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Berry Farm In a Blimp

Audio

Aired 6/22/11

A San Diego farmer invents a new way to grow "uber-organic" strawberries.

— If you’re like most Americans, you’ll eat about seven pounds of strawberries this year. One San Diego farmer hopes the strawberries you eat will be his, because of the new way he grows them, because he's trying to make his operation financially viable ... and because they taste good.

Chocolate Dip and Organic strawberries prepared by Chef Bernard Guillas, Marine Room. La Jolla
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Above: Chocolate Dip and Organic strawberries prepared by Chef Bernard Guillas, Marine Room. La Jolla

The University of California patented the strawberry variety, called “Seascape.” They are the only strawberries used by executive chef Bernard Guillas at the Marine Room restaurant in La Jolla Shores.

The chef's strawberries come from a unique organic greenhouse in Oceanside called Airstream Innovations.

Airstream Innovations greenhouse, Oceanside.
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Above: Airstream Innovations greenhouse, Oceanside.

The 300-foot greenhouse looks like a plastic cocoon, but it’s actually a low-speed wind tunnel. The doors are just slits in the plastic. Inside, a 3-mph breeze holds up the frameless structure—which makes it sort of a grounded berry farm inside a blimp.

David Chelf, president of Airstream Innovations, designed the patent-pending wind system in 2005.

“It all begins with the intake tower. The tower captures the wind,” explained Chelf.

Two giant fans suspended in the greenhouse tower keep the breeze constant. The fans also create enough pressure to perpetually inflate the greenhouse.

The air-blown berries are better than most, claims Chelf, because the wind improves the plants photosynthesis, making the fruit more flavorful and nutrient rich.

“The benefit is the constant air flow from one end to the other. The benefit to the plant is that it ultimately has more water, more nutrients, more carbon oxide to the leaf and more photosynthesis for flowers and berries,” said Chelf.

A layer of bubble wrap protects the soil from water evaporation, which reduces the amount of water these plants use by a third, said Chelf.

He also said the air pressure is a mechanical barrier to bugs because it forces intruders into a thick insect net inside the greenhouse.

If a bug makes it through, Chelf said, no pesticides, not even natural ones, are used.

“I’ve used my physics background to provide an environment where we don’t need any of those. Instead I use ladybugs and other predator bugs,” Chelf said.

Strawberries are San Diego’s fourth largest CASH crop—and part of California’s $2 billion strawberry industry.

Eric Larson, director of the San Diego Farm Bureau, said Chelf’s new approach to strawberry farming hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“He has a very interesting technique, using a lot of mechanical processes to make sure no diseases or pests are where his crops are,” said Larson.

He also said the technique could be profitable, but only if its "cost effective".

“In San Diego, you can grow strawberries very successfully outdoors. If you want to take those strawberries indoors and use that kind of technology, it's just a matter of whether the results or the profit margin justifies the investment in the technology,” Larson said.

Airstream Innovation president David Chelf said he saves money on water, electricity and by not using pesticides.

“I know from my numbers now that it's cost effective,” said Chelf.

The Marine Room’s executive Chef Bernard Guillas agreed. His advice for great-tasting food is to buy organic from one of the dozens of farmer's markets in San Diego County.

As Guillas put the final touch on a towering ruby red strawberry dessert, it was clear the chef and farmer Chelf share a berry passion.

“I love what I do, he loves what he does, and we love to share our passion of great food.”

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