Tag Archives: organic hydroponics

Great fun at Florida Small Farms Conference

Aug. 5, 2013

OK, let’s get this out front and center: I had a blast at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference this past week.

It was supposed to be business for me, and it was, in that I had a booth there for the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and was informing people about ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) info. But, to be honest, I had so much fun talking with people who were small farmers and interested ecofarming that it was hardly “work.”

Here’s a photo essay of the conference, which ran Aug. 2-4 in Kissimmee, Fla.

It was a matter of pride to see fellow NCAT worker Dave Ryan, an energy engineer, fill up one of the conference rooms with his talk “Powering Your Greenhouse with Renewable Energy.” Solar, compost and geothermal options were explored. For more, see ncat.org

Then, there were awards given….

Margie and Nick Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead, Fla., won the Innovative Farmers Award at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla., Aug. 3, 2013. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Margie and Nick Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead, Fla., won the Innovative Farmers Award at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla., Aug. 3, 2013. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Margie and Nick Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead, Fla., won the Innovative Farmers Award (third place). They are longtime friends and it was a delight to see them! An organic farmer of many years, Margie is an encyclopedia of wisdom in ways to grow abundantly organically even in the demanding conditions of South Florida. Their farm is located near the Everglades in an area that has lost much of its farmland to residential growth. (See American Farmland Trust for more about that! http://www.farmland.org/)

Bee Heaven Farm, in my opinion, should be a national model for organic growing. The soil conditions there are only about 8 inches of “topsoil” consisting of sand, some vegetative matter, and porous limestone rock is a challenge for consistent growing. Conventional growers essentially are depleting the few nutrients in the soil and collapsing the structure so that it only hold what’s put into it.

Organic growers, like Margie, however, are building up the soil structure, building soil nutrients in the soil, encouraging microbial life and thereby actually adding to the soil medium as they grow, rather than depleting it.

The result is that organic growers like Margie and Nick are seeing positive yields and tasty crops while conventional growers are seeing ever worsening and more expensive growing conditions.

Farmers who are not taking the extra effort to rotate crops, build structure that helps hold moisture that otherwise would pass through the porous sand and limestone are seeing more expensive inputs and having to add biological agents and fight desertification (salt build up and nutrient loss through over use of irrigation).

The Bee Heaven model is one that should be seen as meaningful for sustainable farming as climate change intensifies, in my opinion.

CNG members Joseph Ballard and Paul Speros with SB Farms of Malone, Fla., also won the Innovative Farmers Award at the Florida Small Farmers and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla., Aug. 3, 2013. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

CNG members Joseph Ballard and Paul Speros with SB Farms of Malone, Fla., also won the Innovative Farmers Award at the Florida Small Farmers and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla., Aug. 3, 2013. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Since I’m a former board member of Certified Naturally Grown (and still an advisor on fruit and vegetable growing using organic methods), I was delighted to see CNG member SB Farms of Malone, Fla., also win the Innovative Farmers Award (second place). Joseph Ballard and Paul Speros offered good advice, as well, for beginning farmers. Congratulations!

Natalie Parkell and Kevin Osburn of Vertical Horizon Farm won the award (first place), also. Parkell gave an excellent talk on hyroponics for backyard or small or beginning farmers. They started out growing in their parents’ backyard, since they lived in a condo with no ground for growing — that is, until their parents told them to move, since they had dug up all the grass! So, they found a local business that would let them operate on a corner of their property. It became a big hit, especially marketing to the neighborhood. A small scale truly local success story!

I was intrigued by the prospects of hydroponics and aquaponics  as potential sustainable growing methods (especially since both are considered “iffy” when it comes to being certified organic – see earlier blog: “Organic Hydroponics: The Future of Farming?”). So, the bulk of my time when not manning the NCAT booth was attending seminars on these topics.

In pursuit of that, I went on the farm tour that included The Land exhibit at Disney World’s Epcot Center. Here are some photos:

When you enter The Land exhibit at Epcot Center, the first thing you see are gigantic fruit grown hydroponically. The growing medium is sand, infused with a fertilizer mixture. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

When you enter The Land exhibit at Epcot Center, the first thing you see are gigantic fruit grown hydroponically. The growing medium is sand, infused with a fertilizer mixture. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

As a demonstration of hydroponics as a growing method, The Land exhibit at Epcot grows small plots of grains, sugar cane and cotton. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

As a demonstration of hydroponics as a growing method, The Land exhibit at Epcot grows small plots of grains, sugar cane and cotton. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Within The Land pavilion at Epcot, actual plant research is being done to find ways to combat devastating diseases for commercial crops. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Within The Land pavilion at Epcot, actual plant research is being done to find ways to combat devastating diseases for commercial crops. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Much of the facility at The Land at Epcot has plants suspended from an automated growing system, whereby plants grown vertically are sprayed with fertilizers and the dripped overspray grows plants in the sand medium below. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Much of the facility at The Land at Epcot has plants suspended from an automated growing system, whereby plants grown vertically are sprayed with fertilizers and the dripped overspray grows plants in the sand medium below. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The sunward climb of plants on the spray conveyor allows fruit to be grown vertically rather than horizontally at The Land exhibit at Epcot. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The sunward climb of plants on the spray conveyor allows fruit to be grown vertically rather than horizontally at The Land exhibit at Epcot. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The Epcot demonstration is fascinating, but I’m not sure it’s very “sustainable,” at least not commercially as a farming method. The cost of the facilities and mechanical devices seems out of kilter with the potential sales of crops. But that may not be the point of the exhibit. Rather, the center shows how it can be done, and that it can be done. I’m going to have to think more about it before I’m convinced it’s a sustainable growing method. It certainly offers possibilities.

One of the concerns I have with hydroponics is that what you get from the produce is limited to what you give. By that, it’s like so-called “conventional” agriculture, in that the major nutrients are supplied. In such industrial agriculture models, NPK or the ingredients for synthetic fertilizer are present; but missing are the trace elements that a healthy organic soil provides. Better fertilizers would remedy that; ensuring it, of course, is the goal of organic certification. It’s an issue consumers should be aware of in making hydroponic purchases.

Regarding aquaponics, a key issue preventing organic certification, according to the farmers I talked to in Florida who practice it, is that the effluent from the fish is considered a “manure” by the National Organic Program. But, as Orange County Extension Director Richard Tyson explained, that is an inappropriate designation. First, regarding health concerns, neither E coli nor salmonella are — or even can be — present in such effluent because those only occur in warm-blooded animals; secondly, beneficial bacteria convert the ammonia waste into nitrates which are only then absorbed by the plants; so, a more appropriate designation would be classifying the effluent as nutrients, rather than manure.

In my opinion, especially when coupled with other energy saving methods such as using solar and wind for electrical needs, raising fish for animal protein and using the byproduct of that for fruit and vegetable food production in hydroponic vats is the type of sustainable methods that organic supporters should embrace.

We’ll consider more of this later.

But not all of the conference was “work.”

Rachel (right), daughter of longtime friends Nick and Margie Pikarsky, and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori, were great to be around at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla, Aug. 2-4.

Rachel (right), daughter of longtime friends Nick and Margie Pikarsky, and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori, were great to be around at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla, Aug. 2-4.

No, I wasn’t looking for beautiful young women to hang out with while in Florida, but I found them! It was most enjoyable visiting with Nick and Margie’s daughter Rachel Pikarsky (right) and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori. They were a total delight!

The fifth annual event was hosted by the University of Florida and Florida A&M.

I can’t wait to attend again next year!

For a good example of a successful, local hydroponics operation, see the Farmweek episode on St. Bethany Fresh Tomatoes on Pontotoc, MS:

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.

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Organic Hydroponics: The Future of Farming?

Organic Hydroponics: The Future of Farming?

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

(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.