Introduction to Hydroponics
What is hydroponic growing and what makes it so ripe for innovation? The definition of hydroponics actually lies within the name itself, which means “working water” in Greek. Water (as opposed to soil) is the foundation, medium, and catalyst in this ancient agricultural technique.
The roots of hydroponic growing run deep. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, designed and constructed almost 3,000 years ago, are one of the earliest known examples of hydroponic cultivation. In his travels through East Asia, Marco Polo describes floating gardens in China. In Central America, the Aztecs constructed growing systems on rafts called chinampas which derived nutrients and oxygenation from the canals and waterways below. To this day, rice - one of the world’s most heavily produced crops - is grown and harvested in a soilless environment.
Suffice to say, hydroponic techniques are not new but their modern integration within indoor farming environments offers a compelling path forward for urban food systems grappling with resource scarcity, over-population, food insecurity, and nutrient depletion. We, at Farmshelf, are dedicated to developing smart hydroponic growing solutions for businesses and individuals as an avenue toward sustainability, wellness, and food sovereignty.
Indoor Farming 101
Indoor farming - often interchangeably called “vertical farming” - is the practice of growing crops in controlled indoor environments as opposed to open-air environments. While indoor farming cannot completely displace traditional agriculture yet, the industry has begun to recognize its importance as a means of climate-proofing and population-proofing parts of the modern food chain. Consequently, indoor farming is expected to be a $40B+ business by 2022.
Over time, agricultural methods to control the previously uncontrollable variables of water, temperature, wind, and nutrients have been refined and improved. The earliest iterations of controlled food environments sprung up in the form of primitive greenhouses and irrigation systems. In recent years, agricultural technology has become more sophisticated and scalable, adapting various cultivation techniques like hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics for indoor farming operations.
Before we dive into the specific advantages of hydroponics, a quick glossary of the leading indoor agriculture techniques:
- Traditional: if you’ve got herb pots on the window ledge, you’re already farming indoors. This method is great for fresh micro herbs, but requires a reliable source of sunlight and someone to tend and water pots.
- Aeroponic: plants are grown in a soil-free environment under LED lights and nourished by a nutrient-rich mist.
- Aquaponic: plant and fish in perfect harmony. While not a simple arrangement to install at home, this system allows a tank of fish to fertilize the water, which is then filtered by the plants.
- Hydroponic: plants grow in a nutrient-rich solution under LED lights.
The Benefits of Hydroponic Cultivation
Of all indoor growing techniques, hydroponic has some of the clearest environmental, logistical, and nutritional advantages. This is why Farmshelf relies exclusively on hydroponic technology to operate our bookshelf-sized, smart farms for the restaurant, corporate cafeteria, home kitchen, and classroom.
Environmental: Traditional farming is highly resource-intensive. On average, global agriculture consumes over 70% of the world’s fresh water each year and pumps 6 billion pounds of pesticides into a diminishing supply of arable land. With the compounding crises of over-population and climate change straining the limits of our commercial food system, there is a distinct need for alternative methods of food production.
Hydroponic uses 90% less water than traditional farming and does not require arable land to grow, making it one of the most resource-efficient agricultural practices available to us. Extreme heat and water scarcity will continue to impact food access over the next century. Hydroponic growing accounts for those vulnerabilities.
Instead of leaving crops exposed to increasingly volatile weather, you grow crops within a temperature-controlled environment that protects plants from extreme heat, frost, floods, and other seasonal weather conditions. Instead of using massive amounts of water for irrigation - only 0.1% of which is actually used by the plant itself, you deliver nutrients through a recirculated water system in which plants take the hydration they need and return the rest.
Growing within a controlled micro-climate allows you to isolate and manipulate variables such as sunlight, moisture, and temperature while also protecting crops from pests and chemicals.
Logistical: Hydroponic growing shortens the physical distance from farm to plate and optimizes spatial efficiency with its vertical infrastructure.
Consider the following statistic: the average piece of produce in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles to get to your plate. We currently rely on a disjointed food transportation system that is both expensive and unsustainable. Studies estimate that we expend over 10 kcal of energy on food transportation for an equivalent 1 kcal of energy from the food itself. There is little justification for such an inefficient system. We can still enjoy imported foods while restructuring our staple diet around foods that can be grown locally and better yet, hydroponically.
Vertical growing operations are particularly well-suited for urban environments where space is a precious commodity. Reducing the square footage and land requirements of food production opens up the possibilities for rooftop, warehouse, and in-home growing solutions, all of which are more accessible to people and businesses based in major cities.
Nutrition & Yield
Last but not least, the yield and nutritional value of hydroponic produce is consistently higher than traditional farming.
Similar to water waste, there is significant nutrient loss in traditional soil farming. A plant growing in soil must search for its nutrients in the earth, which is often compacted, dry, and dense. Not only does the plant lose valuable energy in the process but nutrients are lost along the way.
Hydroponics enables a much cleaner medium for delivering nutrients to the plant and thus, results in average 4x yield and 30-50x faster growth than traditional farming methods. In a hydroponic system, food is allowed to grow and ripen on the plant itself, free from the chemicals typically used to deter pests and soil disease. This has huge implications for nutrient density and flavor as well as yield.
Farmshelf envisions a food future in which the majority of the average household’s or average food supplier’s greens, herbs, and vegetables are grown on site, in the home kitchen, or in the local community. We intend to contribute to this evolution by producing the best personal hydroponic farm on the market. A simplified food supply chain means less waste, less chemicals, better nutritional value, and better access for all. Let’s get growing.