Understanding Hydroponic Vegetables

By Natalie Jacobs

With drought constantly threatening farming (and life) in California, the state has been a heavy proponent of hydroponic growing since it began reducing the water that farmers were allowed to use on their crops nearly 15 years ago. Hydroponic systems remove soil from the farming equation, replacing it instead with water that’s infused with all of the nutrients that any specific plant needs to thrive. The plants are grown in greenhouses in pipes atop tables that are hooked up to water pumps, protected from inclement weather and incubated in a closed-loop system.

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Five years ago, San Diegan Sean Keany started Sun Dial Farms in Vista, Calif., which operates out of his parents’ greenhouses on 1.4 acres of available land. The family has been growing orchids on their land for more than 30 years. When the state water restrictions became a hardship on the family farm, they got together and started discussing other options.

“With hyrdoponics,” Keany explains, “we only use 20 percent of the water that you’d use to fuel other crops. All of the water that we use, the plants drink it and then all of the water that we waste we re-capture and feed it onto other plants on our property.”

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In addition to being sustainable and water-saving, hydroponics are also more exacting than soil. If you’re growing plants in soil and realize they are lacking a key nutrient, the only way to get it to them at that point is through the water, which is what hydroponics does anyway. So using this system removes an entire step, as well as the potential for soil-born diseases and pesticides to enter into the crop.

The crop is also a much higher quality and it lasts longer. When you buy hydroponic vegetables, they come with the roots still on, “so it’s like you haven’t cut the head off its body and you still have a very alive plant,” Keany says. “If you put the butter lettuce in your refrigerator and store it air tight, it will last for a week to two weeks, whereas other lettuce will wilt in three to five days.”

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But starting up a hydroponic farm is costly and involves a lot of trial-and-error. The equipment and greenhouse space can get exorbitant very quickly, and it takes a couple years to figure out the right crops to grow and what seasons work best for which plants. Keany says he’s seen a lot of these operations come and go even in the five years that he’s been doing it, because it can take so long to become profitable. He says he’s been lucky, because he was able to use the existing greenhouse infrastructure on his family’s property, and also to take advantage of their staff’s deep knowledge of the systems that make the whole operation work.

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Sun Dial Farm now grows greens like butter romaine, kale, collards, bok choy, basil and arugula that Keany sells at farmers markets and local food stores, since he wants to keep the operation local. They are currently only using 15,000 square feet of the 1.4 acres on the property, so there is plenty of room for growth. And five years in, Keany is feeling like he’s got everything dialed and ready to keep growing.

To learn more about Sun Dial Farms and their hydroponic vegetables, visit http://sundialfarmca.com/.

If you’re interested in trying hydroponic growing on the small scale, check out this guide from Instructables: http://www.instructables.com/id/Hydroponics—at-Home-and-for-Beginners/.

For an update on recent drought conditions and water restrictions in California, check out this article from Think Progress: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/02/03/3240371/california-drought-water-deliveries/.