The United States is experiencing water shortages, fast rising fuel prices and multiple states have already legalized marijuana. All of which are convincing hydroponic farmers around the country that their farming method is going to flourish. It seems that after decades of hardly noticeable progress in the industry, growers are finally starting to recognize the benefits to hydroponics.
Dr. Val Eylands is a U.S. farmer that has been using hydroponics to grow produce for over 15 years. Just ten months ago, he started his own farm in Arkansas called the Ozark All Seasons Farm. By commercializing his hobby, he now produces over 900 heads of lettuce each week and sells them to local markets.
His secret? Well, he contributes his success to his dedication to hydroponics, which he says is far better than any traditional growing methods.
Eylands stated to Fresh Fruit Portal: “We’re only using about 5% of the water that heads of lettuce outside use, about 10% of the fertilizer, about a third of the labor, we’re just efficient, efficient, and efficient in everything we do and we’re right next to the market.”
The benefit to his hydroponics system is that local stores and chefs are able to capitalize on the year-round availability of his lettuce, and it’s fresh every time.
“We’re finding that the local communities are just really accepting of a product grown right in their back yard that keeps money in the community and can be grown 12 months a year. That’s how we’ve gotten our foot in the market here.”
Eylands explained that fruits develop much of their taste late in the fruiting process, which is a significant reason why tomatoes picked early and shipped around the country are less tasteful.
“So actually the closer to the market the tomato is grown and the later it’s picked, the better the taste. And it’s the same in greens; the greens start losing their taste and their nutrition as soon as they’re cut. It’s not that a hydroponic tomato tastes any better or any worse than a conventionally grown tomato, but hydroponics lets you grow right next to the market so that your vine crops are ripened on the vine, and the greens are picked the day or the day before people actually consume them.”
Not only does hydroponics allow farmers to pick their produce at the latest possible moment and provide the best tasting fruits and veggies, but their hydroponics systems also use less water. All water is recirculated and consumed by the plants as needed.
“It just keeps going around and round until the plant decides to use it for its photosynthetic activity, so nothing’s wasted. Nothing goes into the groundwater, nothing evaporates, nothing is used by weeds, it just keeps going round and round until we’ve used it up in the only way that we want it to be used – and that’s making more lettuce. That’s why we’re so efficient; water doesn’t get lost like it does in the field.”
Hydroponics also allows farmers to grow more crops with less space. The yield is considerably greater than traditional growing methods can supply.
In dirt, seeds have to be placed much further apart to grow properly and mature into a full grown plant. However, with hydroponics, seeds can be grown very close together and they can even mature into a full grown plant closer together than plants grown in dirt.
To provide an estimate on how much more efficient hydroponics is, Eylands stated he produces 15 to 20 times more plant matter than he would in a field the same size as his hydroponics setup.
In the last few decades, hydroponic farming has flourished worldwide and Eylands predicts the United States will take similar action as demand for hydro grown produce begins to strengthen.
“In the mature markets like Europe, Australia and New Zealand where they have lots of years of experience and expensive fossil fuels, that’s what’s already dominating vegetable production.”
“In the U.S. fossil fuels are too cheap – we can still afford to truck lettuce all the way across the country from California to the East Coast but, that’s going away quickly. For one thing California’s running out of water, and another thing is fuel prices are going up.”
“So pretty soon people are not going to be able to buy lettuce in California, they’re going to have to grow it locally, not just lettuce, but cucumbers, peppers, herbs, and everything you can grow locally. I think this next decade will be huge for the hydroponic industry in the U.S.”
While it may still take many years for commercialized hydroponics to flourish, it’s already gained traction. You can find produce in local markets that’s hydroponically grown and it’s only a matter of time before hydro becomes the predominant growing method. The legalization of marijuana throughout several states is also leading to increased hydroponic usage among growers with in-home gardens.