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More food per foot, more harvests per year

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The idea germinated a decade ago amid the cornfields of Iowa. And now, here on the High Desert of California, in the land of mesquite, sagebrush, and the ubiquitous Joshua tree, it has finally come of age.

It holds out the promise of substantial, inexpensive food production in those areas where normal production is difficult, if not impossible, or where open space is rare.

Just one acre cultivated under this system has the annual productive capacity of almost 30 acres under conventional farming methods.

What William A. Skaife began about 10 years ago in Dubuque, Iowa, as a method for growing houseplants has proliferated here at Honeyacre Farm to turn some old greenhouses into a truck farm. Mr. Skaife's method requires comparatively little energy, not much water, and no exceptional skills from operators - three things that set it apart from other intensive food-producing operations.

Hydroponics, the art of growing plants in soilless situations using a complete nutrient solution, is basic to the system, but two more factors are also crucial: the ability to move mature plants from one bed to another without setback, and a unique system (Skaife calls it ''sat-a-lighting'') of training plants to grow in tight spaces.

If all this sounds complicated, it isn't. This setup here in Lucerne Valley does not require the regular delivery and drainage of plant nutrients, as in conventional hydroponics. Even the need to monitor the pH (acidity or alkalinity) of the nutrient solution appears unnecessary. Pumping systems and electrical power are a help, but not vital.

For these reasons the Skaife system could operate as readily in the third world or in an urban setting as it does here.

Indeed, a system using this method is now being planned by the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific Inc. for the island of Fiji. Construction should begin in a few months. Another is scheduled for a Chicago rooftop. Commercial ventures are also being licensed in several cities around the United States, including Orange Lake, Fla., and Pittsburgh.

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