce winds and retain moisture, allowing the vines to blossom.

Peru’s Great Depths

The Low Down

Some 3,400 meters deep inside the Colca Canyon of Southern Peru, local farmers grow basic food crops on plateaus and terraced fields, some dating back to the Incas. Pirkas, uncemented stone walls, help to support the earth, prevent landslides and capture rainfall.

Just as in ancient times, farmers there continue to select the crops to cultivate, whether potatoes, beans or rye, depending on the soil content and altitude of the stepped terraces. Aqueducts are a type of ancient irrigation system. Here, they channel water from melting snow or nearby rivers or lakes to the fields.

Peru’s Great Depths

Centuries of Canyon Cultivation

The existing flora in the Colca Canyon includes about 300 species...

...which have a variety of uses, including medicine, fuel, color dyes and as nutritious food for both wild and farm animals.

The Colca River runs almost 100 kilometers through the canyon.

The average distance from the peaks of the mountains to the river below is over 3,100 meters.
Source: canyontough

South America’s Great Heights

It’s All About Altitude

High in the Andes of South America, at altitudes over 4,000 meters, the thin air can leave people gasping. Plants, too, need oxygen, yet one species grows just fine at great heights: Cultivated thousands of years ago by pre-Columbian civilizations, quinoa flourishes on the altiplano, or high plains, of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

South America’s Great Heights

Altitude Specialists

Quinoa survives and thrives despite severe temperature swings, nearly no rain and a saline soil. As in the past, many farmers still harvest by hand the hardy plant, with its protein-rich edible black, red and white seeds.

The Andes spread over 7,500 kilometers across the South American continent and touch the following countries: Ecuador, Chile, Columbia, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela.

Myanmar’s Wet Terrains

Floating Gardens

Faced with a lack of arable land, the Intha people create floating gardens on Inle Lake in Myanmar. By compressing water hyacinths, they build mats one-meter thick to cultivate vegetables. The crops calmly rise and fall with the water level. Bamboo poles anchor the plant beds in the nutrient-rich water, and village farmers harvest their produce by boat. If needed, they can cut, move or sell their agricultural mats.

Myanmar’s Wet Terrains

A Buoyant Harvest

Nestled between two mountain ranges, Inle Lake is only 22 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide.

Tomatoes are by far the most popular crop at Inle Lake - about 90 percent of production.

Other crops at Inle Lake include beans, cucumbers, gourds and flowers.

Parts of the U.S. West Desert

Sprinkler Technoloy and Well-Timed Tilling

Dirt is as dry as dust in parts of the U.S. West. If farmers water their crops with central pivot irrigation systems, then lush green circular fields dot the desert landscape. A self-propelled, wheeled system of hoses and sprinklers moves in a circle around a fixed central pump to spray water on crops.

Alfalfa and small grains (wheat, barley and oats) are the most prevalent U.S. desert crops. As well, onions, carrots, potatoes and even cherries, peaches and grapes rise from desert-based fields.

Israel’s Negev Desert

From Brown to Green

Another method, dry farming, tills the land at just the right time to seal the moist winter subsoil under a layer of dry topsoil. This process forces plant roots to go deeper. Although the yields can be one-third lower than on a ‘normal field,’ dry farming on these arid plains can produce tomatoes, melons, squash, potatoes, garlic and even grapes.

The Negev Desert extends 12,000 km² over Israel’s southern region – this is more than half of the country’s land area.

The Negev produces up to four times greater tomato yields compared to anywhere else in the world.
Source: Tourist Israel

In Outer Space

Rocket Science

Do plants grow without gravity? With a little help, they do. To keep substrate and water from floating away in a near zero-gravity environment, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) glue seeds onto a “plant pillow” that contains soil, fertilizer and nutrients. Red and blue LEDs provides light for photosynthesis and let plants know which way is “up.” Blossoming zinnias and a small salad of red romaine lettuce are the result. Space farmers still struggle with episodes of moisture and mold, but they hope that future missions will feature “homegrown” edibles on the menu.

The NASA grew vegetables 370 kilometers above the Earth.
Source: Food24

NASA’s lettuce is grown under bright-pink LED lights, ready to harvest after 28 days.
Source: Modern Farmer

The Next Frontiers

Ingenuity and modern know-how are making the impossible become possible on lands and in places we don’t think of for agriculture. Meanwhile, engineers, tech experts and business people are also joining forces to find innovative ways to grow food in urban areas (see our story, “The Rise of the Vertical Farm”). At a time of changing climates and a rising world-wide population, exotic farming – whether on land, on or below water or even in space – shows agriculture’s opportunities, even in the most unlikely places.

What are agriculture’s next frontiers?
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