Hydroponics keep lettuce flowing year-round
Water concerns drive adoption of hydroponic systems in many areas
By MATTHEW WEAVER
OTIS ORCHARDS, Wash. -- Stewart and Cheryl Fry walked through their hydroponic farm, examining their lines for kinks in the water system.
There's no soil in their 6,000-square-foot operation. Instead they grow lettuce using water and pharmaceutical-grade mineral salts for nutrients in a greenhouse in Otis Orchards, Wash., about 17 miles from Spokane.
The husband and wife team opened C&S Hydro Huts a little more than three years ago.
They produce 1,500 heads of butterhead lettuce each week. It is distributed to regional grocery stores and restaurants.
Fry said hydroponics use a tenth the amount of water a field would use.
The Frys do not have an agricultural background, but they wanted to grow a sustainable product.
"We're a little bit ahead of the trend," Fry said, noting that the "huthouses" are popular in Holland, Canada and Mexico.
Hydroponic operations tend to either be large in acreage or small and family-owned, said Beth Fausey Scheckelhoff, director of the Ohio State University Extension Agricultural Business Enhancement Center.
The majority of operations grow lettuce and tomatoes, with some herb and pepper production, she said.
As water availability concerns rise, Scheckelhoff said, interest in the system could follow. Due to the large investment required and labor-intensive nature of the system, she doesn't foresee hydroponics replacing general agriculture in the U.S. But the majority of produce grown in Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands is grown in greenhouses, she said.
"I think in some areas we're headed in that direction," she said, citing the benefits of being able to raise fresh produce year-round.
Scheckelhoff recommends farmers do their homework before starting. Marketing is a key factor, she said. Farmers should make sure they know their customer base beforehand.
"It's one thing to grow the product, it's another thing to actually sell the product," she said.
Heating with natural gas is a big expense. The Frys' operation averages $1,200 to $1,500 a month, more in the winter time. He's looking to incorporate wind and solar generation to reduce those expenses.
Fry estimated he receives about $2 for every head of lettuce, which costs about $1.50 to produce.
"One of our goals was to take a truck off the road from California and get people buying a product that's local," he said. "We wanted our business to be one that's accountable and sustainable -- as green as we possibly could be."
C&S Hydro Huts: http://cshydrohuts.com
Ohio State University Hydroponics program: http://hydroponics.osu.edu
WSU organic farm to raise greens, fish
Washington State University's organic farm will combine hydroponics and aquaculture when it moves to its new farm site. The farm will raise the fish tilapia in a greenhouse, said farm manager Brad Jaeckel. Water from the tank will be cycled through grow trays similar to hydroponic systems, with nutrients supplied by fish waste. The farm will grow harvestable greens year-round, with the plants acting as a biological filter to purify the system.
The tilapia take about nine months to reach full size and will be sold through the farm.
Jaeckel said the system is still in the design phase, but he hopes to have construction under way by next winter.