If you could use 90% less water, have 25% faster growth, and end the unpredictability of weather would you consider hydroponic farming?
Do You Have The Expertise To Farm Hydroponically?
A friend of mine has a year-round tomato/lettuce/herb Hydroponic farm. The whole family works the farm, and the rest of their acreage is soil-based and dependent on the seasons. But with the Hydroponic component they are able to supply local restaurants with fresh produce all year. They have a wider variety of produce in the summer months but they supply high end greens, fresh herbs, and vine ripened tomatoes in the middle of winter. The relationships they’ve created with customers creates loyalty for other crops the rest of the year. It’s both productive use of their acreage and good farm marketing. Does Hydroponic farming make sense to you?
What Is Hydroponic Farming?
Hydroponics is farming without soil. Plants grow in an inert media that is constantly supplied with nutrients, oxygen, and water. There are numerous growing media including expanded clay pellets, peat coir, perlite, vermiculite, coco coir, and wood fiber. These media are approved by OMRI, and offer your plants’ roots something to hold onto as the nutrient filled water moves across or over them. Rock wool is another commonly used inert media, but it is not approved for organic use.
How Can Hydroponic Farming Deliver So Well?
In a soil environment, whether in fields or greenhouses, there are numerous variables that are hard to control for. A Hydroponic farming system begins as a sterile environment, so pests and diseases are more easily controlled and pesticides aren’t needed. You control the nutrients your plants receive so you can keep the nutrient ratio balanced and the pH at an optimum level for plant health by testing the water.
The hydroponic way of farming is not a set it up and let it run kind of farming. It does require you to be knowledgeable about nutrient ratios and pH preferences for each crop. Most crops prefer a pH in the 6-6.5 range. Nutrients will vary depending on the crop. These are the same as when you’re growing specialty crops in soil.
Hydroponic farms are indoor operations so you can grow all year round, which is excellent for cash flow. They are best for vegetables that are primarily grown for leaves, like lettuce, kales, and spinach. A hydroponic approach to growing tomatoes, peppers, and herbs also works well. Root crops aren’t very successfully grown in a Hydroponic environment.
The Five Basic Requirements For Hydroponic Farming
And not just any water, but water filtered to remove impurities. Municipal water systems use chlorine to clean the city’s water, that‘s a salt. It needs to be filtered out of your Hydroponic system before it starts settling around the roots and starts clogging up your water system.
"According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 85% of the water in the United States is hard water (meaning it contains elevated levels of calcium and magnesium)." (freshwatersystems.com)
Most water in North America has some degree of contamination from industrial spills, agricultural runoff, and waste in landfills, which can all leach chemicals into the groundwater supply. Because of the lowered quality of water most Hydroponic farmers use RO or reverse osmosis to filter water used in their operations. RO eliminates 98% of all water impurities such as heavy metals, salts, bacteria, and total dissolved solids.
That leaves a pure water that is easy to calculate which nutrients you need for a particular crop and how much. The plants only get what you have determined they need for optimal growth.
Hydroponic systems are closed systems, which means the water/nutrient mix flows through the system, over your plants roots and cycles back to the beginning of your production line and starts the process again. Routine water testing for nutrient ratio levels and pH helps you maintain optimum growing conditions. Even though plants don’t seem to need nutrients at the same rate, you need to make sure you keep the nutrient ratio in balance. In this case, the whole is worth more than the parts.
If you just let your plants sit in water the roots and base will soon begin to rot. That’s because they’re drowning. Plants get oxygen from air pockets in soil, so they need to get oxygen somehow even when the roots are immersed in water. That is easily accomplished by installing an air stone or an air pump. These will oxygenate your water and some of those oxygen molecules will be taken up by the plants, thus keeping them healthy.
Soil is a passive source of oxygen to plant roots. Plants find oxygen in the interstices between soil particles. Hydroponic farming means you must actively monitor the oxygen levels in your nutrient/water mix. If the power goes out and you don’t have a battery backup your plants will soon start to die. All your plants, all at once. When that happens it’s time to manually water your plants. Misting will bring oxygen particles down from the air to the plant with the water.
The trade-offs - in Hydroponic system: how often does the power go out vs field plants: drought, insect manifestation, or rabbits in your lettuce?
3. Root Support
When you take seeds from a packet you can’t just put them in a nutrient rich water mixture. It will sprout, that’s how the sprouts you eat in Chinese dishes and your salad are made, but with only water – no nutrients. Those sprouts have a very short life span because the tiny root hairs don’t have any support.
There are many inert growing media. If you are farming organically and want to maintain your certification, check out all media carefully to make sure they’re OMRI certified .
To avoid plant shock, it’s always advisable to plant the seeds in the same plugs that you are going to use in your Hydroponic system. If you are using peat or coco coir, be sure to wash them in water thoroughly to remove any sediment that could clog your Hydroponic farming system.
Rockwool isn’t a natural growing medium. It is made by spinning silica-based materials into tiny threads. It’s like insulation materials so use it with care. Because it’s not a natural growing medium and it may have some health hazards it is not approved for Organic farming by OMRI.
When you’re growing in soil the nutrients are available to the seedling when it reaches a certain point in its growth, with its first set of true leaves. Plants growing in your Hydroponic farm will need all the same macronutrients, such as magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, nitrogen, and others. These nutrients, as well as micronutrients, are included in the water that’s circulating around your plants’ roots.
Nutrients in the water are more plant available than those in soil, which need microbes to mediate between the mineral form and plant soluble form of nutrients. Studies have shown that adding a humic acid gel to the water/nutrient mixture increases the uptake of nutrients and creates root environment protection. One of the disadvantages of a Hydroponic system is that pathogenic microorganisms that are water based can creep into the system.
Adding humic acid is a proactive measure against pathogens. Plants have evolved to work with microbes for optimal nutrient uptake. Hydroponic farming trials have shown that adding Humic Land to the water/nutrient mix of lettuce gave 2.9-4.8% higher yield with a 15% reduction in time to harvest.
It’s crucial to monitor the nutrient ratio and pH of your water to maintain optimum plant health. Healthy plants are insect and disease-free plants.
If you’re growing indoors, you’ll need special lighting. Since not all plants have the same lighting requirements be sure and research this thoroughly before completing your Hydroponic farm setup. Compact fluorescent light will be sufficient for lettuces and other greens but if you’re growing tomatoes, you’ll need to up your lighting to either LED or HID (high-density discharge), otherwise you’ll get lots of foliage but no fruit.
The 5 basics are almost the same as growing houseplants. Of course, the scale is different and that is what makes it a farm and not a hobby.
Insect Pests And Disease In A Hydroponic Farming Operation
Insects have been on Earth many eons before humans and they will be here after we’re gone. Although major insect infestations don’t occur very often, they do happen and you have to know how to handle them.
In a closed environment, both insects and disease can spread rapidly, especially if you have a monoculture farming operation.
IPM To The Rescue
The most common insect pests in a Hydroponic farming operation, or on your houseplants, are Spider Mites, Thrips, Aphids, Whiteflies, and Fungus Gnats. They’re all tiny and hard to spot. These are all pests found in your fields also.
If you don’t use pesticides in your fields there are predators for those pests. When you use a pesticide it not only kills the pest but also the predator so next year, you’ll have the same problems again. In a closed environment you wonder how those pests got in.
The number 1 way insects make it into an indoor Hydroponic farm is on your clothes and shoes. You can’t look at your flower border on your way to your Hydroponic farm. You can look at the flower border on the way out
.But there are many predators for these pests, most can be purchased online. As they take care of the aphids and whiteflies, the spider mites and thrips, and even the fungus gnats your predators will soon be looking elsewhere for food.
Just as you can bring insects in, you can also take them out. If there’s nothing more for them in the Hydroponic area they will “hitch” a ride out on your clothes and take care of any pests in your flower border. Just be aware you’ll have to buy these predators again should you have an infestation.
Disease is much easier to prevent than to eliminate. These three tips are priceless in maintaining a highly productive Hydroponic farming operation
1. Wear clean clothes.
Most Hydroponic farming operations have an outer room where you change shoes and check over your clothes. Where have you walked? Through disease laden soil to get to the enclosure? Have designated Hydroponic farm shoes.
2. Clean up spills and runoff immediately.
Most molds, mildews, and disease problems can be traced back to excess water or humidity. If you knock over your water, don’t just pick up the container – wipe up the excess water.
3. Keep plants clean.
As you walk through and see dead vegetation pick it off. Pruning back diseased or dying plant material will leave no place for disease or pests to set up shop.
The key here is that tidy and clean beat out disease and pests every time.
No matter what kind of farming, you know pests and disease are just part of the package of growing food and being profitable.
Hydroponic Farming Is Acreage Efficient
Now maybe you’re curious about Hydroponic farming but it looks a bit intimidating. Here’s a little more information:
- You’ll use 20% less space for growing
- You’ll be conserving water by reusing it in your system
- Much easier to harvest, no bending over
- You can grow year-round, creating a nice cash flow in the offseason
There’s a learning curve. But there’s a learning curve in everything we do in life. Find out more about Hydroponic farming through the Hydroponic Society of America.