Out of the shadows
Once part of illicit niche markets, hydroponics is finding new footing in the mainstream, fueled by a farm-to-table frenzy and fears of foodborne illnesses
By Jake Armstrong 07/21/2011
Twenty years ago, a wink and a nod was what it took for someone to get their hands on a hydroponically grown product, be it from a long-haired man in a dark alley or amid a sea of tie-dye at a Grateful Dead concert.
But today, hydroponics — the practice of growing plants in nutrient-rich water without soil, a technique long relegated to clandestine marijuana production — is emerging as the agricultural method of choice for gourmands and consumers alike.
Chefs say they prefer the control and higher quality hydroponics provides for their gourmet lettuce, herbs and other produce. Environmentally minded consumers are beginning to embrace the sustainability of hydroponics, since vegetables can be grown without harmful pesticides and herbicides while using up to 90 percent less water than traditional farming methods.
With more products cropping up at local farmer’s markets and in produce aisles across the nation, hydroponics is moving out of the shadows and into the mainstream, observers say. It’s even being eyed as a solution to feeding an overpopulated world as natural resources become increasingly scarce and as a way of sustaining human colonies that one day may inhabit Mars or the moon.
“It used to be that you could only find one story on hydroponics — and it wasn’t the one we wanted to tell,” said Robert LaGasse, executive director of the Virginia-based Progressive Gardening Trade Association, an international hydroponics industry group.
A growing trend in the Pasadena area, David Goldman has been at the forefront of that transition. The owner of Living Lettuce Farms, which produces hydroponically grown gourmet lettuce sold at farmer’s markets in South Pasadena, Hollywood and elsewhere, and of BetterGrow Hydro hydroponics supply stores in Pasadena and Bell, Goldman said hydroponics is gaining a foothold for a variety of reasons.
One is the diminishing availability of quality farm land, of which more than 23 million acres were lost to development between 1982 and 2007, according to the US Department of Food and Agriculture. Using hydroponics, Living Lettuce Farms is able to harvest as many as 1,500 heads of red and green butter, loose leaf and Batavia lettuce each week on less than a quarter-acre in the backyard of a home in Reseda, where the farm opened in 1995. (Full disclosure: The author, a former deputy editor of the Weekly, currently works for BetterGrow Hydro.)
Another reason is the push to reduce the number of “food miles” — the distance produce must travel between the farm and the table — necessary to provide fresh produce to consumers, as well as the impact of high water use and polluting runoff associated with traditional farming. Living Lettuce Farms is only 30 miles away from the restaurants, caterers and farmer’s markets the company serves.
And then there’s the longstanding connotation that hydroponics can only produce one thing well: pot.
“I think there was a big stigma that hydroponics was just used solely for growing indoors, and primarily for growing marijuana,” Goldman said. “Also, a lot of consumers were under the impression that hydroponically grown produce didn’t have any flavor or nutritional value, that it just tasted like water.”
That was true in earlier years, when hydroponic tomatoes grown in Canadian greenhouses had to be picked before full maturity so they would still be fresh after traveling thousands of miles to stores. But as more US farms turned to hydroponics, produce no longer had to travel so far and could be picked at maturity and, in some cases sold the same day at local farmer’s markets. That has had a big impact on consumer sentiment toward hydroponic produce, according to Goldman.
“The vegetables are tasting a lot better now, so I think a lot more people are getting into it,” he said.
It’s already a well-known fact that hydroponics can produce the highest grade of marijuana. Asks Goldman, “Don’t we want to be growing the best produce, too?”
Getting high (end)
Demand for gourmet lettuce in high-end restaurants and by consumers seeking hormone- and pesticide-free products has fueled new interest in commercial hydroponic production as of late. Now, news reports of urban rooftop farms plying hydroponics on the skylines of the nation’s biggest cities are echoing across the country, with gourmet and high-end local restaurants being some of the largest customers.
Even Saladish, one of the newest restaurants in trendy Old Pasadena, is dabbling with hydroponics, enticing passersby with a hydroponics system in its storefront window.
Right now, the tomatoes and habanero peppers growing in the system are a conversation starter for customers, but someday Michael Schwarber, head chef and regional manager of Saladish, hopes to meet all of the restaurant’s produce needs through its own urban hydroponic farm.
Produce markets can become volatile, and when prices rise, the quality tends to go down in inverse proportion, Schwarber said. Hydroponics offers far greater control over quality and can produce much higher yields than traditional methods, which are dependent on the seasons, he said.
“Hydroponics is just so efficient; it is hard not to see the benefits,” Schwarber said. “You’re really playing God, start to finish.”
Foodborne fearsLaGasse said consumer interest in soilless growing seems to increase with each outbreak of foodborne illness.
Peppers, tomatoes, lettuce and spinach crops have all been hit with salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in the past five years, during which tainted produce sickened hundreds of people, killing at least three. Livestock and dairy operations near the farms that produced the vegetables were the suspected sources of contamination in at least two cases.
“All of these are bringing back an interest in local production, organic production and more know-where-it’s-grown activities. We see pretty much a bump in interest every time one of these foodborne illnesses breaks out,” LaGasse said.
Interest in do-it-yourself and at-home hydroponics spiked a few years ago when one of the first widely available, user-friendly home hydroponic systems — the Aerogarden — hit the market, said LaGasse, adding that photos of amazing, sometimes outlandish, homemade hydroponic systems often turn up in the PGTA’s annual photo contests.
“There’s definitely more of an awareness now than there was before,” Goldman added. “But now that you are seeing more lettuce with the roots still attached in stores and more hydroponic produce at farmer’s markets, it’s certainly helping on the awareness side.”
The future of food
The United Nations’ world food price index reached an all-time high in February, and the agency also projects that the world population will pass the 7-billion mark this year and reach 9 billion by 2050. For researchers and agronomists, that raises serious questions about how the world’s population will feed itself amid increasing competition for limited resources.
One emerging answer to that question is hydroponics.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization five years ago debuted a project in the slums of Bogota and Medellin, Columbia, that taught more than 32,000 families without access to farmland how to provide for themselves using simple hydroponic systems made of water bottles, old tires and similarly discardable items.
And when it comes to space travel, hydroponics is also positioned to go wherever man boldly goes, whether it is Mars or the moon. NASA has already indicated the practice would probably be a major part of any space settlement, given the dearth of ways to sustain astronauts in the absence of soil and with limited water.
LaGasse said the ability to produce higher yields using less space, which hydroponics allows, will be an important factor in future food production. Additionally, changing climate patterns and the effect they have on traditional farm production areas — like the Midwest, where more than 3 million acres of prime farmland flooded — may speed things along.
As an agricultural construct, soilless gardening is nothing new. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon — built about 2,500 years ago in 600 BC — were one of the first soilless gardens known to man. As history tells it, the gardens were a conglomeration of baked brick and asphalt towering over the Euphrates River, with teams of men cranking manual pumps to lift river water 100 feet to the top of the gardens for irrigation.
By 1100 AD, the Aztecs were suspending crops above water on floating layers of mud and vegetation, and nearly 200 years later, Marco Polo returned from Kublai Khan’s empire with tales of the Mongol ruler’s floating gardens.
In the centuries that followed, scientists and others focused not on hydroponics and instead conducted crude experiments to determine whether plants drew their nutrients from soil or water.
By 1856, two German scientists, Julius von Sachs and Wilhelm Knop, had standardized a nutrient solution making it possible for plants to grow in water alone.
But the term “hydroponics” was not coined until 1937, when University of California Professor Dr. William Gericke, the gold-toothed father of modern hydroponics, reintroduced ways to successfully grow plants without soil. Gericke thought the term hydroponics, a combination of the Greek words hydro (water) and ponos (labor), carried "a strong economic and utilitarian connotation.”
During World War II, troops in the Pacific theater employed hydroponics to grow their own food on barren islands, ultimately producing 8 million pounds of fresh produce to meet military demands.
The 1960s saw the dawning of new hydroponic techniques, namely the nutrient flow technique, a method that relies on shallow, covered gullies that constantly bathe the plant’s roots with a thin film of water. This is the force behind most hydroponic lettuce production today.
But in 1969, through an unexpected combination of government crackdowns and technological advances, hydroponic production began taking on a whole new meaning under a newfound sense of urgency.
In September of that year, President Richard Nixon launched “Operation Intercept,” a surprise move to shutter border crossings between the US and Mexico to keep Mexican-grown marijuana from entering the country. Seven years later, Lawrence Brooks founded General Hydroponics and devised the first-ever commercially available three-part hydroponic nutrient formula, the Flora Series, which remains in use today.
About two years after that, President Jimmy Carter redoubled Nixon’s eradication effort and ordered the spraying of the herbicide paraquat on marijuana fields in Mexico. And that’s about the time high-intensity discharge lighting, powerful enough to mimic the sun, reached the market, giving the public a truly viable way to grow plants indoors — and rebirth to domestic marijuana production.
But as hydroponics reverts to legitimate uses, LaGasse of the PGTA said he expects to see the practice take on a bigger role in the American lifestyle and diet.
“It’s an interesting time to be in agriculture and to see how the hydroponics industry can change some of the old paradigms into 21st-century realities,” LaGasse said. “It’s not like hydroponics is something that is down the road in the future; it’s just the will to use the technology available. Climate change is probably going to force a good bit of it.”