A supermarket with produce growing in the store

THE REAL DIRT

November 16, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

There are six supermarkets in our community; seven, if you count the one in my own back yard.

Guess which is my favorite.

I enjoy shopping for groceries in the garden. It saves on gas, and the checkout lines are usually pretty short. I seldom have to wait behind more than a rabbit or two.

I shop not to the sounds of elevator music, but to the pleasant strains of songbirds. Mine is a kinder, gentler marketplace. There is no fumbling with coupons, and I never take my checkbook.

There are no dress codes in my garden. Other supermarkets won't let you shop in your underwear. I wouldn't walk barefoot in any of them, but I'll do so in mine.

There are other advantages to gathering one's groceries in the ++ back yard. The garden is open 24 hours a day. Prices never rise. Did I mention the produce? The vegetables and fruits are fresh and free of chemicals. I can nibble as I go along, without fear that the manager is watching me. It's only an old crow sitting on the telephone pole.

In short, I cannot imagine a better place to shop for food than my garden. But Fiesta Mart comes close.

Fiesta Mart, a supermarket in Houston, last year began growing its own produce under its own roof. Salad greens, herbs and other vegetables thrive under artificial lights on a quarter-acre site adjacent to the store's retail produce department. Grocery shoppers can view the "indoor farm," a seven-tiered, high-tech hothouse, through an 80-by-40-foot glass window.

This is what they see:

* Six types of lettuce and 20 different herbs that are harvested daily;

* Cucumber plants growing at a rate of 2 inches a day;

* Strawberries the size of silver dollars;

* Five hundred tomato plants, some bearing fruit weighing 1 pound apiece.

Now in its second year, the garden has been a big success. Though it supplies only 5 percent of the store's produce, customers flock to the supermarket to buy fresh-picked vegetables and be photographed in front of this country's first in-store farm. Or is it an in-farm store?

"Some people put their whole families in front of the window and film them with a camcorder," says horticulturist Rene Garcia, manager of Fiesta's facility. Some shoppers ask if they can pick the crops themselves. Alas, they cannot.

Visitors stream in from the Soviet Union, Japan and Saudi Arabia, to study the system and build one back home. Lettuce can be harvested 16 days after germination. Tomato production tops 1,000 pounds a week.

All of the plants, from spinach to green peppers, are grown hydroponically, without soil. Six-foot tomato plants, supported by nylon strings, are fed by 6-inch roots swimming in water troughs that are rich in nutrients.

Garcia practices organic techniques and introduces predatory insects such as ladybugs, praying mantises and trichogramma wasps to control the occasional moths and caterpillars that manage to slip into the building.

Customers love the clean greens, sometimes eating a whole bag of them before reaching the checkout counter.

Such farm stores are the look of the future, Mr. Garcia predicts, "as customers become more health-conscious and demand better products."

The Houston garden will continue to grow, he says, adding edible flowers like nasturtiums, violas and borage blossoms, and possibly papayas and bananas.

"The system doesn't limit you," Mr. Garcia says. "You only limit yourself."

Fiesta Mart will also start composting its own plant garbage, mostly root stems, in 41 large 55-gallon drums that have been set up on the roof of the store. The finished compost will be added to the potted foliage plants that are sold in the supermarket.

C7 "We don't want to waste anything," Mr. Garcia says.

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