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Posted by kevinwolz on July 3, 2010

I’ve been on a lot of farm visits lately. Farm visits allow me to know where my food comes from, learn about different agricultural methods, and even try my hand at a few of them. My latest farm visit was to a hydroponics grower that sells tomatoes and peppers at the local FM. This visit wasn’t as great as the last few I’ve written about…I’m just not too sure about this whole hydroponics thing.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in an inert perlite/gravel/plastic/glass medium with nutrient-rich water INSTEAD of soil. The nutrient-rich water is pumped through the medium and provides the plants with their essentials. The plants are spaced quite closely and the medium is very small because they’re not really competing for nutrient resources in this saturated solution. A side effect of this small root mass is that the plants need to be thoroughly tied and staked since they have almost no balance of their own.

The nutrients (various nitrate and sulfate salts) are shipped to the farm from…well who knows where!? These mineral nutrients are either mined somewhere in the world or produced using quite a bit of (fossil fuel) energy. This doesn’t sit well with me. Not to mention, there’s no plant-soil interaction! The plant doesn’t get what it needs…it just gets what we THINK it needs.

But let’s put the technical pieces aside for a minute. What’s the end product like? Well, actually the tomato isn’t even that good. It’s really watery, not very flavorful, and barely stores for a few days in the fridge. There’s not much going for it!

On my run today, I decided that hydroponics doesn’t pass my (spontaneously created) FLOR test. FLOR stands for “Fresh, Local, Organic, and Responsible” and seems to be a pretty good tool for evaluating my food. Ideally, my food should pass in each of these four areas. Let’s see how the hydroponic tomatoes stand up to the test:

Fresh: Well, the tomatoes were certainly picked off the vine no more than a day before I bought them. But is that even worth much if they taste terrible and don’t last? Even objectively, this doesn’t seem like a very viable option for spreading the joy of fresh food in the community.

Local: The tomatoes are grown less than 15 miles from my house. That’s definitely local. Don’t be fooled though! Remember those nutrients? Ah, yes, the idea of “food miles” is certainly a complex one! There’s not much merit to locally grown tomatoes if the nutrients needed to grow them are adding the otherwise negated food miles right back on to the total. Heck, South American tomatoes might even have these guys beat for all we know.

Organic: By this, I don’t mean “certified” or anything of the sort. To me, organic is much more of a subjective term. Sure, it certainly implies food free of any –cides or GMOs, but more than that it also means food grown in a thoughtful, biologically conscious manner. This hydroponics farm doesn’t use any –cides or GMOs, but the whole idea of inert growing media and industrially produced nutrients just doesn’t seem to jive with my idea of organic. In the words of Will Allen, “It’s all about the soil!” Plants have coevolved with the soil ecosystem. That’s organic.

Responsible: While probably the least tangible criterion, this may just be the most important. Here, “responsible” encompasses the triple bottom line: economic, social, and environmental responsibility. I can’t really speak to the economic viability of this particular operation, but I don’t think that being completely dependent on a nutrient import is very economically sustainable. The social aspect is also hard. I guess I’ll just say that the workers didn’t seem very happy, and the greenhouses were pretty messy. Again, these aren’t great characteristics if we want to make sustainable food attractive to the masses. Finally, the nutrient production and import essentially fails the environmentally responsible aspect right away. Furthermore, I didn’t see any safeguards in place for containing nutrient leaks or for recycling unused nutrients back through the system.

Hydroponics may be the solution for a Mars base, but here on Earth, I’ll stick to the soil.


2 Responses to “Hydroponics”

  1. Joan said

    I agree with you Kevin. Doesn’t sound like a good idea to me, either.


  2. Roger said

    It has always seemed a bit sifi, or spaceshipish to me. Gee I got two words underlined in red in that last sentence, no imagination in this spell check. Anyway I’m old fashioned enough to want to be in touch with the soil when growing plants. Rog

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