A World Ahead: The Leaders in Hydroponic Technology
We entered the 20th century riding the horse and buggy: it was mostly muscle and sweat driving us forward, not much different from the great civilizations thousands of years before - Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, the Americas.
Today we are about to exit this remarkable century riding rockets and sending robots to other heavenly bodies within our solar system to unlock the secrets behind our existence. A century ago, the greatest minds could not even imagine such events. The 20th century has proven to be the century of miracles...and disasters. We modified the planet to better suit is, and while doing so, upset the natural balance, which for billions of years nurtured life and enabled evolution.
Of all the links in the chain sustaining us, agriculture may be the most critical...and perhaps the least appreciated and understood. Speculation has it that the dinosaurs were driven extinct when an asteroid plowed into the Earth. The enormous cloud of dust that blanketed the planet prevented light from reaching the surface. Naturally, plants died, causing the dinosaurs to follow, as plants died, causing dinosaurs to follow, as plants were there main food source. Food was a critical link for them, as it is for us.
When we entered the 20th century, the human population was approximately 1.5 billion. As we enter the 1st century, it is estimated that the population will have increased to six billion. This is one of the results of technology, particularly agricultural technology. Fertilizers have increased crop production. Pesticides and chemical controls overcome insects and plant diseases. Genetic manipulation increases yield, improves disease resistance and allows for easier environmental adaptation. Vehicles carry crops around the world to their distant markets, and refrigeration enables long-term food storage.
Now we begin to see the limits of our new-found technology and our planet's ability to support constant human population growth. Soil erodes and becomes saturated with chemical residue. Water supplies fail as they are stretched beyond their limit. Our atmosphere has been damaged and climates have changed. And all the while, human population continues to soar. We've gone beyond the planet's capacity to sustain is, and we've arrived at the point where we either begin to diminish population with planning and restraint or nature will provide controls with disease and famine. This is, and has always been nature's way to control the dominating species at the top of the food chain.
In this complex scenario, hydroponic technology has evolved and become far more commonplace than most people might imagine. For many decades in locations throughout the world, hydroponic farming has been quietly becoming established as an important means for crop production. The range of technologies, crops, environments and scales varies enormously. Depending upon the market being served, a hydroponic facility may be a small family farm or an industrial giant. Simple low-tech methods may apply, or the facility may use high-tech computer controlled methods. The farm may serve a small local community, or it may produce for markets both near and far away.
Over the years, hydroponic technology has been growing to meet varying needs throughout the world. Some countries, like Holland, are immediately recognized for producing some of the best hydroponic crops and technology put to extensive use both within the country and far beyond. Hydroponically grown Dutch flowers are solid a auctions then flown worldwide to meet the global demand for them. Holland's auction facility is the largest building in the world, housing an important industry for this remarkable country. The achievement is especially noteworthy when you consider that the greenhouses which produce these flowers require supplemental artificial lighting plus heating to get through long, dark, cool winters. Holland's success is a tribute to the tenacity and skill of its farmers. The scale of hydroponic technology in Holland leads to numerous questions, but most people want to know why the Dutch use hydroponics. The answer is easy. It's the reason we should all put hydroponic technology to work: Hundreds of years of crop cultivation led to soil erosion, which in turn led to the accumulation of various plant diseases in the soil. Soil growing simply became an unreliable means of production. By the 1970s, hydroponic crop production had proven far more reliable and profitable for the farmer. Farmers are always at risk, crop failure can rapidly lead to bankruptcy; risk management is imperative to achieve financial success. Hydroponic methods reduced the risk of crop failure from soil-born diseases, promising a higher level of profitability.
The Dutch farmers have found that large, state-of-the-art facilities are a worthwhile investment. Consequently, when you tour the Dutch countryside, you will see one greenhouse complex after another, generally owned and operated by a family, not a huge, multi-national corporation. These family facilities feature glass houses, computer-controlled nutrient mixing and monitoring systems, high-intensity lighting to supplement the sun, environmental control systems that regulate temperature and humidity and supplemental carbon dioxide systems to improve crop growth and yield.
The Dutch government supports its farmers with excellent research facilities that continually develop new hydroponic methods and identify nutrient formulas for different crops and their varying growth stages. Scientists work closely with the small privately owned famers offering assistance when needed. If a problem arises, a farmer simply places a call to the government research center and they send an expert over to examined the facility and crops, identify the problem and offer solutions. The result is an economic success for both the farmer and the nation...a rare example of government working in harmony with the hydroponic farmer.
Far to the south, in France, the same dynamic is at work. Government sponsored research facilities perform numerous experiments with hydroponic cultivation. Farmers in the surrounding area apply hydroponics for crop production and then these farms are compared with traditional soil farms for growing a spectrum of crops. The results are predictable. Hydroponic methods consistently outperform soil cultivation with faster growth, higher yields and better quality produce. The French take crop quality seriously; overall the quality of food in France deserves its excellent reputation. Hydroponic methods are gaining favor among the public and the farmers.
Hydroponics is being applied in France because it works to both the farmers' and country's advantage. It's true that the European Community is a fairly competitive organization; farmers throughout the community compete amongst themselves for market-share. And the French are perhaps the most aggressive competitors in the group, noted for their demonstrations against government sponsored research is one area in which the farmers do not find themselves in opposition to their government. And why would they? In this instance the government is working to improve farm production, which helps the farmer make more money.
England offers yet another example of government working in cooperation with farmers. One of the most significant achievements in hydroponic technology came from England decades ago - the invention of N.F.T. (Nutrient Film Technique) - the first of the water culture methods. Water culture refers to the cultivation of crops without growing media (i.e., no gravel, perlite, moss, wood chips or Rockwool). By eliminating growing media, many of the problems associated with media are obviously reduced. Swings in nutrient conductivity and pH are more easily controlled.
A center for advanced hydroponic research is Stockbridge House in the northeast area of England. Financed by both the British government and commercial hydroponic farmers, Stockbridge House's objective is to identify problems and their solutions for commercial hydroponic farmers. New crops, new hydroponic technology, nutrient research and new pest and disease control are the focus of most of their research. The facilities are top-notch; with state-of-the-art glass houses, computer-controlled nutrient and environment, and expert scientists,d the technology can only move forward. The motivation comes from the need for English farmers to compete with the rest of the European Community.
Far from the bustling scene in Europe, the Israelis have developed a great reputation for making the desert bloom. Hydroponics was recognized long ago in Israel as a logical method for increasing agricultural productivity. It may in fact be true that the Israelis are the most skilled at developing agricultural technology for dry, barren regions. For example, although not really considered a "hydroponic" method, drop irrigation, discovered and applied in Israel, is certainly one of the most important advancements in agricultural technology developed within the last 30 years.
Hydroponics was raised to its highest level to date with the "Aerohydroponic" technology, even more advanced than the Nutrient Film Technique. By flowing fairly deep oxygen-rich water over plant roots, the Israeli researchers found that they could achieve higher growth rates and yields and far healthier plants - the key to disease resistance. This method also proved to be the most effective means for propagating plants from cuttings. The late, and very great, Dr. Hillel Soffer of Kibbutz Ein Geddi, was one of the pioneers in this technology and his work was not only a great benefit to Israel, but also to the United States, since he did his doctorate work at the University of California at Davis. Dr. Soffer demonstrated and quantified the importance of dissolved oxygen to plants roots. Prior to his work, this importance was not clearly defined.
Far away in another barren land difficult to cultivate in most areas, hydroponics is once again accelerating as an essential means for crop production. Australia has been putting hydroponic technology to work for decades. Today their hydroponic produce is exported to the Pacific Rim countries neighboring them to the north, and Japan, where Australia's hydroponic lettuce is used for garnishing McDonald's Big Macs. The Aussies have really focused on their neighboring Pacific Rim countries, which just happen to be the fastest growing market for hydroponic produce and technology in the world today. A favorite crop for Australian farmers is strawberries, which are now widely grown in hydroponic systems.
Australians will be found at practically every international hydroponic conference or trade show. They have proven to be very fast at recognizing hydroponic methods that will work especially well for their particular needs. Not only produce, by hydroponic equipment from Australia can be found throughout the world. The Aussies have always been great competitors and hydroponics is a perfect arena for them.
Taking good advantage of one of the largest existing markets for off-season produce, Canada is a important supplier of hydroponically grown vegetables to the United States. It's amazing to think that many California supermarkets stock Canadian grown tomatoes when California produces a third of the produce in the United States, and the United States produces a third oil the world's food supply. Nonetheless, many of the winter tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers available at American supermarkets are grown hydroponically in Canada. Every effort is made to disguise the hydroponic origin, however, since it is the opinion of the growers and supermarkets that the general public will be put off by the phrase, "hydroponically grown." Consequently, they market these vegetables as "hot-house grown," with no mention of the hydroponic origin.
The inevitable questions: Why does Canadian produce play such an important role in the United States market? The answer can be found in Canada's excellent supply of high quality water, abundant, inexpensive electricity to run high-tech greenhouses and a lucrative market to the south. Look in your market during winter months for vegetables with stickers that read, "b.C. Hot House," which means, British Columbia Hot House, These veggies were hydroponically grown in huge state-of-the-art hydroponic farms; it's good business for our friends to the north.
The Modern World
Just a few more years to go and them we're off into a new century and millennia. To date, technology has affected practically every aspect of human life. Today we travel distances in hours which less than 100 years ago required months or more. Modern medicine can cure diseases which were always fatal in an earlier age. The average college graduate today possesses a knowledge that the greatest scientists of the 18000s could barely imagine. And today's hydroponic farmer can grow crops safely and in places that were formerly considered too barren to cultivate such as deserts, the Arctic, and even space...our new frontier. Sure, hydroponic technology spans the globe, but the countries that are really heads above the rest are the ones in which the farmers and government are working together to improve agricultural methods for better production and a healthy planet. In this regard, can America still be considered a world leader?
Focus on the Farmers
I always manage to win an invitation to a grower's facility, where the real learning happens. There is a strange air of surrealism when visiting a grower who is cultivating a tropical crop during a gray, Dutch winter. And there is no better source of information on problems and solutions than the farmer who is using hydroponic technology to sustain his or her family...and the nation's economy.
When you enter the greenhouses that contain Anja Weeda's cucumber farm, the first thing you will notice is the high quality oil the facility itself. Like all Dutch hydroponic farms, cleanliness, good equipment and a state of order prevail. Before entering the growing area, guests step onto a sponge mat with a disinfectant to clean the bottom of their shoes. Inside, a vigorous crop of cucumbers grows with striking uniformity. No poisons or pesticides are used in this facility; the best defense against pests and disease are cleanliness and a good, healthy crop. I was deeply impressed when Anja told me that the profits from their first winter crop are donated to "Doctors without Borders."
This is a grower with a big heart and a pure soul. Within the greenhouse, the music of Mozart fills the air. Anja points out that the plants respond to music: "Organ stimulates the roots; violin encourages foliage and flute helps the plants grow outstanding cucumbers." This farm is a tiny paradise within a tiny country, nut the visit left a big impression on me.
Far to the south, close to Bordeaux France, other exceptional farmers apply hydroponic technology to gain an edge in the marketplace. Michel and Claire Meklis, owners of "La Petite Fleur" grow Alpine strawberries, by far the most delicious variety and the most difficult to grow. Delectable and perfectly sweet., it's unfortunate that these strawberries deteriorate rapidly after harvest. They are especially susceptible to disease; consequently very few farmers would dare raise them commercially. For 13 years, Michel and Claire have successfully cultivated Alpines and today they export them to markets as far away as Sweden. The Meklis' have combined a unique hydroponic method - perlite in columnar hanging plastic bags plus a variety of Alpine which seems to produce hardy fruit, hardy enough to survive transport to distant markets.
This farm produces eight times more plants per square meter than would normally be produced in soil - a total of four metric tons in 2,800 square meters per year. For risk of ruining one of their market advantages, I did not ask which variety they grow. The visit to their facility left a lasting impression on me. But it must be remembered that the best crop and techniques for one farmer may not be the est for another. Each crop, environment and market must be analyzed individually if a grower is going to be able to generate a niche and achieve financial success. I have met many commercial farmers who prefer strawberries as their crop, yet the Meklis' are the only ones who have succeeded with Alpines...a remarkable achievement!