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US: With water in the West scarce, some tomato farmers look to hydroponics

On Scott Beylik’s 4-acre farm about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, rows of tomato vines climb wires strung from the beams of his greenhouses. There’s no soil, so the roots are submerged in little bags with water. Every drop of water he uses goes directly to the plant.

As the drought in the West drags on, the future of water-loving crops like tomatoes hangs in the balance. “We’re pretty precise. Our drippers are pressure-compensated, and they’re literally putting out half a gallon per hour,” Beylik said. 

When his grandfather started the farm in the 1970s, growing tomatoes inside greenhouses was a pretty radical idea. Now, about a third of domestic fresh tomatoes are grown this way. “Because the labor and the capital of a greenhouse, for example, is so much more than the water cost is,” said agricultural economist Dan Sumner at the University of California, Davis.

Processing tomatoes can be picked by machines, and that holds down labor costs. Moving the tomatoes inside and using hydroponics requires people to pick them.

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