This last weekend, Christey and I hung out in Epcot for my birthday. Besides eating our way around the world, we rode the "Living with the Land" ride in the Land pavilion. The first part of the tour is an interesting ride through Earth's ecological zones -- rainforests, deserts, through history and so forth. The second half of the ride goes through Disney's greenhouse and experimental farming labs. Many of Disney's restaurants get their vegetables (and some of their fish) from stock grown in the Land pavilion. So, for a foodie, of course, it was really interesting to see what Disney is doing in the way of experimentation.
Florida is sub-tropical, but the greenhouses and controlled environment make it possible to grow exotics not native to Orlando, such as jackfruit and dragonfruit, not to mention the more accessible fruits like papaya and banana.
Other than tropicals, they experiment growing lettuce-type greens in environments that are outside the traditional ecosystems
A lot of the vegetables/fruits were heavily influenced by Disney experimentation, however. If you take a tomato plant, an annual that lives roughly spring through early fall, and almost truss it -- instead of the compact poultry trussing meant to keep the meat compact, the tomato growers tie it up to struts to actually spread out the plant, to increase surface area for both sunlight absorption and CO2 consumption -- they can keep a tomato plant producing for almost two years. And not only tomatoes, but squash and zucchini and pumpkin...which normally grow close to the ground, but are now pulled up and suspended in mid-air, with the fruits tied and supported so they don't rip the whole plant out of the air.
Now, add to that innovation by supporting huge fruit like pumpkin (with zip-ties and netting), and even enclosing these huge fruits in clear containers to mold them into shapes (like, say, Mickey Mouse), and this is really pushing the envelope of farming.
Disney also works with hydroponic techniques -- no dirt, no sand or soil, just rotate plants through nutrient baths, or keep them in a flowing nutrient mixture, and herbs and vegetables like lettuce grow almost in thin air.
Disney also experiments with farming of proteins -- eel, tilapia, and even alligator
Most of this food, they say, makes its way to Disney restaurants. If you have a cucumber salad where the cukes are shaped in a Mickey-head, the cukes probably didn't come from Mexico or Rancho Verde, California.
On the other hand, the Ahi, the mahi mahi, the black angus, and the blue points are not coming from Epcot. This was an amazing peek into the modern surface of farming technology, though, there was only a minimal quick-mention-in-passing of the benefits of gene-manipulating. But I'm wondering how much of this would work in the real world, where even viewing the farm isn't subsidized by a $55.00 ticket into the park. Hand-stretching/trussing of plants, custom lucite vegetable molds, having to hand-tie each individual fruit to a framework so they don't rip apart the mother plant....yes, the plants last longer than the "real world", but there is so much human involvement in each individual plant that I can't imagine the free market would support this in the real culinary world.
To Disney's credit, they aren't pretending this technology is Green or will solve hunger problems in Africa. They're pushing this more in futuristic terms -- the 18-month lifespan of a tomato "tree" would make sense in a "self-sustaining trip to Mars" or "greenhouses in orbit" or "learning techniques now to apply in the future". Hand-teased produce, even with a 300% fruit-bearing lifespan can't compete with a 395-acre semi-automated farm in west Nebraska growing tomatoes for $0.05 a fruit, wholesale. Even if the taste is 3000% more savory.
Still, it was a fun look into what may or may not be the future of plant growing, and what may push the envelope of what anyone might thing of traditional farming, either antique or modern.