The development of better health consciousness among consumers has led to a phenomenal growth in the demand for hydroponically grown produce. A combination of hydroponic technology and a controlled environment greenhouse or indoor grow rooms can tackle this demand. Such a blend is known as Soil-less/Controlled Environment Agriculture (S/CEA).
A majority of the numerous hydroponic farms in the United States are family or small business operations. These farms generally have 1/8 -1 acre in hydroponic production while the larger facilities average 20 – 40 acres. The smaller operations hold the advantage of proximity to the marketplace. Tomatoes are the most popular hydroponic crop in the U.S. followed by cucumbers, leaf crops, herbs, peppers, and flowers. There is a requirement for more hydroponic farms as much of the produce is presently imported.
Testing and monitoring are part of the daily operation of a commercial hydroponic grower. It is essential to test the pH and nutrient concentrations of the feed solution and the reservoir. The temperature and humidity levels are also monitored. Recording such information proves useful in assessment of overall health of the crop, diagnosing problems and ascertaining the positive and negative influence of various factors. Good observation, diligence, and order are the qualities demanded of a grower. The best way to prevent diseases and other problems is to perform daily checks.
A grower performs culturing depending upon the nature of the plant. Long-term crops like tomatoes or cucumbers require daily culturing. With short-term crops like lettuce, continuous seeding and harvesting is more important. Most commercial tomato growers replant their growing chamber once a year. Very little space is required to propagate the seeds. The seedlings are shifted to the greenhouse when they are several weeks old. Harvesting is done in about hundred days and continues for eight to nine months. The five main culturing jobs for fruiting crops are (done weekly):
1. Clipping—the plant is clipped to the string hung down from the main support wires.
2. Sucker Pruning—suckers are the side branches that grow at every leaf axial. A sucker is removed by grasping it firmly and then bending it back in one direction.
3. Cluster Pruning—this involves discarding the misshapen, smallest, and weakest fruit to allow the larger ones to develop.
4. Leaf Pruning—the lower leaves are removed to encourage new growth at the top of the plant. To remove it, pressure is applied at the base of the leaf.
5. Leaning and Lowering—this is done to keep the producing part of the plant within reach. The top six feet are left vertical while the remaining stem is laid horizontally.
Other grow-room jobs that growers must perform include pollination, harvesting, and packing. Pollination may be done by touching a vibrating pollinating wand to every open flower cluster. Another way is to bring a specialized bumblebee hive into the greenhouse and let the bees do the pollinating. If this method is employed, pesticides should not be used for insect control. Growers of hydroponic cucumbers need not pollinate them artificially as they are self-pollinating. Crops may be harvested every two or three days. Commercial growers label their product with the brand name and a brief description or the benefits of how it was grown.
The cost of growing hydroponic plants in a controlled environment often exceeds the cost of growing crops in a field. These extra expenses are incurred in providing the ideal temperatures, humidity, light and feed to the plants. In order to compensate for these, the produce must be marketed well. Highlighting the advantages of hydroponically grown crops in grow tents is of utmost importance. Growers may cite that they are free of herbicides and pesticides, available for nearly the whole of the year, have better nutritional value, have aesthetic appeal, are vine ripened and packed and harvested by hand. Following are the methods of selling:
• Grocery stores—Selling directly to grocery stores requires expertise to determine markets and the time to deliver regularly. But it offers control over transportation and handling.
• Produce brokers—A produce broker or distributor markets the produce for the grower. While it is convenient, earnings and control are diminished.
• Co-op or grower network—as the name suggests, growers may form a network to market and distribute collectively.
• Roadside or market stand—this allows growers to sell directly to consumers. But some growers may not prefer to take the time to transport and sell by themselves.
Hydroponics has come a long way from the floating gardens of the Chinese, described by Marco Polo in his journals. Commercial growing can be lucrative and satisfying, provided the produce is grown with the right procedures.