Tom Mee sells fog -- the real pea-soup, trench-coat stuff

THE dense cloud bank over a central California almond grove, the mist shrouding a cherry orchard in Czechoslovakia -- even the fog that provides the aerial canvas for EPCOT Center's laser show at Disney World -- all came from the same place. From Tom Mee, who sells fog.

Dr. Mee, a Sunbelt entrepreneur and cloud physicist formerly from Cornell University, has patented machines to spew forth one of nature's most pleasant, moderating phenomena.

Not a wet mist that settles to the ground like a light drizzle, but real, floating, pea-soup, trench-coat fog.

Mee's fog is so far used mostly inside greenhouses, where it cools and moistens the air. With some 800 installations in Europe, and about a quarter of that number in the United States, his sales charts indicate that fog is just beginning to catch hold in this country.

Mee originally conceived his fog for freeze protection of crops, both indoors and out.

During Florida's severe cold snap in late January, some greenhouse nurseries that had been using fog to improve growing efficiency and cut losses from too-wet misting started saving plants from the cold with fog.

At Margo Farms, in southern Florida, a Mee fog machine was installed Jan. 20 in a one-acre greenhouse containing ficus cuttings for propagation, a tender stage in which plant losses are high.

The freeze hit during the next few days. The greenhouse with fog stayed 10 degrees warmer than those without it, and no plants were damaged there. Herb Pierson, Margo Farms vice-president and chief grower, estimates that up to 75 percent of the cuttings might have been lost without fog.

The fog machine has very nearly paid for itself already, Mr. Pierson says. And cuttings are already growing faster and healthier in the fogged greenhouse.

Other greenhouses have had similar experiences. The same principle, Mee says, can work for orchards and row crops growing outside. Mee's fog is already providing protection from cold for a French vineyard, Czech cherries, Greek citrus, and California almonds.

The potential impact of his fog in Florida is tremendous, Mee asserts. One million acres of citrus there have been reduced to 750,000 because of freezes during the last four years. Whole orchards are being uprooted in central Florida and moved south for more warmth, he says.

Yet farmers have long observed that a foggy night will save their crops from a freeze.

Mee knew this, too, as a cloud physicist, when he left Cornell to start a company in 1969 for designing and making cloud-sensing devices. This market, he says, is ``such a tiny, esoteric group of scientists around the world'' that Mee Industries quickly saturated it.

Mee also knew that the smudge pots citrus growers use to create smoke clouds on freezing nights don't work. They create some heat, but smoke won't contain the heat radiating from the plants the way fog will. Mee decided to make fog.

His concept was simple: Shoot water under extreme pressure out of holes the size of a human hair, past a sharp pinpoint that further atomizes the spray. The result is water in droplets as small as one-tenth of the diameter of a human hair: fog, the stuff of clouds.

Perfecting the filters, pumps, and nozzles took years. Mee lent himself out on government research contracts to pay for the development costs. Now, on a hot, dry day in southern California, Mee can flip a switch and produce an impenetrable London fog in minutes.

It's cool and pleasant. Unlike mist, fog does not settle on things and get them wet. It keeps floral cuttings in 100 percent humidity without damaging root systems with too much water. Unlike shade, it cools through evaporation, without blocking any of the sunlight plants need.

To fog an acre of greenhouse space takes about a 5-horsepower pump, according to Merle Jensen, a plant scientist at the University of Arizona. To cool and humidify the same space with a traditional swamp cooler and fans takes roughly 10 times the horsepower. It takes two to five gallons of water a minute to fog an acre.

Mee sees his fog as an ideal outdoor air conditioner in arid Southwestern backyards as well. Dr. Jensen says the university's outdoor system can cool the air over one-tenth of an acre from 105 degrees to less than 75 degrees. The fog hovers overhead like a cloud.

Wind can be a problem, Jensen says. The university may construct wind barriers around its test plot to hold the fog in.

Mee has still more ideas for the uses of his man-made clouds. They could be seeded to make snow -- the powdery kind -- much more efficiently than current snowmaking machines, he says. Clouds could be made with brackish water, which is otherwise useless, to make desert farming more water-efficient. Fog can actually carry dissolved nutrients for growing plants aeroponically, suspended in the air, with their clean roots dangling in the fog.

He has other ideas, but he may not need them yet. Mee Industries sales have doubled each year for three years running. The company took in $1.9 million last year, and the pace looks much faster this year.

Mee just hired his first full-time sales professional in January.

He still meets some skepticism from growers when he tries to sell them fog. ``I didn't begin to conceive the money and effort it would take to perfect the product,'' he says. ``It takes even more to go out and market the product.''

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