This story originally ran in the June-May 2013 edition of The Henry Ford Magazine.
Greenhouses on rooftops in city centers, next to supermarkets, on hospital campuses, in Antarctic research centers, on golf resorts and on space stations.
I continue to see new applications and extensions of hydroponic growing popping up in nontraditional spaces around the world, especially as populations increase and arable land declines. For me, I consider it my privilege that I have been able to help design cropping systems in some of these spaces — from the British West Indies and downtown Montreal to a suburb of Detroit — that are maximizing production while using less energy and natural resources.
Hydroponics, or growing plants without soil, isn’t a new science, but it is a versatile one.
Almost all commercial greenhouse vegetable production is grown hydroponically. Some of the largest growers in the U.S. and Canada, such as Village Farms, Windset Farms, Eurofresh Farms and Houweling’s Tomatoes, have hydroponic greenhouse operations equaling 200 or more acres in size, with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, lettuce and various herbs growing.
One of my most recent challenges was designing a small greenhouse for Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in a suburb outside Detroit. The objective was to produce vegetables hydroponically to increase production in the limited area of the greenhouse. At the same time, they wanted to grow an assortment of vegetables.
To do this, we designed a number of different hydroponic systems to meet the specific needs of each crop. Plant towers increased production of various herbs, as greenhouses have vertical space that must be optimized in its production systems. A water culture system called nutrient film technique (NFT) was the choice for lettuce and basil. Tomatoes, peppers and other vine crops are grown in buckets of perlite with a drip irrigation system feeding the plants with a nutrient solution.
The versatility of hydroponics applied at its simplest best.
Better by design, hydroponic operations, whether they are large and commercial or smaller scale like the hospital’s greenhouse, require less space, less energy to run and consume less water. And, without the presence of soil, they don’t have to rely on artificial pesticides. Instead, they can use Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a biological procedure powered by natural predators and bioagents (pesticides made from natural sources), to control pests.
For the end consumer, that equates to crops free of disease, improved food safety and even increased nutritional value.
Howard Resh is the manager of the hydroponic farm at CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa in Anguilla, British West Indies, where fresh salad crops are grown for the guests of the resort. Dr. Resh is also an international consultant on the development of hydroponic operations. He has written five books, with Hydroponic Food Production in its seventh edition, and also has a website.