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Letter from the Chairman by John May



We all know food is important but what we choose to eat is what points to our health and well-being. Farmers markets have long been popular, more so now with movements to "buy local" and "farm to fork." Between 2008 and 2014, there was huge growth in buying local food - $5B to $12B - and still growing (pardon the pun).

Millennials are the latest generation to pay extra for not wanting to consume pesticides, fertilizer and sometimes even unwanted bacteria. They want good food that tastes good and is safe. I include myself in that mindset, along with many of my cohorts, the Boomers. Now comes the future where supply and safety shine a light on local food, grown in dirt or hydroponically.

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I must disclose that I am currently involved in a hydroponics venture in Virginia, so food locally sourced is front of mind to me. Last year, I was taken to a restaurant in Richmond that served locally grown produce. I could not believe the difference in taste and texture. You can taste the difference between local food and food that has been refrigerated and shipped 3000 miles across the U.S. (we get 95 percent of our leafy greens from California, Arizona, and Mexico).

Eating has a huge impact on our lives. And If good healthy food tastes good, then it becomes a habit. If it becomes a habit, then we will be healthier and feel better.

To the Table


Traditional farms need lots of land; that is why the densely populated east coast is supplied by farms on the west coast with food delivered to us after five to eight days on a truck. Virginia farms are not part of the farm to table market because they grow food stock for cows and chickens - and ethanol. Small farms are good for the local economy, but they can only produce so much in a response to a rising market for fresh food.


Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947) defined the concepts behind organic agriculture. While working in India, he discovered the importance of composting to supplement the soil. He said that "the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible." The plants are free of pesticides and fertilizers but, as above, emphasizing soil these days requires acreage.


Hydroponics grows food directly in water containing nutrients; no soil. The plant gets everything it needs from the water. What the plants do not get is human touch, the product is a clean and safe as it can be. Hydroponics, per acre, produces 500,000 pounds compared to 23,000 pounds with soil based growing.

Is it organic or is it not?

Organic is about soil health. Organic farmers believe that hydroponics is a betrayal of true organic principles: no pesticides, no soil contaminants. Yet 70 percent of the produce grown in Europe is in hydroponic facilities delivering the promise of "organic". Virtually all certified organic tomatoes and several varieties of lettuce in supermarkets are grown hydroponically now.

Organic vs. not organic (as in hydroponics) is conflated when the argument rests on no pesticides and no fertilizer; the differences become lost. The issue is really around who can use the organic label, not what is in the package.

How We Decide

Fields - we can't justify them anymore. Maintaining a traditional farm is getting difficult, regardless of size. Farming takes a lot of water and water has become a scarce resource. In California and Arizona, the aquifers, reservoirs and rivers do not contain the volumes of water as in the past and water is being rationed. Consider that to produce just one lettuce head in soil, organic or not, takes 105 gallons of water vs. 5 gallons hydroponically. Sustainable use of water is not possible in field grown crops and the impact of climate change is making things worse.

Reinventing the Food Chain

Use of technology is a game changer. Many industries, like retail, finance, transportation have been reinvented by technology and the internet. Farming will be next.

Software and hardware engineers schooled in data science and big data are aiming their attention at agriculture. A stable, consistent output puts trusted supply chains and just-in-time inventories in play. Order on day 1, plant on day 2, harvest on day 26, deliver to the store day 27. Repeat all year.

What we can expect

Think of that 365-day growing season and its predictable, stable, and risk-free environment, fully connected to all stakeholders including the consumer. No risk of drought, withering heat, or cold snaps. A streamlined process used by distributors, growers, and retailers. Seasonal limitations are eliminated - think of a fresh strawberry in the middle of the winter. The consumer confidence from safe transaction "chains" that trace product from the exact growing location at the grower site to the table. And on the table is delicious, healthy food, fresh locally.

Here's to your health!

Along with a career in innovative technology, John was a Trustee in the Johns Hopkins Health System for 15 years and earned a master's degree in Computer Science from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. This combination of experience and education allows a broad perspective on healthcare, software and how the transfer of software platforms between industries have had a transformational impact. He believes the healthcare industry can, and should, be next.

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