by Steve Rodrigue, Product Technician, Johnny's Selected Seeds
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Hydroponics in crop production has been around in various forms for centuries, but as the pace of change in the world accelerates, hydroponic crop production is rapidly gaining in appeal. As with all growing methods, there are advantages and limitations alike to hydroponics, and we are often asked to assist growers in finding answers and making informed choices.
As a solution-driven seed company, Johnny's has recently initiated trialing to evaluate the performance of our seed varieties within hydroponics systems. We want to be able to recommend specific varieties that work well in those systems; to be prepared to answer your questions knowledegably; and to serve at the forefront of hydroponics research.
Here's an overview of our approach to hydroponic trialing, and a look at some of our findings….
Hydroponics refers to the culture of plants in a soilless system in which nutrients are delivered directly to plant roots via a water-based, mineral nutrient solution. Combining the Ancient Greek words hydro for water and ponos for labor, hydroponics, literally, means water works!
And so it does — with increased oxygen delivery to the root zone as well as the required nutrients in solution, the result is increased growth rates and increased yields, in comparison to traditional soil-grown crops, where lower oxygen levels and more variable nutrient levels are present.
In getting started, we first reviewed the various systems and techniques being developed to revolutionize the way crops are being produced hydroponically. Hydroponic systems range in complexity from simple homemade bucket set-ups to large, highly mechanized systems. The main types of systems currently in use include Deep Water Culture (DWC), often referred to as raft or pond systems; and Nutrient Film Technique (NFT). Aeroponics and aquaponics are increasing in popularity as well, and other hybrid variants continue to emerge and evolve as people explore new ways to produce food more efficiently. ( For more detailed definitions, see box at right » )
In delving more deeply into hydroponics, we wanted to define our initial approach and scope for our customers, so they know what they can expect from us. Here are some further details.
What is Johnny's trialing hydroponically (and what aren't we)?
The crops most widely grown in these systems include lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs. Currently we are focusing on trialing all varieties within our lettuce line-up, common hydroponic herbs, and greens commonly grown hydroponically — that is, leafy crops to start with. We will be expanding our trialing program into fruiting crops at a later date.
We are first focusing on the varieties that we currently offer, in order to minimize redundancies in our line-ups. Once we have screened through the varieties which we carry, we will begin looking at varieties we do not yet carry to assess their potential.
Why did Johnny's choose this approach?
This provided us with a workable scope that speaks to the core of our philosophy, because it applies not just to our hydroponics initiative but to all of our trialing efforts.
— Lauren Giroux
Product Manager, Johnny's Selected Seeds
"We are deliberate, focused in what we trial, and how. Just as we are with what we add to or remove from the catalog.
"Out of all the available varieties in the world, we seek to offer those that meet the current needs of our customers. So we review the most promising varieties within the context of our most important trial goals for the year — which relate directly to what our growers are challenged by — we want to help growers address those challenges. Then we work to set the trial up in a manner that will test the varieties rigorously.
"We encourage our growers to do some of their own trial work, to determine what will both grow well in their specific situation and be well accepted by their markets. It is our aim to provide growers a select list to help focus their trial work, in the same manner our trialing team focuses our work. There is a very important word between Johnny's and Seeds. The word is Selected, and we take it very seriously."
What can hydroponics customers expect, now and into the future, from Johnny's?
Our customers can expect us to offer them a line of varieties that performed well in our hydroponic systems trials. Going forward, our customers can expect to see increasing numbers of varietal recommendations as we continue to screen through our crop lines. Over time, newer varieties can also be expected that will — based on ongoing hydroponics trialing by Johnny's Research Department — perform well hydroponically, and that will be noted as such.
From a grower's standpoint, efficiency, yield, and quality come first to mind — though in the long-term, sustainability could be the primary underlying advantage for all of us.
These are some key elements supporting the case for hydroponic growing:
- Year-Round Production. Growing indoors or in a greenhouse can allow growers to better optimize the environment, making year-round growing a more viable option.
- Sustainability. Wherever limitations exist in water use or arable farmland, this aspect of hydroponics increases in relevance. Much of the benefit gained from hydroponics derives from the fact that in most systems, the water-based nutrient solution is reclaimed and recycled. Growers can calculate exactly how much water is needed in their systems, providing growers in areas that lack sufficient water the opportunity to make the best use of water resources. In areas where water use and quality are closely regulated, hydroponic systems allow growers to track volume, precisely measure nutrient flush levels, and meet specific requirements.
- Urban Growing / Local Food. As consumers increasingly seek locally-sourced food, hydroponics can help satisfy this demand. As mentioned, hydroponics systems can be set up even where good farmland does not exist. Urban farms are popping up across the country and in cities around the globe, supplying metropolitan regions with food grown directly within the city. Hydroponic growing also provides educators, chefs, families, and restaurateurs with an opportunity to produce their own crops — on a rooftop, in a parking lot, in a warehouse, or on the back patio — limited only by ingenuity and determination.
- Pesticide Requirements Minimal to Nil. A well-managed hydroponic operation will be under minimal disease pressure, and most hydroponic growers find they need to use very little — if any — pesticides. Many growers sell their product as spray-free, which satisfies a significant demand for healthy, pesticide-free food. If managed properly, pesticide use can be reduced and often entirely eliminated.
- Ergonomics. Depending on the type of system used and how well it is designed, hydroponic production can be more ergonomically sound than standard field production. Systems can be built, for example, so that they are waist-high, or arrayed in vertical towers, making for easier care and harvesting. In other systems, entire plots of plants are being shifted to a specific harvest location to make harvest and post-harvest handling easier and more efficient for workers.
- Reduced Labor and Fossil Fuel Costs. An increasing number of power-reducing technologies can be practicably applied to hydroponic operations, LED lighting for inside and geothermal power for bigger, outdoor facilities, for example. And, as distinct from traditional soil growing, no tilling, plowing, or weeding is needed in hydroponics systems.
"We had our produce randomly tested by the public health authorities, and they came back to us with great results. Clean produce, inside and outside."
— Penny Takahashi, Aquaculture Centre of Excellence, Lethbridge College, Alberta, Canada
So regardless of whether a grower's everyday values include environmental, fiscal, or social responsibility, hydroponics offers some major practical advantages.
We've covered just some of the cost-minimizing factors involved in hydroponic systems here — among them reduced pesticide inputs; more efficient, ergonomic labor; and decreased water and fuel use. And though these efficiencies all stack up nicely, with any growing venture it's important to weigh all the costs against the benefits.
Other practical considerations include the strength and potential of your market demand, and the various investments such systems may require: the system components themselves; nutrient growing solution, media, and seed; heating an indoor growing space at higher latitudes. Hydroponic production can also require more attention, depending on specific methods, crops, scale, experience level, and so on.
Most growers like the risks they take in their operations to be calculated ones. If after careful evaluation the figures look favorable, hydroponics may be a worthwhile venture for you — especially as local communities increasingly demand high-quality fresh produce that is grown right in their backyards, keeps food dollars in their communities, and can be available all 12 months a year.
Here at Johnny's, we will continue to conduct the rigorous trialing and selection process we're known for, to offer hydroponic performers that support your success. When you're ready, give us a call. Johnny's is here to help take the guesswork out.