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Hydroponics

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With hydroponic technology and a controlled environment greenhouse, you have the ability to grow premium quality produce using a minimum of space, water and fertilizer. Hydroponics is an intensive form of agriculture that can fulfill the consumers demand for premium produce and provide the grower with a profitable business. Hydroponics literally means “water working” but, in practical use, it means growing plants in a nutrient solution without soil. The science of hydroponics proves that soil isn’t required for plant growth but the elements, minerals and nutrients that soil contains are. Soil is simply the holder of the nutrients, a place where the plant roots traditionally live and a base of support for the plant structure. By eliminating the soil, you eliminate soil borne disease and weeds and gain precise control over the plant’s nutritional diet. In a hydroponic solution, you provide the exact nutrients your plants need in precisely the correct ratios so they can develop stress-free, mature faster and, at harvest, are the highest quality possible.

In commercial production, the three primary growing methods are drip (includes the Dutch bucket system), NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) and the raft (also known as float) system. The biggest difference between the drip, NFT and raft systems is the use of a growing medium. In a drip system, the plant roots are in a growing medium such as perlite or rockwool and the nutrient solution is dripped onto the medium to keep it moist. In an NFT system, the plant roots are in a channel where a thin film of nutrient solution passes, keeping them moist but not water-logged. In the raft system, the plants are floated on a raft that rests on the surface of the water. The plant roots dangle into the water where they get nutrients and oxygen.

There are hydroponic growers throughout the United States and worldwide. Of over 50,000 acres in hydroponic production around the world, about 1200 of those are in the US. Most of the hydroponic facilities in the US are family or small business operations that cover 1/8 - 1 acre, produce premium hydroponic produce and sell it locally. The smaller operations generally have the advantage of offering vine ripened, locally grown produce with minimal transportation cost and damage. It is in this niche, offering premium produce to a local marketplace, that a hydroponic grower with less than an acre in production can earn an excellent profit. Smaller growers can establish themselves near the marketplace, eliminating the problems and costs of long-distance transportation.

In addition to the smaller growers in the US, there are several large hydroponic facilities that cover as many as 60 or more acres and produce large quantities of hydroponic tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and lettuce. Often this produce is shipped throughout the US to help fill the growing demand for hydroponic produce. Currently there are jumbo jets, trains and trucks that bring hydroponic produce daily into the United States from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Canada. Both US and Internationally grown hydroponic produce that suffers the rough handling of long-distance transportation is usually of a lesser quality and sells for a lower price that that of a smaller hydroponic farmer who caters to specialty stores and farmers markets near to their operation.

 

Quality of Hydroponic Produce The premium quality of most hydroponic produce is due to:
  • the controlled environment
  • high grade nutrients and precise control of the nutrient feed ratios
  • vine ripening
  • the lack of herbicides and pesticides

Advantages of Hydroponic Produce

  • Additional advantages of hydroponic, controlled environment growing include:
  • no soil borne disease
  • hydroponics uses up to 1/10 of the water that is used to grow equivalent amounts of field produce
  • hydroponics uses less fertilizer than is often used to grow equivalent amounts of field produce
  • extended growing season
  • intensive production in a small space

Commercial Hydroponic Production

The Most Popular Hydroponic Crops

The most popular hydroponic crop in the US is tomatoes, with second fancy lettuce and leaf crops, third cucumbers and fourth herbs, peppers and flowers. Ironically, there is more hydroponic produce flown into the US from Holland, Canada and Mexico than is grown here. As more and more growers are established in the US, this will change. You can grow hydroponic produce at a lower cost and offer fresher, better quality.

Productivity of Commercial Systems

The productivity of commercial systems has risen dramatically in the past few years. Commercial tomato growers who once hoped to annually pick 20 pounds of tomatoes per plant are now picking as much as 35-50 pounds per plant per year. In a 12,000 square foot greenhouse, a tomato grower can grow 4,0000—5,000 pounds of tomatoes every week! Lettuce growers are picking mature heads of lettuce in under 5 weeks and, with 20,000 square feet of growing space, can produce nearly 3,000 heads per week. The cost of establishing a commercial hydroponic greenhouse operation is quite reasonable when considering the potential profit and the intensive volume of high-quality produce that can be grown on a small lot. The addition of new equipment such as electronic monitoring systems, nutrient dosing systems, row bed heating, CO2 generators, insect screening and retractable roof greenhouses have greatly increased the overall poundage many growers are harvesting. In addition, new varieties of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and leafy crops that are more disease resistant and produce higher yields are now available and great advances in biological pest and disease control have been made.

 

Commercially, Hydroponics, Aquaculture and Aquaponics can all be used to produce large quantities of food in an environmentally friendly way.   If you are interested in agriculture but want to utilize high-tech, profitable means of growing, read-on.  

 

The most commonly grown crop in commercial hydroponics is tomatoes, followed by lettuce, herbs, cucumbers and peppers.  Worldwide, hydroponics is used to grow crops in locations where adequate soil and resources are limited.  In the North America, hydroponics is often combined with controlled environment agriculture to grow premium crops.

 

Aquaculture  (fish farming), is a great way to help supply the growing demand for fresh fish without depleting natural resources.  There are many types of aquaculture and many different species cultured.

 

Although the origins of both hydroponics and aquaculture can be traced to ancient times, the combination of the two is quite new.  Serious research began in the 1970's and continues today.  Currently, research continues, commercial operations are getting established and many home gardeners are using this technology to produce year-round fresh fish and vegetables.



 

What is hydroponics?

Hydroponics literally means “water working” but, in practical use, it means growing plants in a nutrient solution without soil. The science of hydroponics proves that soil isn’t required for plant growth but the elements, minerals and nutrients that soil contains are. Soil is simply the holder of the nutrients, a place where the plant roots traditionally live and a base of support for the plant structure. By eliminating the soil, you eliminate soil borne disease and weeds and gain precise control over the plant’s nutritional diet. In a hydroponic solution, you provide the exact nutrients your plants need in precisely the correct ratios so they can develop stress-free, mature faster and, at harvest, are the highest quality possible.

 

With hydroponic technology and a controlled environment greenhouse, you have the ability to grow premium quality produce using a minimum of space, water and fertilizer. Hydroponics is an intensive form of agriculture that can fulfill the consumers demand for premium produce and provide the grower with a profitable business.

 

Is Hydroponics Organic?

Hydroponics is a very pure form of agriculture which uses a fraction of the water and fertilizer that traditional, soil-based agriculture does.  There is no need for herbicides in hydroponics because there are no weeds.  Most hydroponic growers use integrated pest management or biological control to keep pest insects from causing damage.Most hydroponic fertilizers are a premium grade of water soluble fertilizer.  Most of these traditional hydroponic fertilizers (often called nutrients) are not on the list of approved fertilizers for the USDA organic certification.  There are, however, some companies who have developed organic-hydroponic fertilizers that can be certified organic under the USDA rules.

Benefits of Growing Hydroponically?

  • no soil borne disease

  • hydroponics uses up to 1/10 of the water that is used to grow equivalent amounts of field produce

  • hydroponics uses less fertilizer than is often used to grow equivalent amounts of field produce

  • extended growing season

  • intensive production in a small space

How do you Achieve Organic hydroponics?
Aquaponics!
 

Aquaponics, which mimics the natural dynamics of all of earth's water ways, is the only organic hydroponic method that has proven to be commercially viable.  And, as an added bonus, you produce two crops - fish and vegetables.  The fertilizer in an aquaponic system comes from the fish waste.  Microbial activity converts the waste into nutrients that the plants need and, as the plants consume the nutrients, they help to purify the water the fish live in.  This all happens in a recirculating system that uses less water than traditional agriculture.

 

Aquaponic systems are highly developed and refined for food production. 

Methods of Hydroponic Production

Hydroponics literally means “water working” but, in practical use, it means growing plants in a nutrient solution without soil. The science of hydroponics proves that soil isn’t required for plant growth but the elements, minerals and nutrients that soil contains are. Soil is simply the holder of the nutrients, a place where the plant roots traditionally live and a base of support for the plant structure. By eliminating the soil, you eliminate soil borne disease and weeds and gain precise control over the plant’s nutritional diet. In a hydroponic solution, you provide the exact nutrients your plants need in precisely the correct ratios so they can develop stress-free, mature faster and, at harvest, are the highest quality possible.

 

In commercial production, the two primary growing methods are drip (also known as substrate) and NFT (Nutrient Film Technique). The are a number of variations of these methods and also several others including the float system, ebb and flow system, aquaponics, aeroponics and passive. The biggest difference between the drip and NFT systems is the use of a growing medium. In a drip system, the plant roots are in a growing medium such as perlite or rockwool and the nutrient solution is dripped onto the medium to keep it moist. In an NFT system, the plant roots are in a channel where a thin film of nutrient solution passes, keeping them moist but not water-logged.

Drip (Substrate)

The drip system is often used in commercial hydroponic facilities that grow long term crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. In this system, the nutrient solution is delivered to the plants through drip emitters on a timed system. The emitters are usually scheduled to run for approximately 10 minutes of every hour depending on the stage of development of the plant and the amount of available light. The drip cycle flushes the growing medium, providing the plants with fresh nutrients, water and oxygen.

In a commercial drip system, the plant roots are most commonly grown in a medium of perlite or rockwool. The biggest variables in a drip system are in the growing medium and the container that holds that medium. Perlite is often bagged in thin, plastic sleeves. Holes are cut in the bag and plants, usually 3-4, are set in with the roots growing down into the perlite. Recently, a bucket system has been developed to contain perlite for drip systems. Each bucket holds loose perlite and one or two plants. In either of these methods, a slot or hole is cut in the container to allow excess nutrient solution to run out. A drain line below the bag or bucket collects the excess.

Another method of a drip system that is becoming popular for lettuce and herb production is the perlite tray, usually about 24 inches wide by 10—14 feet long. An aluminum tray, coated with a non-toxic material, is filled with perlite and set on a gentle slope of 1-inch to 10-feet. The nutrient solution is continuously dripped in at the higher end of the tray and allow to trickle through the perlite to the other end. Essentially, this system is a combination of drip and NFT techniques.

In most drip systems, injectors are used to add nutrient concentrates to water when the feed cycle starts. In this case, there is no need for a large nutrient reservoir tank or the periodic dumping of used nutrient.

NFT  -  (Nutrient Film Technique)

With the NFT (also known Nutrient Film Technique) technique, the plants are grown in channels (also called gullies) which the nutrient solution is pumped through. The plant roots are kept moist by the thin film of nutrient solution as it passes by. Ideally, the bottom of the roots are exposed to the nutrient solution while the top are kept moist but not water-logged.

Most NFT channels are fed continuously at a rate of approximately 1 liter per minute. Since the plant roots are not in a growing medium, it is crucial that they are kept moist at all times. In most NFT systems, the nutrient solution is mixed in a primary reservoir, cycled through the channels and back to the reservoir. With the development of on-demand dosing equipment, a nutrient reservoir can automatically be adjusted and, with proper aeration and pH adjustment, can effortlessly be kept fresh for weeks at a time.

NFT is ideal for lettuce, leafy crops and herbs, all of which are short term crops. Larger NFT channels are used for long term crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers in many locations around the world. One great benefit of NFT, especially for leafy crops, is that with no growing medium and no soil, the crop is clean and no washing is necessary. Growers, chefs, grocers and consumers all appreciate this.

NFT channels are usually set up on waist-high stands that slope slightly to allow the nutrient solution to drain to one end. Although round pipes have been used in NFT production, most growers have found flat bottomed channels or gullies provide greater surface area for root development and oxygen uptake, resulting in better, faster plant development.

Float

Float systems take advantage the surface of the nutrient solution. Most float systems are long, rectangular reservoirs built out of cement or wood and lined with a durable, poly liner. Holes are cut in a foam board which floats on the surface of the water and plants in net pots are set in the holes. The plant roots dangle in heavily aerated nutrient solution.

In areas where raw materials are limited and manufactured hydroponic systems and components are not available, the float system can be an economical means of hydroponic crop production.

Ebb and Flow

The Ebb and Flow (also know as flood and drain) method of hydroponics simply floods a growing area for 5 or 10 minutes and then the nutrient solution drains away. The nutrient solution is stored in a reservoir that can be located under the grow table. Ebb and Flow is common in hobby systems but not often found in commercial production. In an Ebb and Flow system, the plant roots are usually grown in a medium of perlite, rockwool or expanded clay pebbles.

Aquaponics

In hydroponics, you mix a specific nutrient formula in solution which is fed to the plants. In aquaponics, you combine aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponic production. The nutrient-rich waste water from the fish tanks is pumped through plant grow beds. Although not as precise as a hydroponic fertilizer mix, the effluent from a fish tank is high in nitrogen and many other elements and most plants will do quite well in aquaponics.

The key to aquaponics is the establishment of a healthy bacteria population. Beneficial bacteria that naturally occur in the soil, air and water convert ammonia (the primary form of fish waste) to nitrate and then to nitrate, which the plants readily uptake. In consuming the nitrate and other nutrients in an aquaponic system, the plants help to purify the water.

Although the combination of hydroponics and aquaculture is quite new, the interest in this technology is booming. Aquaculturists who normally have to buy expensive water purification equipment to purify the water see aquaponics as a great way to clean the water and end up with another, very marketable crop. Hydroponic growers see the value in a natural source of nutrients, already in solution.

 

The water from a fish tank can be pumped through any hydroponic grow bed in place of a hydroponic fertilizer solution. For commercial aquaponic production, designs that show great promise include the float system, NFT and ebb and flow.

Aeroponics

Aeroponics is the method of growing where the plant roots are constantly misted with a nutrient solution. Designs include an A-frame with boards on each side, plant plugs set in each side and a mister between the boards spraying the roots. A round, large diameter PVC pipe set vertically with plant plugs all they way around and a mister mounted inside is another way to set up an aeroponic system. Although aeroponics is a unique way of growing, it is not a common means of commercial production.


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