Drought and heat? Some farmers try hydroponics

Oct 4, 2012

Marv Fritz runs a 24-acre greenhouse in O’Neill, Neb., in the north-central part of the state. The 7-year-old greenhouse produces about 250,000 pounds of tomatoes a week during the height of summer.

After months of record heat across the Midwest, Fritz said this greenhouse, run by local company Garden Fresh Vegetables, uses very little water.

“We probably use, I don’t know, 2 or 3 percent of the water that a corn crop would use covering the same acreage,” Fritz said.

It’s more than just the greenhouse making the difference – the real game changer here is hydroponic technology.

Maybe the word jogs memories from the Future World exhibit at Disney World – or maybe you’ve read an article or two about NASA experiments aimed at growing crops in space. Essentially, hydroponics involves growing plants without dirt. Instead of receiving nutrients from soil or fertilizer, the plants receive nutrients from water solutions that drip directly into the root system.

The technology has been around since the 1920s, but researchers say it has only really started to take off in the last decade or so. According to a report from IBIS World, a market research company, the annual growth of the U.S. hydroponic crop industry for each of the last five years was around 8 percent.

Across the Midwest, farms are hoping to take advantage of renewed interest in hydroponics. Take Elm Lane Farm, for example, which grows hydroponic lettuce. The small farm, located just outside Wichita, Kan., is pretty new – in fact, they just harvested their first crop at the end of June.

“My brother in South Carolina has been doing hydroponic gardening for 13 years, I guess? With tomatoes, and then more recently with lettuce, and he’d been encouraging us to start one,” said Karen Hull, who built Elm Lane Farm’s greenhouse in April with her husband Mike.

“Right now we’re still in the learning curve portion of it,” Karen Hull said, “but we’re enjoying watching the lettuce grow and learning how to deal with the various issues that come up.”

The Hulls, along with other proponents of hydroponics, said growing in a controlled-environment can eliminate the need for pesticides or chemicals; greenhouses are also highly efficient in terms of physical space and plants can be grown year-round.

But the real draw is that decreased water use, said Peter Ling, who specializes in controlled-environment agriculture at Ohio State University. He said lettuce grown in a field uses about 10 to 30 gallons of water per head, while lettuce grown in a controlled environment – such as hydroponics – requires only 1 to 2 gallons per head. That’s at least 80 percent less water.

Still, despite the technology’s increasing popularity, Ling said we can’t expect to see hydroponics eclipsing field production any time soon.  

“For a field crop farmer that is going into hydroponics, there’s a lot of new concepts that need to be adopted, technology that needs to be learned,” Ling said. And it’s not cheap. “The main thing is the cost, the investment in technology involved.”

But isn’t farmland really expensive right now, too? A good irrigated ground in central Nebraska costs $5,000 to $6,000 per acre, according to the Kansas City Federal Reserve.

Fritz said that’s small beans compared to a large hydroponic system like the one in O’Neill, estimating that the cost of a new greenhouse would run around half a million dollars per acre. The costs are worth it for certain premium crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and peppers – and farmers are continuing to experiment with new crops.

In Montana, for example, David Oberst is looking to spread the use of hydroponic cattle feed with his company All Seasons Greens. The three-year-old company sells hydroponic growing chambers for livestock feed that are used at about a dozen operations, including a ranch in Nebraska and a dairy farm in Missouri.

“Our growing chamber, on an annual basis, it would produce what would be equal to 150 acres of land growing alfalfa, if you got two good cuttings of high-quality alfalfa,” Oberst said.

While Oberst said some are hesitant to try to the new technology, he argued it’s just a variation of an old practice.

“People that I talk to out in the field say, ‘Oh, my grandpa, my great-grandpa, they used to lay out oats and seeds on the barn floor and then spray water on them, and let them grow for three or four days and then turn the hogs in there and let them eat them,’” Oberst said.

For now, hydroponics remains active in mostly a niche market and Fritz said he doesn’t see that changing any time soon, simply because of the cost of investment and the availability of farmland.

“As long as we have plenty of land in this country, it’s going to be tough,” Fritz said. “And that’s why you see that type of production, say, in Holland or China, Korea… They have very little arable land and a lot of people.”

Hull, the Kansas farmer, agreed and said there’s still a lot to learn about hydroponics.

“In Kansas, and probably the Midwest in general, it’s such a dirt-based agriculture, with the wheat and corn and soybeans,” Hull said. “I just think it’s a matter of education, that as people become more familiar with the products that are grown, that it will hopefully become more widespread.”

If drought continues to be an issue, and if the costs of the technology associated with hydroponics continue to decrease, more and more operations might look into ditching their soil and trying something new.