Hydroponics: Not Your Grandma's Garden
If you're anything like some of us, the speed of technological change today makes your head spin! From faster cars and safer homes to the newest generation of iPhone (which, I suppose doesn't change that much...), it's no surprise that we can't keep up with every trend. In the Agriculture Technology industry alone, there are constant advancements and gadgets that want to help us grow more, grow faster, and grow better. With that said, the use of hydroponics really isn't that new.
So why don't we know more about it?
The reality is that if you haven't worked in the AgTech sector, you may have never heard the word "hydroponics" before this. We aren't blaming you! Traditional soil growing (both on farms and in greenhouses) is still the most prevalent form of produce output. However, as the local food movement gains momentum in Canada and abroad, new ways to grow are being developed.
Hydroponics, by definition, is a method of growing plants in a water based, nutrient rich solution instead of soil. The desired plants are suspended above this flowing water while their roots dip down to get what they need, as seen on the right. This style of production offers many benefits to the farmers, both financially and environmentally. One of the major benefits of hydroponics is the reduced water use.
Because plants are grown in a closed system without the use of soil, less water is lost to evaporation before it's used by plants. All water added to the system is readily available to be sucked up by the roots to nourish plant growth. In addition, most hydroponic set-ups "recycle" their water, meaning that the same water can circulate through the system using a series of sensors and pumps. Due to this, hydroponic systems on average save between 90-95% more water than traditional soil farms. To put these savings into perspective, approximately 70% of the world's fresh water is used to support agriculture! Not only does this mean huge financial savings for the growers, but it is also an important environmental point in an increasingly water-poor world.
CONTROL IS EVERYTHING
The set-ups are referred to as "farms", however a few minutes inside one will remind you more of a plant lab than the dirty, salt-of-the-earth farms that most of us are familiar with. These modern "farms" are part of what makes hydroponic growing so successful and valuable. The vast majority of these systems operate indoors in greenhouses, indoor farms or containerized growing systems. While it is not a direct criteria for hydroponics, most set-ups are fully outfitted with sensors and other important plant monitors. In order to achieve optimal growth, the nutrient balance and pH of the water that is circulated to the plants must be precise. These plants cannot stretch their root systems to find what they need to grow, so they rely on a delicate balance of environmental factors for survival.
A containerized growing system in Churchill, MB in the middle of winter.
In smaller "farms", such as the containerized one shown to the left, factors such as humidity and CO2 concentration must also be carefully watched to ensure healthy plant growth. Within each system, be it as large as a warehouse or as small as a shipping container, is an environment that has been specifically calibrated to maintain ideal environmental conditions that will promote maximum growth. With these systems, external environmental concerns are entirely eliminated. There are no critters or adverse weather conditions inside these farms, so farmers needn't fear some of their traditional enemies. As the technology used in each system continues to improve, it will only become easier to fully automate and monitor the environment within their growing units!
Hydroponic technology is helping bring farming to the local level. These may seem like miniature farms, but they produce enough leafy greens to sell to local grocery stores, restaurants, or directly to customers. Because systems don't require acres of open land to grow, they can be relocated to the heart of cities and travel a much shorter distance to reach customers. Some indoor farms are located in warehouses, while smaller units can be found attached to universities or behind restaurants. Even in the arctic conditions of Northern Canada, fresh veggies are growing happily in tailor-made hydroponic environments!
With this AgTech trend slowly but surely turning into a movement, you might just find yourself living next to a "farm" sometime very soon!
Just in case you missed them, we collected some of our #growingmyths tweets below. The rest can be found on our Twitter!
Myth: Hydroponic growing is difficult and very time consuming...
Fact: With an automated system, each unit only requires 12-15 hours of labour per week!
Myth: Plants need soil to grow...
Fact: They don’t need soil, as long as the required elements for survival and growth are present!
Myth: All water will produce the same quality of plants...
Fact: Water used in hydroponic systems should be slightly acidic and full of nutrients!