Many see hydroponic agriculture as a new disruptive technology with the potential to drive a wholesale change in the nature of farming and food production, but it has in fact been around for a long time. Interest in the use of complete nutrient solutions within greenhouses began in the US during the 1920s. In essence, nutrients are delivered straight to the plant roots; the roots do not have to grow through the soil looking for nutrients—thus, the system is able to precisely meet the needs of the plant efficiently, with less waste.
In a hydroponic system, nutrients and water are not lost through the soil, but can be recycled to maximize efficiency. This sounds easy in theory, but how does it work in practice? What are challenges that new hydroponic farmers face, and how can they overcome them?
In recent years many people from outside traditional agriculture have looked to invest and set up hydroponic farms. Despite this rapid growth, hydroponics remains a niche sector of the overall food production market.
Hydroponic growing is a capital-intensive enterprise, and often a barrier to commercial producers (although anyone can grow hydroponic vegetables for food in their home or garden). Having adequate start-up capital is important before you begin. A commercial grower will need to buy all the pumps, piping, heaters, fans and nutrients to get the system up and running. This is often a considerable expense compared with field production.
The costs of hydroponic production certainly are higher than conventional farming systems, but that is also true for many other systems such as organic farming. Energy and labour are the key costs to consider.
The ability to produce crops locally is a key advantage of hydroponic production; however, like anything, you need to consider your market carefully. Hydroponic produce costs more to produce compared with conventional systems, and finding customers willing to pay that little bit extra for locally produced, higher quality product is essential.
Despite these limitations, there has been rapid growth in the hydroponics sector in recent years, but a growing market is by itself not a guarantee of success. What can a potentially new commercial grower do to maximize the chances of developing a successful hydroponic business?
They can begin by thinking of the market and potential customers: what are the key messages to get across to them about the produce? As with any start-up, good business planning is essential, along with robust financial projections and analysis of the costs and benefits. Professional advice and training is recommended. Think about the costs of production; for example, could the use of renewable energy sources help to reduce costs?
Choosing the right kind of lighting is essential. A wide range of commercial grow lights are available; however, you need to consider the exact needs of your crop, and your own budget when selecting a grow light. It is important to remember that a plant does not see light in the same way as humans.
Blue light, referred to as cool light, encourages vegetative growth; on the opposite end of the spectrum red light triggers a hormone response, which encourages flowering. Grow lights producing the orange and reddish light typically produce substantial heat; however, some lights are able to produce full spectrum light without the heat. Inexpensive lights to purchase tend to be the most expensive to operate and the least effective.
The ability to control the environment with more precision means a greater understanding of crop physiology is needed. Attention to detail in management is essential. Field crops get their nutrients from the soil, light from the sun, and the farmer supplements what is there. In a hydroponic system the plant is entirely dependent on what is provided by the grower. System failure can be catastrophic for a crop, and constant checking and monitoring is essential.
Despite many challenges, the hydroponic sector is here to stay, and with careful planning the application of good, sound management presents many opportunities for those wishing to start up in food production.