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More food per foot, more harvests per year

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.