Organic Hydroponics: The Future of Farming?
(A shorter version was published in the Jackson Free Press)
If you haven’t heard much of it yet, you are likely to: organic hydroponics.
Among urban agriculture proponents — those concerned about sustainability, maximizing space, producing food in “food deserts,” with little ecological footprint — it’s being touted as the future of farming. It may even be the way farming is done globally by the end of this century.
In hydroponics, the plants grow in a solution of mineral nutrients in water, without soil. The roots of the plants are either grown in a natural material “substrate” (such as peat, sawdust, bark, rice hulls, gravel) or directly in a nutrient solution.
One example is the The Science Barge, a retired barge that was repurposed by the nonprofit New York Sunworks. It uses one-tenth as much water as a comparable field farm, with no agricultural run-off, and it uses organic principles — including beneficial insects to avoid chemical pesticides.
Berthed at Yonkers, NY, it is considered a model for a sustainable urban farm — powered by solar, wind and biofuels, and irrigated by rainwater and purified river water, growing food in the city with no carbon emissions, no net water consumption, and no waste stream. (For more, see: http://nysunworks.org/thesciencebarge)
The organic, sustainable hydroponic idea has also been adapted for urban growing with the space efficient vertical farm model — which can be several stories tall attached to high-rise buildings. In 2009, Time magazine named El Paso, Texas, based Valcent’s vertical hydroponic farming technology one of the top 50 innovations of the year.
Cities around the world are already trying massive vertical hydroponics garden experiments; one in Madrid encompasses 2,769 square feet and includes 44,000 plants.
Even apartment dwellers are joining the movement, with specialty shops springing up, such as Bronx Hydro & Garden, New York City’s first DIY urban farming/gardening store. Systems range from intricate indoor green systems to indoor grow rooms to small aquarium-type set-ups to simple window boxes. A starter kit can cost under $40 and is sold on Amazon.com.
Urban hydroponics has its limitations. It’s estimated that to feed 50,000 people a balanced diet of 1500 calories per day, a vertical farm would have to be 30 stories tall the size of one square New York City block. (See: Interview with Dickson Despommier: http://www.knowledge.allianz.com/environment/food_water/?1529/vertical-farming-takes-root). However, in smaller increments, it can substantially add to urban populations’ food requirements. For example, using the same calculation, a three or four storey vertical farm on top of an apartment block could feed its 300 to 400 inhabitants.
The concept, like permaculture, which employs natural systems blended with organic growing to provide food, is being extended to even larger systems, as well.
For example, aquaponics, a combination of the best of aquaculture and hydroponics, is being promoted as a way to grow organic vegetables along with fresh fish as a safe, healthy source of protein. In one private research aquaponics farm in subtropical Australia, rafts of Pak Choi were grown with the sole nutrient waste from Barramundi table fish. The yield was 1.5 tons of vegetables for every one ton of saleable fish. (See: http://www.cityfarmer.info/?s=organic+hydroponics)
If adopted in larger sea-based systems, it could do much to mitigate climate change, groundwater pollution, diminishing availability of land suitable for crops and the impacts of overfishing on our oceans.
Why Don’t We Hear More About Organic Hydroponics?
If it’s such an important and growing potential solution for food production in both urban settings and sustainably worldwide, then why don’t we hear more about organic hydroponics?
The answer is that “organic hydroponics” is a touchy subject in the organic food industry and among farmers themselves.
Why? Because of the lack of soil. The basics of organics has traditionally been the health of the soil. Where soils are healthy and chemical free, the philosophy goes, so is the produce. The National Organic Program, which determines acceptable practices for USDA organic certification, has neither flatly approved nor rejected hydroponics as a growing method because of this basic tenet.
Rather, it has pointed to a previous ruling regarding acceptance of “soil-less” growing as determined by its fertilizer usage. This generally followed a 1995 recommendation by the National Organic Standards Board, which advises USDA over NOP programs, that hydroponics production systems could possibly be conducted as organic operations as long as these systems met the other requirements of the national standards.
So, each state or local organic certifying agency is allowed to decide if it will accept a hydroponics system as organic. As it stands, some agencies do, some don’t.
One system that has been widely adopted as a certified organic method is the nutrient film technique (NFT) hydroponic system that uses only NOP-approved materials. It’s widely sold, and available online.
For current hydroponic growers, the easiest way of finding out what they can and can’t use to be NOP compliant is to check out the Organic Material Review Institute website under allowable fertilizers (see: http://www.omri.org/).
Using organic fertilizers is difficult. The best and highest quality hydroponics fertilizers are refined, which is prohibited by NOP (See: http://www.generalhydroponics.com/genhydro_US/quicktips/OrganicHydroponicArticle.pdf) Also, there is the issue of monitoring the inputs and ensuring plant health.
Many farmers going to hydroponics are adopting a system called “recirculation hydroponics,” which recirculates water. Recirculation makes it easier for organic hydroponics farmers to control the quality and pH of water used in the growing process, as well as the types of amendments. (For more, see The Advantages and Challenges of Recirculation Hydroponics for Beginning Farmers, http://www.youngfarmers.org/blog/2012/12/28/the-advantages-and-challenges-of-recirculation-hydroponics-for-beginning-farmers/) Organic hydroponics requires solutions using microorganisms, which also can also present problems regarding algae and the like.
The organic certification issue is certainly not over. The NOSB has raised much outcry with an advisory opinion that says that hydroponics not be certified since it contains no soil (See: Production Standards for Terrestrial Plants in Containers and Enclosures, Greenhouses). This, despite a number of fully certified operations now in production in the United States, and major suppliers offering equipment for swelling numbers of growers wanting to pursue this “organic” way of growing.
Many who are adopting this method are preferring to call it simply a “sustainable” or “natural,” pesticide-free farming method.
Make no mistake: Hydroponics may not be “the” solution for natural, sustainable, pesticide-free farming (which organics is supposed to encompass), but it’s certainly “a” solution that’s being adopted worldwide by growers large and small.
Useful info: How to start your own home organic hydroponics system, from Mother Earth News: http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/homegrown-hydroponics-zmaz77mazbon.aspx
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.