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Using Hydrothermal to Provide Local Fruit, Vegetables, and Seafood to a Food Desert

Provide locally grown healthy options for food would improve health outcomes, provide steady local employment, and reduce greenhouse gases.

Photo of joan howard
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Southern Hills Economic Development Corporation- SHEDCO

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

South Dakota State University- Agricultural Engineering, Horticulture and Local Foods Initiative Oglala-Lakota College- Indigenous Food Preservation and Propagation Economic Development Initiative, Oglala Sioux Tribe-Development of new economic drivers for the Tribal entities Black Hills Local Foods Consortium- Food Hub and assistance to growers Fall River Farmer's Market- producers and sellers Western Dakota Tech- aquaponics and lighting South Dakota School of Mines and Technology - Food Hub and Federal regulation Area Ranchers- Growers and producers

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Hot Springs, South Dakota

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Southwestern South Dakota.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

This place is the home of SHEDCO which was created to enhance the economic viability of the area. The area covered by this vision is larger than that for which SHEDCO is normally limited, but the need is even greater in nearby counties, so we've spread our service vision to include a wider circle. SW South Dakota is our home and the health and economic issues are evident in our daily lives. We are funded by local residents and by local governments only.

The 2050 goal is  inclusive of all of SW South Dakota which includes two Native American Reservations, the Pine Ridge and Rosbud. Oglala-Lakota College, which has become instrumental in the Indigenous and local foods mission, is active in trying to bring resources to the area reservations to improve quality food availability to these remote, economically disadvantaged areas.

The  educational institutions supporting this project are all invested in the living quality in the area and providing infrastructure to allow graduates to remain in the area.  As new ideas are formulated, the thought leaders are often found in the scholastic environment.  Teaming the learning institutions with the more established organizations is a good mix to push cutting edge ideas with the practicality needed for viable outcomes.

The first stage of this project is revitalizing an old and proven system of utilizing naturally heated water from below the earth’s surface to provide a usable source of heat to operate a greenhouse system.  Previously, the project site in Igloo, SD was the old community pool that used geothermally heated water as a resource.  Although much of the original infrastructure is somewhat aged, a site analysis determined much of the infrastructure was still viable for this effort.  Igloo is an abandoned town (of which there are many in Western SD) that  originally served  a munition’s depot in WWII. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Southwestern South Dakota has a mix of moderate to high income combined with the poorest counties in the US. While the Black Hills have a striking beauty which attracts tourists from around the world, it also includes ranchlands which can be a fickle way to produce a living and Indian reservations which struggle to maintain basic services. It is the home of such icons as Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse, two of the largest statues in the world, minerals such as gold, which started the settlement by those other than Native Americans,  uranium, and a “Wild West” independent spirit which has never faded. There are rodeos, Pow Wows, biker rallies, car shows, cattle shows, buffalo roundups, and a host of events which continue that Western tradition. It has a relatively short recorded history. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that anyone other than the native population of a variety of tribes, a few explorers, and some game trappers, became aware of the area and its bounty. All the land in the area was reserved by the Treaty of Laramie  for the native population for all eternity. Of course, once gold was discovered,  those promises were not honored, and people poured in to make their fortunes, relegating the Native population to large, but much more limited areas. Railroads were soon built to the area and the population boomed. Many towns were built but many did not last long. A few larger cities are growing but many of the smaller towns are still losing population and facilities get farther and farther apart. The climate has a very clear four seasons. The winters can be cold, sometimes bitterly cold, while summers can be very hot. It has a short growing season and many non- commodity crops cannot be grown in this climate or on this type of soil. Therefore, despite the area being mostly agricultural ( commodity production), it is also a food desert. Although wild game, cattle, and buffalo, and other meats are plentiful and the area is rich in grains such as corn and wheat, it is extremely limited on fresh fruits and vegetables. Those arriving by truck are therefore expensive and need be picked well before ripened – lessening both their flavor and nutrition levels. The problems with obesity and poor nutrition combine to make health outcomes worse – leading to lifespans much shorter than the national average.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The economy of Western South Dakota has been driven by agriculture since it became a territory.  However, because of the terrain, rainfall, quality of the soil, and climate, there is little variation in what is grown.  Much of the land is dedicated to ranching, raising cattle, while the rest that is arable is dedicated to a few limited crops – mostly for feeding cattle. 

As a result, many residents have a “meat and wheat” type of diet, leading to the negative health outcomes such as diabetes (about 50% of adults over 40 in Oglala-Lakota County have Type 2 diabetes).  The average life expectancy in the county is 66.81 years, the lowest of any county in the nation. The demand for locally grown food and the need to decrease processed starches and red meat, have  been difficult to address in this type of environment.  Six counties in the region have obesity rates greater than 1/3 of the adult population and not a single county has rates less than 25%. On the food environmental index, three counties rate 2 or lower.

There are few grocery stores with limited healthy options.  Many use commodity rations from the US Government to supplement their diets. Commodity products are manufactured based overproduction of certain food items, such as flour, rice and processed cheese product, created for shelf stability and distributed on the reservations.

There is no doubt that this food desert is a health hazard to many in the region, revealing itself the worst in those at the lower end of the economic scale.  The poor food variety coupled with limited access to healthcare combine to keep the health outcome low for much of the area.

Most land in the region is owned by individual ranchers, the federal government (national forests, national grasslands, and national parks) or tribes.  All three of these pose issues with changing the food cycle in the area.  In general, federal lands are off limits to agricultural use other than grazing.  The ranchers have a stockgrowers mentality and have made a decent living off the cattle production for generations.  The tribes are challenged by a host of organizational and capital problems and lease much of their land to ranchers.  Each of these present a different challenge in migrating to a new paradigm for growing food.

In order to use federal land, policies would have to be changed.  This would require approval at a Congressional level.  For the tribes, there is often grant money available if an idea can be shown to likely produce good outcomes.  Our vision would lead to improved health, as well as provide a source of local jobs and income, and create a viable model for reservations to move in a “grow local” direction.

Ranchers, like most entrepreneurs, are reticent to invest in new ideas or technology unless they can see a high probability in return on investment.  We much first show viability with a working model before hoping to have any type of widespread success.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our near term vision will provide proof of viability for the long term solution: to grow healthy food locally in a cost effective manner that is affordable to low income consumers. It will take time to develop a change in diet for groups with little to no access. This can partially be overcome by having foods produced locally and accessible at an affordable cost to the consumer. There will need to be a concerted effort  convince entrepeneurs to develop the supply chain to serve our socio-economically disadvantaged populations, which are significant. We can achieve this by significantly reducing production side costs via  energy costs and growing costs delivery costs.  Studies show that given the opportunity to purchase healthy foods, low income populations will opt for those foods if they are accessible and affordable. Providing healthy foods for purchase at local food outlets, farmer's markets and other community gathering places will help. 

Having a larger presence in public places such as schools, hospitals, senior centers, and other gathering points which serve the public food needs, could create a "new normal" with exposure and availability. Fortunately, many governmental policies are already in place to encourage both locally grown purchase of food and healthy options. As we move forward and certain food products become self-sustaining in the region, then we can work with the public entities to evolve the diets within their tight budget constraints to provide the home grown alternatives.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Once food is grown locally at low cost and close to the consumers, there are far ranging benefits:  1. The area will no longer be purchasing much of its food from distant places, reducing transportation costs and environmental impacts, 2.  Quality, healthy, fresh foods can be available year-round at affordable costs, 3. More jobs will be created in the growing and distribution of foods within the area, 4. Health outcomes will improve with the availability of low-cost fresh healthy food, and 5. The many organizations who currently are mandated to buy local foods if available (hospitals, federal agencies, e.g.) will be able to do so.

Of the various improvements, improved health with lower obesity rates, diabetes, and malnutrition, would be of the highest merit.  While it cannot be proven that access to low cost healthy fresh foods would cure any of the health problems endemic to the area, it has been shown in many studies that increased access increases wise choices. Especially on the reservations, schools could provide fresh vegetables, fruit, and seafood within budget and grown on their own land.  This would provide health benefits for not only the children but a change to what is considered a “normal” diet.  A taste for fresh, healthy foods would have generational impacts.

 As important, the the growing and selling of low-cost fresh food  could be replicated across the region, decreasing health disparities between living on and off the reservation.  Commerce often bridges gaps in ways that social engineering, for all its efforts, cannot.  If there were food equity and more consistent health outcomes, divisiveness in other areas could also be reduced.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision is to have hydrothermal greenhouses of a variety of sizes across the region supplying fresh fruit and vegetables year-round in Western South Dakota.  Additionally, seafood can also be grown in vats using the warm water from the environment and offal for food.

In general, the costs of greenhouse production are 1/3 lighting, 1/3 heating, and 1/3 labor. Recent advancements  in LED lighting technology have a huge impact for the greenhouse industry at our latitude where darkness exceeds 12 hours during shortest days of winter. Power costs to producers are greatly reduced using LED photo-spectrum lighting, such that it is no longer cost prohibitive to use artificial light and grow around the clock.  Moreover, LED lighting can be “tuned" or optimized for each crop.   With lighting costs reduced, the big challenge in northern climes is the heating.  Using naturally occurring hot water drives that cost to a  negligible amount, once the infrastructure is in place.

We have been working on this aspect vision for a couple of years and combined the sources of a variety of groups. Our goal is enabled by the naturally hot aquifers in the area.  These vary in temperature. See link to the Fall River Hydrothermal Map but in most places, the water is warm enough to provide growing temperatures within a structure.  The temperature ranges for green house growing conditions range from 60F for non-flowering plants to 80F for fruiting plants. Water temperatures in our region range from 50F to 140F.

A consortium of the Horticulture School at South Dakota State University, the Western South Dakota Tech, Southern Hills Economic Development Corporation, and a local rancher have pooled knowledge and efforts to identify a location, create a design, install the lighting, and plan for the first food types (tomatoes and lettuce). 

The site selected has a well with water in the 138 F range.  The water is not potable when it leaves the ground, so the first challenges was to provide a design to burn off the heavy salts and filter out particulate matter.  Once the water is no longer has cycled through the heating system, it will go to a cattle trough for livestock. This design is based on that used for older water heaters, but has been modified for use here. 

The layout of the greenhouse with the underground piping for even heat distribution is complete.  Trials show that, even on the coldest nights (well below 0F) the greenhouse will be kept warm.  The filter will need little maintenance, just a change of the mesh every couple months or so during max usage.    

 Our project site was once a thriving community with social and economic systems in place. All that remains are the bones of abandoned homes, churches and schools.  For those who have chosen to stay present in communities like this, the resources and technology needed to produce better and more nutritious food are not readily available. The emotional attachment to food and earth has waned.  Through projects like this, communities can begin to learn, grow and thrive based on one common denominator we all share – the need for healthy food.

This design would need adjustment for each site as the water temperature and water quality vary.  Our design is simple, with low energy requirements.  There is  potential for replication  around the region and around the world with warm water  is reasonably warm and the water quality measured.

The capital outlay for start up is not significant.  The land footprint is small in a region where land prices are low.  In the region, there are many existing wells not in use, eliminating one of the infrastructure costs. The remaining significant cost is for the built out of the structure.  Using simple piping under a gravel bed provides the heating infrastructure. The greenhouse  is a purchased commodity – no special design is needed.  All these factors work together so that the initial outlay by the producer can be kept to a minimum.  Team members have worked to develop a model that is economically viable for private sector entrepreneurs as well as local groups and tribal entities. 

Similarly, using the filtered warm water to grow shrimp or other seafood is a straightforward offshoot.  The filtered water would be used to fill vats in which they can be grown.  Since offal is currently a discarded by-product of the local meat industry, a steady food supply is low cost.  Currently,  seafood in the region is limited to frozen product with slog travel distances to the point of sale. If seafood could be produced as cheaply as beef, it would provide a leaner healthier source of protein for the local diet.

This vision will have either an impact on or is dependent on each of the six themes suggested by the Food Vision. The two main drivers for the vision are diet and economics.  Changing this region from a food desert to a food hub would be transformative for the area.  Improving the diet of the average person with available, low-cost vegetables and fruits is a major goal.  Additionally, in this heavy tourist area, providing restaurants with locally grown foods will improve menu options and  make the area even more of a destination. 

If the vision is realized, so many of the foods currently being shipped in by truck over long distances will be grown close to the consumers.  Western South Dakota is far from the states which produce the majority of fresh foods in the West such as California, Arizona, or Washington.  It is no small impact to transport these goods such far distances – often in refrigerated or heated trucks.  

Heating with naturally occurring hot water has negligible environmental impact. The greenhouses, will combine other sources of renewable energy based on location (solar or wind), to lower consumption and costs.  Additionally, the water, once cleaned, can be used for other needs in this often parched region.  Since the water is used only for heating, the amount will vary throughout the year with no usage during the summer months.

If several ranches and tribes transitioned to this model, the cash flow out of this region of poverty would be slowed.  Dollars spent on fresh food would remain in the area and jobs created: building and maintaining greenhouses, planting and harvesting crops, and transporting them to local restaurants or groceries. It would provide year-round employment in an area where much of the non-skilled workforce work only seasonally.

The food culture currently in the area is seasonal and focused on large volume.  Ranchers raise thousands of head of cattle a year.  Feedlots process these thousands of head and buy grain in massive amounts.  It is difficult to “buy in” to this type of industry with ranches selling for a minimum of several hundreds of thousands of dollars even before purchasing a single head of livestock. While ranches will most likely be the beta testers of the hydrothermal greenhouses, since they have access to the land and water, it could transform certain high potential areas from mass production to small clusters of food oases. Since little acreage is needed and start-up costs are minimal, the food culture could be completely transformed.

It would also be a method which is more closely aligned to the more communal nature of industry which the area tribes are more closely attuned.  Having the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations involved in this type of industry could be truly transformative to their economics and diet.  They could also become an exporter of food to the region as opposed to commodity consumers.

One of the advantages of this vision is that it is low tech.  The truly transformative technology, LED lighting, is well established.  Also, solar panels or wind generators for providing electricity are now commercial items.  The few unique items: structure, piping, and water purification, require some design and study, but do not require a research project for each installation.  With small changes, the basic design can be replicated over and over. 

To our knowledge, no project of this sort has been successfully constructed and made operational on a large scale in the United States.  The heating and water purification infrastructure is designed to repurpose an existing well in a nearly abandoned area of our region.  In doing do, the project seeks to utilize a currently underused natural resource in effort to reduce overall utility inputs while producing and delivering edible food all year around, to a highly food insecure area.

The national trend of decreasing land to feed more people will continue to rise for the next 30 years.  With that, the availability of fresh, nutritious food will be harder to come by, especially in very rural areas of our country.  It is our challenge today, to investigate new ways of creating better food systems through sustainable and less expensive means.  Part of this mission means looking at some of the most economically undeserved areas in our country (southwestern South Dakota) and reducing the extent of food deserts through local production and access.  There will be high costs in developing infrastructures that consume natural resources for energy as well as costs associated with educating persons in these areas of their use.

The need to feed our population will increase for the foreseeable future as the amount of arable land continues to decline.   Our vision and design have been developed on a place-based model that addresses renewable resources and the demand for efficient, localized methods of producing nutritious food. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • someone who attended conference


Join the conversation:

Photo of Dr. Kelly Gehlhoff

Finally someone connects geothermal design with year round production capability! This is a vision my father shared with me many years ago but I only knew it in theory. Best of luck to you moving forward with this strategy! I would love to learn more about your work...

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