Lucerne Valley, Calif. — The idea germinated a decade ago amid the cornfields of Iowa. And now, here on the High Desert of California, in the land of mesquite, sagebrush, and the ubiquitous Joshua tree, it has finally come of age.
It holds out the promise of substantial, inexpensive food production in those areas where normal production is difficult, if not impossible, or where open space is rare.
Just one acre cultivated under this system has the annual productive capacity of almost 30 acres under conventional farming methods.
What William A. Skaife began about 10 years ago in Dubuque, Iowa, as a method for growing houseplants has proliferated here at Honeyacre Farm to turn some old greenhouses into a truck farm. Mr. Skaife's method requires comparatively little energy, not much water, and no exceptional skills from operators - three things that set it apart from other intensive food-producing operations.
Hydroponics, the art of growing plants in soilless situations using a complete nutrient solution, is basic to the system, but two more factors are also crucial: the ability to move mature plants from one bed to another without setback, and a unique system (Skaife calls it ''sat-a-lighting'') of training plants to grow in tight spaces.
If all this sounds complicated, it isn't. This setup here in Lucerne Valley does not require the regular delivery and drainage of plant nutrients, as in conventional hydroponics. Even the need to monitor the pH (acidity or alkalinity) of the nutrient solution appears unnecessary. Pumping systems and electrical power are a help, but not vital.
For these reasons the Skaife system could operate as readily in the third world or in an urban setting as it does here.
Indeed, a system using this method is now being planned by the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific Inc. for the island of Fiji. Construction should begin in a few months. Another is scheduled for a Chicago rooftop. Commercial ventures are also being licensed in several cities around the United States, including Orange Lake, Fla., and Pittsburgh.
For Bill Skaife, a lawyer and one-time Christmas tree grower, developing his system involved many trials ''and almost as many errors.'' But here in Lucerne Valley it has proved itself.
Gene Calvano, owner of a local market that sells the Honeyacre produce, was initially skeptical. But Mr. Calvano is now one of Skaife's biggest boosters. When freshness, good flavor, and the right price come together in a product, it's unbeatable, he says.
Skaife, who had more than enough doubts of his own over the past decade, understands such initial skepticism. ''It sounds too good to be true,'' he admits, ''but it's not.'' His answer to the skeptic: ''Come and see for yourself.''
During my visit, tomatoes at various stages of development cover the vines, and for the first time I taste commercially grown fruit as good as, or better-flavored than, the tomatoes I grow in my own biologically rich garden soil. Peppers, cantaloupes, cucumbers, peas, beans, chard, even (despite the desert heat) Brussels sprouts, are growing vigorously and often sharing the same bed.
With commercial systems under way, the next step in the Skaife plan is to get the system out to where it will count most - in those economically deprived regions where conventional food production is difficult or where land, soil, and water are in short supply and electrical energy may even be nonexistent.
Skaife talks with crusading zeal about the potential. This method ''could double the world's food supply,'' he says unabashedly. While this may overstate the case, the fact remains: Honeyacre Farm is both highly productive and cost effective (reaping one pound of produce for every cent spent on fertilizer).
Skaife believes his system will make it possible to:
* Decentralize food production. Truck farms could be located on the edge of urban areas, or even in them, given an appropriately sited factory roof.
* Extend the harvest season. Even in northern climates, crops could be harvested (not merely grown) over an eight- to 10-month period.
* Keep production costs low. Crops can be grown in greenhouses, cold frames, or outdoors at costs equal to or less than those of crops grown entirely outdoors.
A key to the system is the method of growing plants in plastic mesh containers placed in conventional drainage pipes (rigid perforated tubes), which are then embedded in a mix of peat and vermiculite. The tubes reach down into the nutrient solution so that the medium in the containers can draw up the needed nutrients.
These containers, unique to the Skaife system, offer two major advantages to the grower: adequate root aeration and portability. The air penetrating the narrow gap between the tube wall and the mesh enables the roots to survive and thrive even in the constant wetness. This is contrary to previously accepted ''laws'' of horticulture, yet Mr. Skaife has been doing it consistently for a decade. Plants with widely differing moisture needs can grow together. A desert cactus, for instance, grows alongside chard here on the farm.
This method makes possible the elimination of the continuous pumping and draining cycles needed for conventional hydroponics. The nutrients are poured into the growing bed at the beginning of the season and, other than for the need to top up the solution periodically, don't require attention until they are drained off at the end of the season.
The mesh containers also give the system remarkable flexibility. Plants can be moved as their growth demands. They suffer no transplant shock, because the mesh forms a complete container for the roots until their final placement in cold frames or outdoor beds. At this stage the roots are free to grow from the mesh through the perforated tube into the surrounding medium.
If the plants were to stay forever in the mesh, the result would be a salt buildup that would be toxic to most plants. But once the roots move into the surrounding medium, the continued salt buildup in the mesh has no effect on the plants.
For more information on the Skaife system, write: Honeyacre, 303 Weisgarber Road, Knoxville, Tenn. 37919.