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FAQ : Practical answers to frequently asked questions
Our first large-size Lollo lettuce
Why hydroponic farming? Are hydroponic plants healthy, nutritious, safe to eat?
Why hydroponic farming? Many reasons - and all good ones. Here are the 2 major benefits -
First- it is packed with nutrition. Imagine if you were given the 'perfect' nutrition growing up - carbs, proteins, vitamins, etc all in the exact perfect amount, no junk food. Now combine that with the perfect environment in your childhood - no exams, no work, no stress. In such case you would have the perfect 'physiology', the perfect body and health in adulthood.
Hydroponics is similar - it provides the perfect nutrition and environment such that the plant has the perfect size, weight, health, taste and above all nutrition just as nature meant it to be.
Secondly - it is good for the planet. Think about it, hydroponics is soil-less, the structures all sit on top of the soil, much like your sofa sits on top of your floor. So the underlying soil is not damaged. That's why farms can be setup on deserts, rivers, even vertically on walls.
Further, by using bio-fertilizers like neem oil, as opposed to damaging chemical insectisides/fungicides/pesticides etc, the air remains healthy, it does not damage the workers or those who consume hydroponic vegetables or produce.
Even the water is recycled or drip-fed to the roots through precision methods. This alone saves 90% of the water compared to the 'spray and pray' method of traditional farming.
Our NFT setup back in the days
Is Hydroponic farming the future (of agritech)?
It will certainly be a big part of any future. But it is not the whole solution.
Why is that? The reason is very few products that we eat can be grown hydroponically. Many leafy green vegetables, fruits, herbs, even some medicinal plants such as ashwagandha can be grown hydroponically. But that leaves a vast variety of foods that can't.
Rice and wheat form a big part of our meals, While hydroponic rice is technically possible, and is even available commercially e.g. Temasek rice of Singapore or the vertical rice being grown in Japan, its not yet ready to solve world hunger.
The future eco-system will likely be a combination of many agritech solutions solving many problems. A likely scenario will be hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, agrivoltaics, organic and regenerative farming all coming together to solve multiple problems like world hunger, climate change, soil degradation, waste generation, plastic use, energy shortage, air pollution and water availability. And even these will have to be part of a larger solution that will include carbon-consciousness, tighter environment laws, etc. This is the future, traditional farming as we know it, will cease to exist.
A shot of Lavasa city near Pune
Where are hydroponic systems used?
Indoor hydroponic systems can be grown anywhere from Arctic to Antarctica, because you have insulated the growing environment from the outside weather to provide the ideal temperature, humidity, CO2 levels etc. Question is can you provide this environment profitably? I argue in a separate article that indoor farms, especially vertical farms, cannot be profitable at present times, and that outdoor horizontal farms is the way to go We are yet to see a profitable indoor hydroponic farm of commercial scale anywhere in the world.
Outdoor hydroponic farms under a poly-house structure on the other hand take advantage of freely available sunlight and affordable land and labour in local markets, and therefore have a better shot at profitability. The catch of course is they will have to be centred around the tropics to fully utilise the natural outdoors and manage costs. Certainly for a good part of the growing year. For poly-houses located outside the tropics, you will need to battle costly indoor lights, land and labour in your profitability equation.
Regardless of indoor or outdoor, the ideal farm would be located in peri-urban areas with good connectivity to ensure easy access to the city for customers, staff, labour, supplies and spares. Location aside, the land itself should be suited for hydroponic farming (we use a 17-point checklist, but that would go off-topic).
Our inhouse fertigation system by Hoogendoorn
What does hydroponic mean, who invented hydroponic farming?
Hydroponic means growing plants in a nutrient solution. Hydroponics started over 100 years ago in man's quest to beat the elements and secure food supply. However William Frederick Gericke is credited with the term "hydroponics" in 1937 when he grew 7.6m high tomatoes in nutrient solution.
Today Netherlands, USA and Israel provide the thought leadership and innovation in the world of farming. Japan, China, Singapore are also innovators in their own right.
When we setup our farms, we made visits to Israel to study their methods, got in a consultant from Netherlands, and much of our equipment is still of US-Netherlands origin e.g. the Hoogendoorn fertigation and climate control system.
Much has changed since. Today India not only makes such equipment, but more importantly India has a ready pool of experts who are building low-cost alternatives and selling them commercially.
A franchise farm we setup for our client near Pune
How does hydroponic farming work, how is it done?
There are various ways to do hydroponic farming depending on your role.
If you are a hobbyist or want to grow for home use, order a complete grow kit from Amazon (or us) and saplings of some fast growing plants such as lettuce, spinach, etc. A smart choice is to grow leafys that are very expensive in the local market e.g. Kale. Make sure the plants get partial sunlight and monitor nutrient circulation, PH, EC, temperature, shade cover and also plant weight, size, look and feel, root color, etc. Within 4 weeks aim to harvest at least 1-2 bowls of salad.
You can either enjoy your harvest straight away (usually there is no need to wash them), or gently stir fry with onion, garlic, etc. Remember vegetables shrink considerably in size once cooked, so harvest accordingly.
If you are planning a second career or want to be a commercial hydroponic grower, you must get proper training - not as a plant specialist, but as a hydroponic entrepreneur. Training is very important especially if you are new to farming.
Some service providers will setup the farm, and operate and sell for you for a fee. This franchise option is ideal in the first year as you learn the ropes. After a year or so, you should consider launching your own brand. This de-risks your operations while you learn and build up your customer base.
Vertical A-frame system holding its own on our farm
Which hydroponic system is best?
As a commercial grower we select the crop first, and then the grow system.
For example, lettuce is best grown in deep water culture (DWC), then Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), and only if there is no choice or there is excess capacity would we use coco-peat troughs or dutch buckets. Spinach is the reverse, its best to grow in coco-peat.
As a general rule (with many exceptions) look at the root system and identify if the crop is single-cut or multi-cut. You don't want to expose a multi-cut plant with fibrous roots to a DWC tank. The reason is the roots will eventually start to 'melt' or succumb to root rot. Hence a single-cut is best suited to DWC, not a multi-cut.
With vines, its best to grow plants that are susceptible to fast travelling diseases like bacterial wilt in separate troughs, not running troughs. You may even consider dutch buckets if your budget allows.
There are of course many other methods like ebb and flow, but we are covering just the major ones.
As a hobbyist or for home use, Kratky for vines, and NFT for leafy vegetables are the most convenient systems to setup. They are also space saving and easy to maintain.
Bustanica Dubai - world's largest hydroponic farm
Is hydroponic organic, better than organic?
Is Hydroponic farming organic? There is a ranging debate worl-wide. Short answer is - it depends on which country you are in. In the US, it is considered organic, in New Zealand it is not.
The second question is more thought-provoking : Is hydroponic better than organic? I argue it is better in 1 respect, but limited in another. Consider this -
Organic still uses soil, therefore still has soil-based worms and pests, still needs to be washed before eaten.. and still needs rainforests to be cut down. Hydroponic is setup on top of the soil. Much like your sofa sits on top of your floor. In fact you can setup hydroponics in deserts like UAE, Saudi Arabia etc, or even rivers and lakes. Go vertical along walls if you like. Since there is no soil, it suffers none of the soil-related problems. A big advantage.
The disadvantage is - you can grow a limited set of products using hydroponics. Most leafy vegetables, fruits, herbs, even flowers and medicinal plants are far superior in hydroponics with respect to size, weight, colour, taste and most importantly nutritious content. Rice, wheat, and much of what we consume is not grown hydroponically at present.
Likely direction is hydroponics and organic will together be part of a global solution as complementary not competing solutions.
Nutrient dosing on our farm
How are hydroponic nutrients made? Where do hydroponic nutrients come from? What hydroponic nutrients should I use? Where do plants get nutrients? When to add nutrients? When to flush? Can hydroponic nutrients be used in soil?
Just as we humans require vitamins, minerals, amino-acids etc, so do all plants. Spinach for example gives us our required daily amount (RDA) for potassium, iron, folate etc. If we don't get it in our food, we buy supplements or multi-vitamin and other combos.
Plants have similar needs for minerals and are typically given this through fertilizer either as a nutrient solution or as foliar spray.
As a hobbyist or for own use, simply buy a standard pack of 2 or 3 solutions and apply. Typically they are labelled solution A, B or A, B and C. Reason for them being separate is some minerals react with one another, so need to be mixed in water first, then combined. Miracle Gro is the world's largest and most well respected hydroponic solution brand, though of course there are many other providers.
As a commercial grower, its practical to buy basic minerals, and combine them in proportions suitable for individual crops and their life-stage.
A number of bio-stimulants are also used eg epsom salt, humic acid, fulvic acid, seaweed extract, etc - but these are typically for more sophisticated growers and agronomists.
Under-dosing, e.g below EC 0.7 for lettuce, creates weak plants with sluggish growth and exposes them to disease, while over-dosing results in plant distortion or even death, so solution PH and EC must be monitored and controlled within the narrow band define for each plant such that mineral absorption is maximised. Root inspection is also a must.
Flushing nutrient solution is done by commercial growers based on a schedule. For home use, I suggest every 3 weeks for a start till you become familiar with plant behaviour under different conditions.
I use hydroponic nutrients for soil - based plants for added vigour, but it is generally cheaper to use slow-release nutrient balls from the market over the long run