Hydroponic farming has certainly experienced a boom over the last decade, especially as new markets emerge, land becomes increasingly scarce, the global population, and its demand for fresh food increases, and environmental factors, harsh climates, depleted soil quality and legislative barriers challenge traditional farming operations.
According to IBISWorld, over the past five years, from 2013 to 2018, revenue for the hydroponic crop farming industry grew by 1.2 percent to $89 million. Over the same period, the number of hydroponic businesses has grown by 6.4 percent to over 3,200. Employee numbers have also grown by 10.1 percent.
Many hail hydroponics, and its counterparts, aquaponics and aeroponics, as the sustainable future of farming. These methods result in organic, ecologically responsive gardens with conditions that can be optimized and maintained, especially given that an estimated 3,000 acres of farmland is being lost to development daily.
To better understand the potential impacts of these farming methods, which date back to the tenth and eleventh centuries when Aztecs developed systems of floating gardens, it is important to distinguish the difference between hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics, the advantages they offer when compared with traditional field farming operations, and why they are growing in popularity.
Rather than relying on soil to provide the structure needed for a plant’s root system to grow, hydroponic systems artificially support plants. A nutrient solution is applied to the roots, which conserves the plant’s energy and encourages growth. When nutrients are applied directly to the plant’s roots, instead of having to scour the soil system for the necessary nutrients required to grow, the energy can instead be dedicated to growth. In fact, by applying the nutrient solution directly to the roots, these systems save space while simultaneously encouraging the plant to grow at double the rate of traditional soil growth. When roots are contained in closed channels, there is also less evaporation and less water consumption as a result. Environmental factors like soil quality, inclement weather and drought are a thing of the past thanks to the provision of a controlled indoor environment that ensures that the plant always received an optimal supply of water, light and nutrients. While it sounds relatively simple, it’s quite a complex process and requires a great deal of knowledge and attention.
The operation requires a plant support system, HVAC equipment, LED lighting, tanks, pumps and system controls. Open or closed troughs can be used, and they are most commonly filled with peat moss, vermiculite or perlite, used to deliver the right nutrient solution in the right amounts. Sand, gravel and trap rock are also used to promote drainage. Some systems are even designed on rollers to make it easy to transport from growing to packaging.
Most plants can grow hydroponically but the most common are leaf lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries and herbs due to their growing characteristics. Something like wheat would not be a feasible hydroponic crop.
Like hydroponics, aeroponics is a method of growing plants in a moist environment. Plants are usually suspended in an enclosed setting and water mixed with nutrients is sprayed on the plants’ roots. Greenhouses are ideal settings for these systems, as the temperature and humidity can be regulated to create an optimal environment and LED lights can be used to create precise lighting.
These systems are designed as a closed loop system and as a result require ninety-five percent less water than traditional field farming and forty percent less than even hydroponic systems. Aeroponics allows seeds to grow to plants in half the time of traditional field farming, which can ultimately lead to almost 400 times more productivity per square foot. Research has shown that yields are more than thirty percent greater on average, without compromising the nutritional value of the produce, and these systems require only ten percent of the space that would otherwise be needed on a traditional farm to achieve the same outcome.
Aquaponics differs from both hydroponics and aeroponics because it uses a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture. By adding fish to the equation, a natural ecosystem is created where the fish, the plants and bacteria flourish off of each other.
The fish waste offers nutrients for the plants to absorb and the fish and bacteria work to create a clean, non-toxic environment, eliminating the need for nutrient additives. This closed loop system prevents water runoff and thus, watershed contamination, and reduces the loss of nutrients that would be lost that could have otherwise been absorbed by the plants. This ends up saving money in the long run.
It also requires less water, using only two gallons of water for every pound of fish. Tilapia, like catfish and a few others, are good fish to use as they grow quickly and can thrive in high-density environments like a tank. Aquaculture is an organic process that requires less maintenance and boasts benefits such as suppressed disease rates and healthier growth outcomes for both the plants and the fish.
All three systems provide a safe and sustainable way to produce food using a process that is traceable, accountable, and extremely localized. The clear advantages are increased productivity and eco-friendly and viable farming methods.
Not all that glitters is gold, however. These systems also come with high startup costs, including setup, in addition to higher operating costs and an increased need for monitoring and expertise. They are also just as vulnerable to failure if the environment or the conditions are compromised, such as if an outside pest or contaminant makes its way into the system.
The good news is, these systems have been commercially proven and can function as highly productive facilities that generate enough revenue to cover the overhead and wages required to maintain operations. That’s where industry experts come in. Experts understand that strict hygiene, closely regulated routines, adequate venting, air and water quality controls, and up-to-date and current implementation of pruning, harvesting and spraying programs are critical to an optimal grow.
The best way to ward off diseases and pests is to ensure that the environmental and nutritional elements of the facility are in harmony and integrated for optimization. Companies like ZipFarm offer their Full Bundle, a system that requires only one operator and supports year-round production and facility upgrades like lighting, racks, automated nutrient dosing and the option of a scaled-up nutrient reservoir with a footprint of 500 square feet.
Taking a do-it-yourself approach can be risky, so it is wise to consult the expertise of a professional. From modular systems to design-build greenhouses and facilities, there are many options for those interested in establishing a hydroponic, aquaponic, or aeroponic footprint and these systems could very well solve food challenges in the future.
A solar company in Whitehorse, Yukon, Solvest Inc., has partnered with Cropbox, an American company that refurbishes shipping containers to grow produce in a winterized off-grid hydroponic operation in the interest of northern food security. The project is still in its testing phases. The containers require as much energy in one day as would be required to power four homes, so Solvest has developed a second container to power the Cropbox off-grid using a combination of solar panels, batteries and diesel fuel.
The container will have the capacity to grow 2,700 plants, cultivating a total of about 400 heads of lettuce each week, which would not only improve access to fresh produce but could also help drive down the price of fresh foods in northern communities.
There is also lots of activity taking place on the cannabis front. Legalization in Canada and the moves to legalize medicinal and recreational marijuana use in an increasing number of American states have opened the market for new and major players to make moves in the hydroponic space. Aurora Cannabis, a leader in the market, spent $3.85 million to acquire BC Northern Lights Enterprises Ltd, a CSA-approved manufacturer of refrigerator-sized grow boxes. The grow boxes are designed to hold four to eighteen marijuana plants and are designed specifically for the home-growing space.
For someone with passion and a baseline knowledge, these systems are a great way to sustainably grow a variety of plants and herbs, especially with the help of industry experts and sound research. If entering the market with the intention to compete, it is a complex system that requires astute attention to detail and a great deal of effort.
If this is you, it could be more trouble than it’s worth and it might be best to take a trip to the local farmers’ market, where you are likely to find products that were grown that very same way. For those who have an understanding or a desire to learn more, and for companies with a footprint in the agri-food industry, hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics could very well sustainably supplement existing farming operations in the future.