Hello there! Welcome to part 2 of our Vertical Farming 102 course! In the last installment, we took a closer look at Controlled Environment Agriculture “CEA,” and its many benefits, both for the farmer and the consumer. Just in case you missed it, you can take a quick look at it here. You’re back, great! Now we’ll begin our exploration of a few methods used in this technique to cultivate your crops. Let’s dive right in!
As Trick Daddy and Cee-Lo said way back when in 2002, “It’s quite alright, with the ‘dro in the wind.” Perhaps they were onto something. Quite possibly the most well-known, yet often mis-understood method of CEA and Vertical Farming is the Hydroponic method. Growing up, if we heard the word “hydroponic,” someone was referring to marijuana. Sound familiar? It’s quite alright, we’re here to help clear this all up for you, so you have a better understanding of Hydroponic Farming methods and their usefulness.
Although a perennially misunderstood concept, Hydroponic farming has been utilized as a form of agriculture since the 1930’s. A soilless growing method, all crops use basins filled with a mixture of water and macronutrients to facilitate optimal conditions for cultivation. Along with all other forms of CEA, Hydroponic farming can result in increased yields and faster growing seasons, coupled with multiple harvests annually and decreased costs. That all sounds great, but what requirements are there to get started with Hydroponic farming?
Prior to getting into this next part, we assume you understand the necessity for both a controlled environment structure, as well as the necessary Hydroponic basin system buildout within. I will specify though, please don’t anticipate dropping plants in a basin of water and expecting them to go for a leisurely swim on their own. That would be akin to jumping off a cruise ship and expecting yourself to float indefinitely in the ocean—it’s not going to happen. Substrate is required to provide support to the plant and its roots, if that wasn’t the case, there would be no such thing as seaweed. The point is, although the crops are supported, they are not supported by soil. This can be achieved using any material that won’t compact and will retain moisture. Common substrates used for Hydroponic farming include peat moss (least renewable substrate), coco coir (coconut fiber), vermiculite, or perlite. Some people choose to use rocks, and while useful as a substitute, depending on the type, it isn’t always the most ideal substrate.
When you have your setup complete and a suitable support system in place for the crops, you can ensure you are providing ideal growing conditions to cultivate them. What we’re talking about now are the following:
Fresh Water: You’re probably thinking to yourself, why did I even mention this, aren’t you? While you have a point, we aren’t talking about connecting a hose to the kitchen sink and filling up a few troughs, Hydroponic farming is a business, and must be treated as such, and that requires investment into adequate water treatment. What this means to you is water should always be filtered and have balanced pH, somewhere in the 6-6.5 range in most cases. Need something different? Acidity in your water source can be adjusted as needed to suit your crops’ required variables.
Nutrients: Although you won’t be using traditional farming methods to grow your crops, in order to achieve the desired productivity and healthiness level, they must still be provided enough magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, and other necessary nutrients. While easier to apply with traditional farming means using fertilizers and a healthy soil base, this can’t be provided without additional input with Hydroponic farming. The choice at this point becomes, would you prefer to concoct your own solution of macro- and micronutrients, or would you prefer to buy them from one of your providers? Perhaps try both ways on a smaller scale and see which works better for you!
Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide: Soil in traditional farming provides the roots of your crops with adequate oxygen. Alas, here we are though talking about a soilless farming method, so where are we to get the necessary oxygen from? This can simply be achieved using oxygenators, or even just keeping an air gap between the crops’ base and the water basin. As no crops can rely exclusively on oxygen, adequate levels of carbon dioxide are also a requirement, as it’s a vital component in the process of photosynthesis. Recommended levels of Co2 for Hydroponic systems are generally between 1,000 and 2,000 ppm. You can keep a constant measure of your levels quite easily with the use of a Co2 monitoring system, and put it on a timer to cycle with your lighting system for proper photosynthesis to occur.
Light: As you learned in Vertical Farming 101, there is more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to providing light for your crops. Depending on the structure you have set up, you may be able to make use of a hybrid lighting system, using both natural and artificial light sources, or you may be required to fully substitute natural light with adequate synthetic methods. Regardless of which method you choose—or are relegated to using—just as crops need co2 and oxygen for photosynthesis, adequate Daily Light Integral is an imperative variable to secure adequate production for your farming needs. In a nutshell, this measures the amount of photosynthetic light your crops are receiving throughout a 24-hour period (intensity and duration), as opposed to momentary light intensity.
Why would anyone wish to use this method when traditional farming techniques have obviously been tried and true for so long? To reiterate, this method, and all CEA methods provide advantages that traditional farming techniques do not. Farmers can now grow their crops anywhere using fewer resources and achieving increased yields.
Rather than crops spending their resources growing outward in search of food, they’re spent more wisely growing upward into a productive plant, thus shortening the growth cycle by up to 25%. Furthermore, in the Midwest, where we experience shorter growing seasons for certain crops due to the winter months, facilitating crop growth indoors in a controlled environment allows us to experience more harvests annually, even in months that wouldn’t ordinarily allow it. Add to that the increased technology effect, eliminating human error from the growing and harvesting of the crops, and decreased waste because of it, Hydroponic farming allows you to funnel more revenue to the bottom line rather than into costs. Who wouldn’t be happier if their farm produced more net income?
With that, we’ll wrap up today’s session on Hydroponic farming. Join us again Friday, when we will get into another method of Vertical Farming and CEA, Aquaponics! After that, we’ll take a short hiatus for the Thanksgiving holiday, and reconvene the following week. Until then, leave your comments below—I look forward to hearing from you!