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Future of tomatoes in CA drought: hydroponic farming?

When Scott Beylik's grandfather started the now four-acre Beylik Family Farms in Fillmore in the 1970s, it was a radical idea to grow tomatoes indoors without soil. Back then, they were pioneers of what has since become a growing trend in the agriculture industry: hydroponic farming.

Since Beylik mostly grows tomatoes, it made more sense to grow them in a place where they'd thrive year-round. In the fall, when his outdoor competitors sell the last of their summer tomato crop, Beylik keeps making money.

As the drought drags on, the future of water-loving crops like tomatoes hangs in the balance. And as water in drought-ridden California gets more scarce and more expensive, that option isn't just good news for the planet - hydroponics seems more affordable for some farmers than ever. But the cost of growing a tomato is more complicated than it seems.

About a third of fresh tomatoes in the U.S. are grown hydroponically. But that doesn't account for the bulk of the tomatoes grown nationwide. And hydroponic technology isn't catching on at all in that sector. That's because the cost of water - used sparingly with hydroponics - pales in comparison to the cost of labor - which hydroponics relies on heavily to function.

Companies that provide processing tomatoes have machines that can pick for them outside - so they have lower labor costs. Moving the tomatoes inside and using hydroponics would require paying people to pick them. And people are more expensive than machines.

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