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Two Indoor Farm Startups Stand Up to Alaska's Short Growing Season

Food
Two Indoor Farm Startups Stand Up to Alaska's Short Growing Season

How do you turn Alaska's icy tundras into lush, year-round farms? Two forward-thinking startups just might have found the solution: growing indoors.

Alaska Natural Organics and Vertical Harvest Hydroponics are two separate Anchorage-based indoor farm startups standing up to Alaska's short growing seasons by using hydroponics. With this soil- and pesticide-free farming technique, plants are grown in nutrient-rich water under blue and red LED lights that mimic sunlight.

Vertical Harvest Hydroponics repurposes old shipping containers to grow food year-round and provide fresh greens to Alaskans.
Photo credit: Vertical Harvest Hydroponics

Alaska Natural Organics—the state's first commercial vertical farm—is growing fresh greens in tall stacks inside an old dairy warehouse in Anchorage. Meanwhile, Vertical Harvest Hydroponics designs and builds customizable "Containerized Growing Systems," which are self-contained hydroponic farms inside a transportable, 40-foot shipping container.

While their farming approaches are very different, the two companies have similar ambitions. Each fills Alaska's fresh food gap by cutting the distance that food has to travel to Anchorage's plates, all while providing healthy, nutritious food options to residents.

Due to weather constraints on the growing season, Alaska imports approximately 95 percent of its food. Its produce comes from farms in California or Mexico—fruits and vegetables are picked before ripening so it doesn't spoil during its many weeks of transport, The New York Times reported.

Consequently, fresh produce is usually much pricier for Alaskans. “I’ve seen $10 heads of lettuce in stores, so I think the economics of this project will work,” Danny Consenstein, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm service agency in Alaska, told Alaska Dispatch News.

The Vertical Harvest units, which cost around $100,000 each, come with heating systems, shelves and electricity to support LED growing lights, co-founder Linda Janes told Alaska Dispatch News.

In all, the units are capable of producing 1,800 plants at a time in mineral-rich water without soil, Janes said. So far, the company has sold two units in Anchorage.

Alaska Natural Organics has also marked its first deliveries, with roughly 100 basil plants delivered to a handful of Alaskan grocery stores in the first week of December 2015, the Associated Press reported.

According to KTVA Alaska, when operations at Alaska Natural Organics are finally running at full capacity, the 5,000-square-foot organic farm will be able to house 20,000 plants.

Alaska Natural Organics founder and owner Jason Smith told KTVA Alaska that he plans to expand his company into rural areas across the state where fresh vegetables are even harder to come by.

“If I could say, 10 years from now, I played a role in helping to stabilize the food system in Alaska, that’s something I’d be very proud of,” Smith said.

Local grocers, restaurants and food companies have already expressed excitement about the prospects of Smith's year-round greens, according to the Associated Press.

Susie Winford of Alaska Coastal Catering catered two events in November 2015 using small heads of organic lettuce from Smith. They were harvested only an hour before they were delivered and had no dirt to clean off since they were hydroponically grown.

“[The] only complaint we had from a client was that it was too pretty to eat,” Winford said.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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