Hydroponic farming is a method of growing plants in water, not in soil. It may sound like it would be a complicated process, but it’s actually quite straightforward. Consider what a plant needs to grow: water, nutrients, air, light, space, and time. Hydroponic growing is able to meet all of these conditions by providing the big three macronutrients, known as NPK, or nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, along with other essential nutrients such as magnesium and calcium.
Since hydroponic farming is practiced in a controlled environment (it is also called controlled environment agriculture), it is a perfect fit for indoor growing. Other growing factors, such as air, light, space, and time, are also controlled indoors. This means you can start a hydroponic farm anywhere, such as:
- Remote communities
- Urban centres
- Extreme climates (arctic, desert)
(Looking for inspiration? See where Growcer hydroponic farms are currently being used).
IS VERTICAL FARMING THE SAME AS HYDROPONIC FARMING?
You may have heard of the term ‘vertical farming’ and wondered if it is the same as hydroponic farming. Think of it this way: vertical farming is the larger category that hydroponic farming fits into. With vertical farming, plants are stacked on top of each other to make greater use of the entire space, instead of just growing in one layer on the ground. This can be accomplished either through growing towers, where plants grow on top of each other vertically, or through horizontal trays that are then stacked.
Vertical farming includes production methods other than hydroponics, such as aquaponics (involving the use of fish and other aquatic creatures to provide nutrients), aeroponics (growing plants in the air in a misty, humid, environment), and also traditional soil growing. A vertical, hydroponic farm is a farming system that uses hydroponic growing techniques, and where the plants are stacked on top of each other vertically to maximize growing space.
It’s also important to note that hydroponic farming has been proven to be an effective way of growing in other forms of controlled environment agriculture (CEA), such as greenhouses, which are not as new as vertical farming.https://www.youtube.com/embed/FHBhyqowSEc?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1
Watch how one greenhouse (another example of controlled environment agriculture) grows hydroponic lettuce.
WHAT YOU CAN GROW IN A HYDROPONIC FARM
Hydroponic farms can grow a variety of produce (we’ve successfully grown over 140 cultivars in our growing systems!), but leafy green vegetables work best. Instead of putting their energy into large root systems, leafy green vegetables put this energy towards growing their leaves.
For container farms specifically, these types of vegetables make the most economic sense. If consumers will be paying more for locally grown, there’s got to be a noticeable difference – and leafy greens are a great example of the value added through hydroponics. The shelf life of leafy greens depends on their freshness. With a shorter time between harvest and consumption, locally grown greens retain their freshness (and nutritional value) longer. Consumers can taste the difference and double the shelf life of the produce in their fridge with locally grown hydroponic produce.
Here are a few examples of the best types of produce to grown in a hydroponic farm:
- Lettuces (e.g., (romaine, butterhead)
- Leafy Greens (e.g., spinach, kale, arugula)
- Asian greens (e.g., bok choy, win win choi)
- Herbs (e.g., mint, basil, cilantro)
- Microgreens (e.g., micro broccoli, red sorrel)
WHAT YOU CAN’T GROW COMMERCIALLY IN A HYDROPONIC FARM
With hydroponics, the question isn’t so much what you can or can’t grow, but more about whether hydroponics is the most efficient way to grow a specific crop. With that in mind, flowering vegetables, such as strawberries and tomatoes, have additional considerations (e.g. pollination) that need to be considered if they are to be grown year round. Further research is currently being conducted into how these plants can be reliably cultivated indoors, and at a volume that makes sense.
Other vegetables, such as rooting vegetables, which include potatoes and sweet potatoes, are most economically grown in soil. It’s also important to consider the growing cycle and the weight of the desired vegetable. For example, broccoli heads grow large and heavy, which make them a poor choice for hydroponic growing. Broccoli microgreens are a great alternative for hydroponic growers looking to expand product offerings.
2. BENEFITS OF HYDROPONIC FARMING
Hydroponic farming has many benefits over traditional agriculture. While these systems aren’t meant to completely replace traditional methods, they offer several advantages over conventional soil-growing, including less water, land, labour, and chemical usage.
They also bring the added benefit of being able to grow produce where the consumer is (growing hyper-locally).
Let’s break this down further:
1. YOU CAN GROW PRODUCE YEAR-ROUND
In many climates, growing year-round isn’t possible with traditional farming because vegetables can’t survive in extreme conditions. For example, in Ottawa, Canada, on average, your frost-free growing season is 152 days. For the other 213 days, the temperatures can dip to as low as -30 C making it hard to grow vegetables. With hydroponic farming, plants are being grown indoors, in a controlled environment. That means they can be grown year-round in any climate zone.
2. LESS WATER USAGE
Hydroponic systems can use up to 10 times less water than traditional crop watering methods due to the way the system is designed. By capturing and using water in a closed-system (and not allowing run off to drain into the environment), hydroponics are very water efficient.
3. LESS LAND USAGE
Another limited resource that hydroponic farming helps to save is arable land. Conventional farming only has one layer of planting, on the ground, and therefore requires large acreages for bigger yields. With hydroponic farming, you can take advantage of vertical space as well, by stacking plants on top of each other.
4. LOWER LABOUR REQUIREMENTS
Hydroponic farming is less labour intensive, which allows more food to be produced by less people. It can also participate in the conversation about labour in agriculture and how we can continue to advance technology and working conditions behind food production.
Recently, a small percentage of agricultural employers were under scrutiny for not adhering to their responsibilities and employing temporary foreign workers with minimal benefits, protections, and poor standards of living. (See this Marketplace expose touching on advocacy efforts to reform Canada’s agricultural worker program for more information).
While the majority of agricultural employers treat workers fairly, advocacy efforts won’t stop until this is the case for all. New ways of growing can have us reflect on the ways things have always been done in the industry, and advance production methods and labour equity.
5. USES FEWER CHEMICALS
It’s not necessarily that all chemicals are bad, but rather that consumers are trending towards knowing more about what goes into their food. In the controlled growing environment of a hydroponic farm, it’s easier to keep track of what goes into growing the plants. Plus, plants are able to grow faster and are less stressed due to less pest pressure. This is better for both growers and consumers, because there are quicker yields, and less chemicals required to treat potential pests.
6. CAN BE GROWN HYPER-LOCALLY
Hyper-local food is even more local than being from the same province, or being Canadian-grown. It is usually grown within the same town or city, or a short distance from where it’s being sold. This benefits the environment, community, and consumers. Lowers transportation costs, fresher produce, adoption of underused-land (parking lots, poor soil sites, arctic climates) are just a few of the reasons that hyper-local food is trending (you can learn more about hyper-local produce, and its value, here).
3. CONS OF HYDROPONICS
Now that we’ve learned about the many benefits of hydroponic farming, including using less water, land, labour, and chemicals, plus the ability to grow food hyper-locally, let’s look at some of the downsides (nothing is without its pros AND cons, after all).
1. HYDROPONIC FARMING CAN BE EXPENSIVE
Getting started with hydroponic farming can be cost prohibitive, because you will need to invest in specialized equipment and training. Unfortunately this can mean that the technology is not yet accessible to all of the communities that may benefit from it. So while hydroponic container farming allows for fresh food to be grown year-round in any location or climate, including the arctic and deserts, some communities may not always be able to afford hydroponics as a solution. Thankfully, there are options to combat the cost of a hydroponic farming system, if it’s a prohibitive factor, such as grants and loans.
There’s a flip side too. In Northern areas where conventionally farmed produce can already be extremely expensive, hydroponic farming technology can actually be used to make food more affordable. For example, in Churchill, Manitoba, the price of leafy greens was $7.25 with government subsidies. With the implementation of a Growcer hydroponic container system, greens are now sold for $3.99. Produce costs can also be lowered through innovative distribution models, where the farm operates until break-even and donates or subsidizes the surplus to increase access to fresh produce for everyone.
2. ENERGY INTENSIVE
A common argument against growing food using hydroponics was that it was an energy intensive method and required too much power to fuel the lights instead of harnessing the natural power of the sun. Hydroponic plants grow under grow lights that mimic natural sunlight. These lights require energy to stay on and stimulate photosynthesis in the plants.
In the past, energy intensive light sources were used as grow lights (High Intensity Discharge (HID) lights, such as Metal Halides or High Pressure Sodium (HPS) lights). Over the past 20 years, LED technology has come a long way in creating bespoke grow lights for the specific plants that are being grown, allowing only the right spectrum of light that the plant requires. This means that the plant is able to flourish, without needing to produce unusable light and excess heat. In other words, the lights evolved to be more efficient for plant health and energy consumption.
Like humans, plants don’t want the lights to be on 24/7 either. Most plants require a minimum six hour period of darkness to allow them to metabolize (rest) properly. Among growers, the most common lighting schedules are 18-6 (18 hours on, 6 hours off), and 12-12 (12 hours on, 12 hours off). This means that the lights aren’t on and using power all the time.
Renewable energy is also increasingly being used to power hydroponic systems. Wind, solar, and water power are all being leveraged to reduce the energy footprint of hydroponic farms. Carbon emissions are also reduced when the supply chain is shortened, by growing locally. A study from 2012 showed that on average, 30% of Canadian food is imported, leading to annual emissions of 3.3 million metric tonnes of CO2. Since hydroponic growing is possible year round in any climate, this allows food to be grown locally, and even hyper-locally, right in the heart of a community, thereby lowering the distance food has to travel (and thus CO2 emissions).
3. BEWARE OF WATERBORNE DISEASES
Waterborne diseases happen at a much higher rate in a hydroponic system, compared with conventional soil growing. Since water is continuously being circled through the system, diseases can spread through plants quickly. This means that hydroponic growers need to keep a closer eye on their plants and good sanitation is essential. However, since plants are grown solely in water, growers don’t have to worry about soil-borne pests. Luckily, there are ways that hydroponic farms can manage waterborne diseases, including regular sanitation and advanced filtration systems.
4. VULNERABLE TO POWER OUTAGES
Powering grow lights through the electricity grid means that there is a risk of power outage. Luckily, plants are very resilient and will come back to life even if the power is out for 24 hours. There are also foolproof ways to avoid power outages affecting your hydroponic farm, including the use of off-grid power (such as solar) and generators with redundancies built in.
4. HYDROPONICS VS SOIL
Is hydroponic growing better than soil growing? Or vice versa? We’ve heard this question a lot, and the short answer is that it depends on many different factors, including the specific crops you’re trying to grow, and the climate of the region you live in. Instead of thinking of hydroponics vs soil as ‘either/or’, they should be thought of as complementary. Both have a part to play in the food mix! Let’s compare hydroponic vs. soil growing and how they differ.
Soil growing has a very important role to play in carbon sequestration. That sounds like a complicated word, so let’s break that down. Carbon sequestration means that soil can store —or “sequester”— carbon for a very long time, so that it isn’t released into the atmosphere as CO2. Some farming practices result in more carbon sequestration than others (for example, intensive tilling of the land releases a lot of stored carbon) but scientists say that soil-based sequestration itself isn’t enough to combat change. Other changes to cut down on greenhouse emissions are also essential.
Hydroponic growing does not sequester any carbon, however, it can help reduce greenhouse emissions by cutting down on the distance that produce needs to be transported, and by powering up with renewable energy.
If your main concern is to get your crops to market quicker, then hydroponic growing has a distinct advantage over soil growing. With hydroponics, the nutrients are delivered directly to the root system. This allows the plants to devote more energy to growing its leaves because they are consistently getting the nutrients they need. For example, lettuce grown hydroponically is ready to harvest in 30 days rather than the 60-day cycle it usually takes when grown in soil.
What climate are you in? The answer to this question will determine the number of days you have to grow your crops without frost, drought, flooding, and other poor growing conditions. This is where hydroponics has a clear advantage, since you’re able to grow year-round, regardless of climate. If you’re in a climate that allows for a longer growing cycle, this might be less of a concern.
With soil growing, root systems are often much larger and plants can be smaller as they stretch out and search for nutrients that aren’t as readily available as they are in hydroponic plants. In ideal soil conditions, this may not be a concern, because rich soil allows plants to thrive and grow their leaves as well as their roots.
But nutrient rich soil is not a given in every region. Some industry experts have begun to speak out about degrading soil conditions in Canada. Not all soil conditions will be ideal for all plant species, so what you can grow may be determined by the type of soil you have. With hydroponic growing, the specific nutrients that a plant requires are delivered via a water solution, so the type, and amount, of nutrients is controlled. This means you can grow what you want, where you want, without having to factor in soil conditions.
Do you have arable land that you can use for growing? It’s no secret that land is expensive. Farmland values have increased year-over-year in 2020 by 3.6 per cent in Manitoba, 5.4 per cent in Saskatchewan, 6 per cent in Alberta, and 8 per cent in British Columbia (according to the March 25, 2021 Farm Credit Canada 2020 Farmland Values Report). Land closer to urban areas also commands a more premium price.
A distinct advantage for hydroponics over soil growing is that it does not require large parcels of expensive land – hydroponic container farms can even make use of parking lots and other under-used urban land (learn more about what you can do with container farms here).
While you can grow all types of produce hydroponically, it doesn’t make economic sense to grow everything hydroponically. Certain root vegetables and flowering plants are more economically grown outside in soil conditions. As research into hydroponic technology continues, it is possible that one day an even greater variety of produce can be economically grown in a hydroponic system.
As you can see, there are a lot of factors that go into determining whether hydroponic vs soil growing is right for you. Start by figuring out what you’d like to grow (check out over 140 cultivars that can be grown in Growcer’s hydroponic systems), and where you’d like to grow it, to help you decide if hydroponic or soil growing is best for your specific needs.
5. MISCONCEPTIONS OF HYDROPONIC FARMING
Hydroponic farming can simply be explained as “growing plants in water.” But we know it’s more complex than that, and with complex ideas come misconceptions. These are the top three misconceptions about hydroponic growing.
1. “YOU CAN ONLY GROW LETTUCE IN A HYDROPONIC FARM.”
It’s not. Hydroponic systems have progressed to be able to grow more than just lettuce. For example, you can grow multiple different types of produce like spinach, kale, arugula, Asian greens, and a mix of herbs.
The list is predominantly leafy greens because they are able to grow quickly and reliably in hydroponic systems. Remember, with hydroponics it is not whether or not you can grow it, but are hydroponics the most efficient way?
Plus, it might not be mainly leafy greens for too long. The controlled environment agriculture industry is expanding what can grow in hydroponic systems and there has been successful research into crops like strawberries, mushrooms, and tomatoes.
2. “IT REQUIRES SPECIALIZED EDUCATION.”
When you think of container farming, you probably think of complex technology and fancy irrigation systems. And while that may be the case for some farms, it isn’t the case for all.
Nowadays, there are hydroponic container farms built to be plug-and-play systems anyone can use. There are even kitchen table solutions that use hydroponics to grow plants inside the home.
You might think you need a background in farming or hydroponics to harness the technology – and while it’s helpful to have – it’s not a requirement.
For example at Growcer, many of our current operators started with little to no experience and became comfortable growing over time. But don’t take our word for it. Take time to listen to Growcer’s first container farm operator in Churchill, Manitoba share her experience about getting started and learning how to grow. On average, operators like Carley spend 20 to 25 hours per week maintaining the container farm.
3. “HYDROPONIC PLANTS TASTE ‘FUNNY.’”
Before falling into the trap that plants grown differently taste weird, it’s in your best interest to test out that hypothesis by tasting the greens for yourself! You can find them in some grocery stores sold as “living greens” or “hydroponic greens,” and let your taste buds be the ultimate judge.
In a hydroponic system, plants are provided with everything they need to grow using nutrient rich water instead of soil. It’s like cooking rice in a pot, or cooking rice in a rice cooker: the end result is the same, but achieved through different, equally valid methods.
However, there still hasn’t been enough research comparing the quality of produce from vertical farms, greenhouses, and the field, to draw absolute conclusions. So what we can do in the meantime is look at what current customers are saying about hydroponic greens.
Based on anecdotal evidence from consumers, some remark fresh hydroponic greens even taste better because the freshness makes such a difference.
The Yellowknife Co-op grocery store recently added a Growcer hydroponic farm to their space and Justin Nelson, the store’s general manager, shared what the community feedback has been:
“The response from the community has been exceptional. Everyone that knows that we grow our own produce is happy that we’re growing it. They come to the store when we harvest it, they buy what we have and they come back for more. The produce is just that great. You can’t get any more local than growing your own produce on your own property, it’s a fantastic thing to have.” – Justin Nelson, Yellowknife Co-op
There you have it – hydroponic farming is more than lettuce, it’s accessible with dedication, and the freshness elevates the taste of plants.
6. WAYS TO USE HYDROPONICS
There are many ways that you can get started with hydroponic growing, from small hydroponic kits for home growing, all the way up to large, commercial operations. Let’s look at how you can get up and running quickly with hydroponics so that you can sell, produce and scale your growing operations for your organization or community.
BIG WAREHOUSES FOR HYDROPONIC GROWING
Warehouse hydroponic farming has taken advantage of the many leaps in agricultural technology. These indoor hydroponic behemoths can grow crops on a large scale – one of the largest farms is 256,000m²!
Warehouse hydroponic farms take advantage of vertical growing to grow produce on a massive scale, all made possible by extensive use of robotics and artificial intelligence. As you may have guessed, setting up a large warehouse for hydroponic growing is extremely expensive, and will require investments upwards of millions of dollars. These farms require large pieces of correctly-zoned land as well as a large building to house equipment and plants.
MODULAR CONTAINER FARMS
A modular container farm is a relatively new way to grow crops hydroponically without the huge investment of a warehouse operation. These setups also use artificial light and vertical space to maximize growing space. They can also scale quickly, making them a highly flexible stepping stone to a large food project.
Another major advantage of modular container farms is that they can be set up anywhere, including parking lots and other unused urban land. This added flexibility means that you can get started with your own hydroponic farm wherever you have some extra space. Step inside one of Growcer’s farms with this virtual tour to better understand how the hydroponic container farm works.
DIY VS. TURN-KEY
With modular farming, your project can be up and running in as little as four months. But the timeline (and associated costs) also depends greatly on your existing knowledge, and whether you are designing your container farm on your own, or partnering with a vendor who offers a turn-key option.
With a turn-key solution, everything that you need comes with the farm, making it a “plug-and-play” solution. Going the DIY route means that you will need to account for site prep, extensive research, managing complicated orders and multiple suppliers. A turn-key modular container farm (like Growcer’s) is the easiest way to get started with hydroponic growing. You’ll also have a team of experts guiding you every step of the way. Modular container farming also comes with other benefits such as:
- Standardized growing procedures and verified yields
- Resource and space efficient
- Automated and optimized growing environments
- Easily combined with other food projects, such as a community kitchen or seasonal greenhouses.
Grow Towers are somewhat trendy at the moment and are worth a mention. They can be used to bring very small-scale hydroponic produce on a very small scale. These home growing operations are generally too small to be used commercially, and quite expensive for individuals to use; especially for people who are food insecure and could benefit from them the most.
There are a number of different ways to leverage the technology of hydroponics and realize its benefits for your community. The choice for which system to choose depends on many factors, but hydroponic growing is becoming more and more accessible, which is great news for everyone.
7. HOW TO GET STARTED WITH HYDROPONIC FARMING IN 5 STEPS
If you’re looking to get started with hydroponic farming for your community or organization we’ve got you covered. Here are five steps to turn your idea into a reality.
1. GET TO KNOW YOUR MARKET
Solutions that incorporate community feedback early on in the process guarantee more success down the road. Start conversations with community members, grocery stores, co-ops, farmers’ markets, local restaurants, and other businesses, like caterers or schools, that source food. Understand what is needed and where the need is greatest.
A good understanding of the opportunities will help you with the next step.
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT GROWING SYSTEM FOR YOUR NEEDS
When it comes to taking advantage of hydroponic technology, we recommend going with a turn-key container farm because it gives you reliable harvests without the guesswork of having to figure it all out yourself.
Container farms are turn-key, flexible, and scalable.
Many container farms, like Growcer’s farm, are built to be plug-and-play and require minimal setup. The farm also comes with full environmental controls so anyone – regardless of prior experience – can learn to operate it, and automated redundancies are built in to keep the plants growing.
A hydroponic container farm is also a good starting point because you can mould it to fit your needs. You can modify the growing shelves to fit your production needs (growing more or less), or even attach another container for a larger expansion. The flexibility will allow you to scale up and grow more food as the demand increases.
3. SELECT A DISTRIBUTION MODEL
Before you even start growing, you need to have a plan for where your harvests will go!
There are multiple different ways you can distribute what you grow, such as:
- Direct-to-consumer model (subscription boxes, online stores)
- Wholesale (grocery stores, schools, hospitals, restaurants, local institutions)
- Hybrid (a mix of direct-to-consumer and wholesale)
- Impact (sell enough to break-even and donate the surplus)
- Farm-to-store model (retailers sell what they grow in stores)
You also don’t have to distribute purely to make a profit – there are many models where the primary goal is for education, health promotion, or food security. Your distribution model can be a way to breakeven on your operating costs, and the rest is up to you!
If you’re specifically interested in this step, check out our Container Farming 101 webinar on choosing the best business model where we break down what’s involved in each distribution model from time commitment to potential return on investment.
4. VALIDATE THE FEASIBILITY OF YOUR MODEL
This step is all about confirming if your plans are possible. Get out and speak to potential distributors or conduct community surveys. Crunch the numbers to see if you’ll be able to cover your costs and satisfy the demand from your customers too.
If you choose to partner with Growcer, we help you by providing the framework to calculate your specific costs and figure out your return on investment. We also help guide you through the process for community engagement, distribution planning, and farm management based on what we’ve seen work with over 30 current customers.
Once you validate your idea, you’re now in the position to secure funding (whether it’s your own or through a loan) to purchase a container farm and get growing!
5. PLANT YOUR FIRST SEEDS
Once your container farm is onsite, you’re ready to start growing!
We recommend you start with five to six main crops to become comfortable with your farm in the first year. Starting small allows you to pivot and incorporate customer feedback faster so you can build upon what’s working.
If you’ve partnered with a vendor like Growcer, you’ll always have a farm success manager to bounce ideas off of in addition to having farm technicians who help keep you growing.
These steps were followed one way or another by current Growcer customers and you can check out examples of their projects in the next chapter!