Hydroponic Farms Grow Fresh Produce Year-Round
Hydroponics, the technique of growing plants without soil in a controlled environment, has been around for hundreds of years. Sir Francis Bacon first wrote about it back in the 1600s. His work spawned research, which led to discoveries concerning the mineral nutrients plants need to thrive and the development of technologies to deliver those nutrients without soil.
Today, hydroponic systems range from the simple to the sophisticated. They include both kitchen windowsill herb gardens and high-tech setups in massive commercial ventures. The term itself – hydroponics, from the Greek hydro, meaning water, and ponos, meaning labor – literally means “water working.”
Water is working well, in fact, for North Carolina farmers who use hydroponics to grow lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and other fresh produce in greenhouses year-round. The controlled environment and carefully engineered nutrient delivery systems free these farmers from many of the limitations of field-grown crops – for instance, seasonal production, variations in soil quality and mineral content, weather and weeds.
As one part of its overall operation that also includes field-grown tomatoes and strawberries, Shelton Family Farm in Jackson County near Whittier produces 10,000 to 12,000 heads of hydroponically grown Bibb lettuce every week.
“It’s a year-round operation that’s geared toward wholesale markets. It’s an intensive production,” says William Shelton Jr., a fourth-generation family farmer whose lettuce is distributed in grocery stores throughout the Southeast.
Prior to 1986, when Shelton began growing lettuce hydroponically, his farm, like many in North Carolina, primarily produced livestock and tobacco.
SEE MORE: Hydroponics 101
“I grew up on a subsistence farm here in the mountains, and we raised a lot of stuff for our own consumption. But as far as commercial enterprises, it was tobacco and livestock,” Shelton recalls. “When I graduated from college and took over the farm, I kind of saw the handwriting on the wall with tobacco, so we made the transition kind of early on. We’ve tried to diversify and fill a niche.”
That meant building greenhouses and installing hydroponic systems that currently occupy two 120-foot-by-96-foot ranges. A nutrient flow-tray system pumps the nutrient solution from an in-ground tank into plastic PVC channels. The channels are built to allow the water to flow through them via gravity, coming in contact with the roots of each plant as it passes through the channel, then drops into a gutter and returns to the nutrient tank.
“It’s an enclosed system that runs 24/7, and it’s very efficient from a water-usage standpoint because we recycle the water,” Shelton says. “The only water that’s actually consumed in the process is what is taken up and transpired through the plants.”
Water conservation is just one of the benefits of hydroponic farming. Other advantages include the absence of weeds and less potential for disease.
“Disease is more manageable, mainly because you’re keeping the tops of the plants dry,” Shelton explains. “They’re not getting hit with rain that’s dispersing disease organisms. And they’re not being hit with wind or hail or things like that.”
Constant, regulated uptake of an exact mix of mineral nutrients also makes hydroponically grown crops consistently nutritious and flavorful.
But, perhaps most important, the controlled environment of the greenhouse allows for year-round production, which means better access to fresh produce for consumers and more income for farmers. Shelton estimates that, due to the intensity of production – seeding, transplanting and harvesting every week of the year – his half-acre of greenhouse space yields the equivalent of 80 acres to 90 acres of field-grown lettuce.
Of course, hydroponic farming is not all a bed of … lettuce. While production is fairly straightforward, it requires constant attention, significant investment and a great deal of marketing. Shelton’s operation keeps him and four full-time employees busy all year long.
“Hydroponic farming is not necessarily for everybody,” he says, “but it is a viable alternative for people who are willing to put the work in.”
Scott Spahr, of Spahr’s Produce Farm in Lillington, echoes that sentiment. “It’ll work for anybody if you want to work at it,” he says. “But it’s not for everybody. It’s a lot of work. It keeps me busy every day.”
Spahr, who runs his Harnett County operation mostly solo since his parents retired, diversified into hydroponics about 15 years ago, gradually adding one greenhouse at a time as he could afford it. He started with tomatoes, then added lettuce, English cucumbers and bell peppers. Today, three of his five hydroponic greenhouses are dedicated to tomatoes – two for the spring crop, one for the winter crop.
“I seem to get better quality and size with two different crops,” he explains.
Selling exclusively at farmers markets, Spahr’s goal was to be able to make a living through the winter. “Now the winter market is almost as good as the summer market is,” he says.
– Carol Cowan