Will Hydroponics (Finally) Take Off?
The hydroponic revolution has been poised to change farming for over 70 years. When will it actually happen?
Zach Yohannes, an enthusiastic undergraduate at Stanford University, is refining an idea that he thinks could someday feed all of humankind with fresh, local food while using less land and fewer pesticides. Yohannes grew up on a 1,500 acre farm in California’s Central Valley where he learned to simultaneously irrigate 20 acres of walnut tree orchards, but he dreams that the next generation will measure farmland in cubic meters instead of acreage. Last summer, the optimistic entrepreneur set out to prove that large-scale indoor hydroponic farming is not only possible, but also economically viable.
In a hydroponic system, a nutrient-dense water solution circulates through the plants’ roots and replaces the need for soil and traditional fertilizers. This sci fi-esque technique allows farmers and gardeners to grow food in kitchens and basements, on windowsills and roofs. “The technology is there, the resources are there, the money is there — sort of — what we need is for it to be done,” Yohannes says. Yohannes provided all of the light, water, air and nutrients required to grow over 2,000 plants hydroponically. He grew tomatoes, soybeans, lettuce and herbs on 8’x8’x30” racks in a retrofitted warehouse on his family’s farm. Conventional growing requires wider spacing of plants and while 500 square feet of soil can typically produce only 500 heads of lettuce, Yohannes grew 850 heads of lettuce in the same amount of space.
Once a niche trend dominated primarily by indoor pot growers, hydroponics could finally breach the mainstream. Its proponents promise that it will change the future of American agriculture. But first hydroponic technology must overcome its own limitations, which have held back advancements for over 70 years.
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