Food Forum: Hydroponic growing gains momentum

When consumers purchase produce, they are spending more money on the fuel and transportation costs it took to get it to the supermarket than they are on the actual costs to grow the items.

By Zachery Carr

With the demand for fresh, high-quality produce on the rise, retailers are having to source further and further away from local farms and growers to meet the demand. They are getting tomatoes from California, lettuce from Arizona and strawberries from Spain. So much of the nutritional value and flavor is lost in produce that is grown to survive the long journey to the store. Growing produce hydroponically allows retailers to provide a greater variety of high-quality, locally grown food at a lower cost.

Hydroponics is defined as the cultivation of plants in water rather than soil. Plants do not need soil as long as the proper nutrients are supplied through the water. Hydroponic growing reduces inputs, including fuel, water and labor, and it boosts productivity by reducing disease, improving crop turnover, maximizing space and increasing yield-per-plant.

As a greenhouse and hydroponics specialist at Growers Supply, I speak with men and women everyday who are ready to grow produce with hydroponics.  Some have come to the realization that more money can be made growing hydroponically, while others are just tired of the rising costs of transporting fresh produce.  Hydroponic farming allows producers to grow an impressive amount of produce in a small amount of space.

One of the most common hydroponic techniques is the nutrient film technique (NFT). In a NFT system a nutrient-water solution is continuously recirculated over the plants roots.  The plants are grown in long channels that are 4, 6 or 9 inches wide, depending on the crop.  The channels are slightly sloped to a 1-foot rise for every 30 or 40 feet.  The nutrient-water solution is introduced to the top of the channel at a rate of 1 to 2 quarts per minute per channel. As the water runs down the length of the channels, it continuously bathes the plants roots and is eventually directed back to the reservoir to be circulated again.

As a designer and engineer of greenhouses and NFT hydroponic systems, I often work with growers who are looking to diversify their operation, business owners who are looking to increase yields and more recently, grocers who are looking to reduce costs and improve their produce. One of my most recent projects involved an Illinois-based business. They saw the obvious—that there was money in hydroponics.

To boost their business, they wanted to start growing lettuce with hydroponics. I helped them design an engineered greenhouse and NFT hydroponic system to meet their needs.  The greenhouse is 24’ wide by 128’ long and is equipped with fully automated, state-of-the-art environmental controls that can be monitored and controlled from anywhere with a smartphone. With their NFT hydroponic system, they are able produce 1,290 heads of lettuce per week, including romaine, Bibb and leaf lettuces. Including a nursery area for seed germination and transplant production, their greenhouse manufactures one head of lettuce for every 2.4 square feet each week.

The amount of production that this Illinois based business is seeing is at least 17 times more productive than field growing. It addition, growing hydroponically uses a fraction of the space and water required for traditional soil growing. They produce more than enough for their business and sell the excess to local restaurants and grocery store chains.
As more and more people realize the impact of the current food supply chain and the potential of hydroponics, we are seeing businesses make the transition. Growers Supply has helped businesses nationwide reduce their costs, improve product quality and become more green.

Zachery Carr is a greenhouse and hydroponics specialist at Growers Supply, a manufacturer of greenhouses, high tunnels and hydroponic systems, offering design-build solutions for the horticulture industry. For more information, visit

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