by Sally Colby
A nice, clean head of lettuce appeals to just about everyone, and hydroponic growing is one of the best ways to produce that lettuce.
A good hydroponic system uses a fraction of the space and carries less risk than the same crop grown outdoors. Plants grow suspended in a nutrient solution, develop quickly to market size and remain clean throughout the growing and harvesting process.
Although the initial cost of starting a comprehensive hydroponic system is high, such systems are ideal for farms with less-than-optimum soil. Farmers have more control over the crop and typically expect larger yields in less space.
Hydroponic systems have a few disadvantages, including the need for considerable skill in operating the system. Close attention to detail ensures the system is running smoothly and plants are thriving. Although hydroponic systems usually don’t have disease issues, any introduced diseases can spread rapidly.
For an existing well-managed farm that’s already growing greens, adding a hydroponic component doesn’t involve a significant learning curve. If the farm owner or manager is already on site daily, adding hydroponics is a matter of monitoring. For those who aren’t on the farm or don’t have time to commit to additional work, it isn’t difficult to train someone to conduct regular checks. This person doesn’t have to be familiar with all the ins and outs or hydroponics, but should be able to recognize a potential problem.
The planning process for a hydroponic business starts well in advance of constructing the building. Planning includes determining what will be needed to be done prior to construction such as permitting, land preparation and developing a runoff plan. Other considerations include cold storage, packaging and labor. Potential hydroponic growers should determine whether there’s ample land for any future expansion and consider landforms that might interfere with creating a level site. Observe the potential site for sunlight patterns and note whether the site is shaded part of the day.
Hydroponics companies provide guidance on heating and cooling, shade screens, ventilation and lighting. Companies can also provide advice about nutrient management, which is critical to successful growing. A good company will provide ongoing guidance on proper use of any automated aspects of the system as well as recordkeeping and troubleshooting.
Growers should familiarize themselves with monitoring temperature, pH and other aspects of the growing system. Experienced growers should already be familiar with balancing macronutrients and micronutrients; for new hydroponic growers, it’s a matter of adapting current knowledge to a hydroponic system.
Prior to starting a hydroponic operation, become familiar with the market for hydroponically-grown produce, including demand, what’s popular and pricing. Plan to visit chefs and produce managers at grocery stores, and visit farmers markets to see what customers are buying and what they’re willing to pay.
Food distributers and wholesalers will pay the least for products, but volume makes up for a lower price. Chefs love the option of fresh, locally grown produce and are willing to pay for it. Working with chefs involves significant footwork along with follow-up and timely deliveries. Although chefs typically don’t purchase produce in high volumes, they’re willing to pay a good price. Growers who plan to approach chefs should make an appointment rather than stopping in.
Direct marketing, either at farmers markets or from an on-farm store, usually yields the highest profit. Farms that have established on-farm stores are perfect for adding hydroponics. This is what the Meck family, in Strasburg, PA, chose.
The current version of Meck’s Produce started when Bob Meck started working for his father-in-law, Irvin Widder, who grew produce on his 20-acre farm and sold it at nearby Lancaster markets. Meck and Widder entered a business partnership, and Meck eventually took over the business.
Today, Bob and his two sons Rob and Ryan work together, growing produce that’s sold at the Central Market, at their on-farm market and through the farm’s CSA. The farm started small but grew as the demand for products increased. Meck’s Farm Market has great eye appeal throughout the year, starting with colorful flower displays in spring, fresh produce, popular autumn items and Christmas trees and greenery to finish the growing season.
In 2013, in their effort to supply fresh greens year round, the Mecks constructed a hydroponic greenhouse. The Mecks chose the nutrient film technique (NFT) system, a series of PVC channels that carry water and nutrients to plant roots. The NFT system is a recirculating system, so the only water lost is that which is taken up by plants.
The Mecks grow a variety of hydroponic crops year round, including red and green Bibb lettuce, romaine lettuce, red and green leaf lettuce, a lettuce medley, arugula, basil, dill, watercress and bok choy. After learning more about the system and successfully operating one hydroponic house, the Mecks added a second.
Seeds are established in a sterile soil medium, then transplanted to individual holes in a channel that exposes roots to the carefully balanced nutrient solution below. Crops are carefully scheduled to ensure a steady supply throughout the year. Following harvest, the channels are sanitized prior to replanting. Shade cloth on the exterior of the greenhouse and an interior wet wall help maintain ideal growing conditions.
The Mecks’ hydroponically grown crops are an asset to their on-farm market, where they sell their own fresh seasonal produce as well as baked goods, dairy products, locally raised beef, soups, juices and a wide variety of jarred goods.
Growers considering adding a hydroponic system can learn a lot from others, and part of the planning process should include visits to successful hydroponic growers. Ask questions, take notes and make decisions based on potential profit from a new venture.