the cover of "What's Bred in the Bone."
What’s Bred in the Bone
Cover art © 2019 by Jody A. Lee

Rana Station‘s agriculture is a big part of my vision for the primary backdrop of my characters’ lives. If you’ve read my first novel, What’s Bred in the Bone, you’ve possibly gotten an inkling that very little arable soil inside the tori of my characters’ habitat space station home lies fallow. Even small spaces are nearly all devoted to growing food.

I’ve blogged in the past about how humans will feed themselves and provide enough protein to live permanently in space. I’ve long been an interested follower of efforts to grow food crops on the International Space Station,as well as intensive gardening efforts here on earth.

Gardening sisters

Last week, my sister G. S. Norwood wrote on The Weird Blog about the joy, beauty, and health benefits of her gardening projects. Having grown up under the same influences, I’ve long been a gardener, too.

But while G. specializes in flowers, I’ve always been more of a fruits and veggies woman, myself. Having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s, I was always half-convinced I’d better hone my skills at organic gardening, in case I survived the coming nuclear armageddon, and needed to feed myself and others afterwards (unlike a prepper, I figured learning how to can the food I grow would feed me longer than squirreling away canned foods like Spam and beans).

Jan, in her garden in 1974, with her new bike and her sister's Irish setter.
I’d worked most of the summer of 1974 to buy that bicycle. I posed for it (with G.’s dog Finnian) in my garden. (photo probably taken by G. or our mother, to send to my then-boyfriend, now-husband, who was working in Colorado).

Eventually, worries about nuclear Armageddon receded as a real possibility in my maturing brain. But I still followed organic gardening methods. They appealed to my evolving environmentally-friendly consciousness.

More recently, in a concession to knee injuries, I’ve taken up container gardening. This has led to some interesting experiences–and inspired more ideas to use for Rana Station’s agriculture.

Lettuce and marigolds grow in Jan's cedar planter-box in 2019.
New in 2019: I added a cedar planter to my patio container garden, seen here dominated by lettuce and marigolds. (photo by Jan S. Gephardt)

My thought-experiment world

These influences all combined in my world-building efforts on Rana Station. Years of watching how our world and its societies work, years of teaching, and years of gardening have given me some strong opinions. How better (or more sfnal!) to explore their possibilities and shortfalls than to test them out in a “thought-experiment” world?

In my concept, Rana Station’s agriculture is not only necessary for their own consumption. It’s also a key export that is vital to their economy. A problem every space-based habitat faces is how to feed its inhabitants. The more I looked at the possibilities, the clearer it became to me that the early NASA developers were not gardeners or farmers.

"Torus agriculture," as envisioned by NASA engineers in the 1970s.
A year or so after my garden photo with Finnian and the bike, this was NASA’s idea of farming on a space colony. Note the stark division between agricultural and residential areas. (detail of uncredited NASA photo found on Socks Studio.)

What if a gardener from farm country did take a whack at figuring out how to feed the 8.4 million humans and 2.4 million ozzirikkians I wanted on Rana? What would such an effort take?

Thinking outside of strict divisions

First, I eliminated the to-me-strange division between “agricultural” and “residential” areas that seemed endemic in many of the space colony concepts (Designed by men who never got food anywhere but a grocery store?). 

Intensive plantings make the most of a small space, including a "salad wall" vertical garden.
“Salad wall” and raised bed give good examples of food grown intensively in a small amount of space. (Photo courtesy of QuickCrop).

Why not grow “veggie walls” in commercial buildings? Why not cultivate vine crops that hang from baskets or planter boxes on the residence towers’ balconies?

Then I conceived my living area not as a broad, relatively flat plain, but more like the agricultural terraces of YemenAsia, and the Incas. I envisioned a convex/concave profile of the Ranan hillsides would maximize arable surface area

Rice terraces create flat areas in hilly places, for rice paddies.
Rice terraces of Longsheng (Longji) in China (Photo by Anna Frodesiak – Own work, Public Domain)

This also creates an endless, undulating river valley that accommodates natural patterns of water flow. Yes, they still have to dredge parts of it occasionally. But they’ll have prepared for it.

Rana Station’s agriculture and its economy

In my universe, Rana Stationers have made a name for themselves as an interstellar farmers market of the first order. Not being required to haul their fresh produce up from a planetary gravity wellthey have a pricing and freshness advantage to offer the interstellar transports that stop over at the station to restock between transits through the local jump point.

Root crops, leaf crops, and squash at a farmer's market.
Fresh produce from the Fresh and Local Farmers Market, near Arizona State University (photo courtesy of Facebook/Fresh and Local at ASU, via Phoenix New Times)

I think it’s likely space environments will be dominated by utilitarian freeze-dried, frozen, and reconstituted foods in the form of microgravity-friendly ration bars, packets, or bulbs. In light of that, what sybaritic joy might fresh produce offerI can imagine captains who plot their course through the Chayko System’s jump point specifically to access the fruits of Rana Station’s agriculture.

ISS Space food, on a tray.
Taken in the Food Tasting lab in building 17: Bags of International Space Station food and utensils on tray, 2003. (Photo courtesy of NASA, via Wikimedia Commons).

Visions to come

I’m currently working with illustrators, and also on my own artwork, to come up with better ways to envision the station. I plan to share those efforts in future blog posts, and once I get my newsletter off the ground, they’ll also show up there on occasion. I hope you’ll join my explorations.


What’s Bred in the Bone cover art © 2019 by Jody A. Lee. The 1974 photo of me was probably taken by G. or our mother, to show off the bike to my then-boyfriend, now-husband. I took the photo of my most recent container-gardening addition. 

Many thanks to Socks Studio for the uncredited NASA photo of agriculture on a space colony. I appreciate QuickCrop, for the intensive planting photo, and Anna Frodesiak – Own work, Public Domain for the rice terraces photo. Thank you, to the Phoenix New Times for the farmers market photo, and to NASA and Wikimedia Commons for the ISS food photo. The featured image shows NASA’s Veggie Project on the ISS. I appreciate you all!