Dirt-Free Farming: Will Hydroponics (Finally) Take Off?

Illustrations by Jason Novak

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.

A Utopian Dream Deferred

The year was 1940.  The Third Reich occupied Paris. Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito had just signed papers to form the Axis Alliance. Meanwhile, William Frederick Gericke, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, quietly published a book about an innovative technology that he thought would bring an end to war. His invention, which he named hydroponics, would enable countries to produce more food with fewer resources. “Nations such as Italy and Japan,” wrote Gericke, “which are worried by crowded populations and inadequate agricultural land, could easily multiply their production of foodstuffs manifold,” sweeping away the need for territorial expansion.

Scientists had experimented with nutrient-solutions in laboratories since the 1860s when German agricultural chemist W. Knop began isolating chemical compounds in soil to study fertilizer, but, Gericke wrote, “Scientists failed to realize the true value of a principle they themselves applied in laboratory experiments.” Instead of using nutrients to improve soil quality, Gericke wanted farmers across America to replace their wheat and potato fields with the complex hydroponic systems he developed from years of experimentation with different nutrient combinations and growing conditions. His prototype systems for tomatoes, flowers and salad greens resulted in yields that surpassed standard practices for conventional field growing at the time.

Gericke dreamed that hydroponics would fundamentally change the way that food was grown around the world. It didn’t.

The American military used Gericke’s technology to feed troops stationed on small islands in the Pacific Ocean. General Douglas MacArthur brought it to the Japanese after the war and they used it to grow 3.18 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. The 1953 edition of The American Biology Teacher instructed schoolteachers to spread Gericke’s ideas in the classroom, claiming, “the pupil who grows the first tomato or the largest radish will be as much of a school hero as the quarterback who throws the winning pass!”

Gericke dreamed that hydroponics would fundamentally change the way that food was grown around the world. It didn’t.

Why? A first-time grower must make a substantial investment; purchasing pumps, pipes, basins, lights, air filters, fans and nutrients in addition to all of the materials that a conventional gardener requires. Then there’s the cost of electricity that’s needed to run the system. “Operating costs can be kind of high because you have to provide all of those factors that you normally get for free outdoors,” Yohannes acknowledges, explaining the financial limitations of hydroponics.

Hydroponics also requires an intricate knowledge of chemistry, botany, plumbing and farming. As Gericke tried to convince farmers to adopt his complicated hydroponic methods, biotechnological advancements in hybrid seeds proved to be a simpler and cheaper way for traditional farmers to increase their yields. Government policies overtly supported large-scale commodity farming methods. The Food and Agriculture Act of 1965 firmly established financial support for traditional farming practices and farmers continued to grow in soil; all but forgetting the bright future Gericke’s hydroponics systems promised.

Green Dreams

But there was one group of farmers who found Gericke’s inventions not only useful, but profitable. After the Nixon administration made it too risky to grow marijuana outdoors, pot growers sought shelter inside. And once there, Gericke’s hydroponic system was there to help them thrive.

Moce, an earnest hydroponics enthusiast, works at a grow shop outside of Boston. He’s asked to be referred to by his nickname in this article because “the dark side of the industry” still permeates segments of the hydroponic community’s culture.

Due to the high initial investment, “growing a thousand dollars worth of veggies isn’t possible in the short term. The concept is great and it will pay for itself over time, but it’s a trickling return,” Moce says. Alternatively, a relatively small crop of marijuana can command prices that will pay back a grower’s investment very quickly.

While a majority of research funding at universities went towards conventional agricultural methods, investments in the retail hydroponic industry  — spurred, in no small part, by  marijuana growers — were left to drive the development of the technology through the 1970s.

‘I don’t care who cultivates what. A plant is a plant. But it’s frustrating, you know? I tell them, hey bro, that’s just one plant out of the thousands that you can grow.’

Now that vegetable gardeners are adopting hydroponics for more “legitimate” industries, new hydroponic shops like Moce’s are trying to shed the associations with the black market. Signs that read, “Any talk of illegal substances and you will be asked to leave immediately,” line the walls of his shop, but many potential customers still ask about growing marijuana. “I don’t care who cultivates what,” Moce says. “A plant is a plant. But it’s frustrating, you know? I tell them, ‘Hey bro, that’s just one plant out of the thousands that you can grow.’”

Moce says that today people grow vegetables hydroponically for many different reasons. Hydroponics allows people to grow plants much more densely than conventional agriculture allows, so a lot of Moce’s customers are hobbyists who live in small houses without sufficient land for a conventional vegetable garden.

The public’s expanding concern with the environment and carbon emissions means Americans want to grow food locally and in new places. “We already split the atom and have gone to the moon. We can put a pepper in an apartment building,” says Moce.

Pipe Dreams?

Yohannes’s hope is that vertical farming could supply fresh, local produce to inner-city communities. “We’re trying to feed people because it’s going to be a real problem that we’re going to face within our lifetimes,” says Yohannes. “This is just a way of combating that in the most efficient and sustainable way possible.”

But not everyone is convinced. Melissa Brechner, the director of Cornell University’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Hydroponic Technology Transfer Center, thinks that Yohannes’s dreams of vertical farming are far-fetched, at best. “People are saying that we want to bring healthy food to inner city people, but the real problem with inner cities is that healthy food costs a lot of money.”

Brechner pointed out that Yohannes needs to sell his produce at a premium in order to maintain profitability, but this prevents the people he wants to feed from purchasing it. According to Brechner, an urban hydroponic grower will always pay more than a conventional field-grower because he has to pay for the sun. “Plants grow in direct proportion to light. So if you give them more light, then you’re going to improve your yield,” Brechner says.

‘The sheer amount of energy that it takes to grow things in the warehouse — we would say in our more passionate moments that it’s environmentally irresponsible.’

Brechner points to the work of her former colleague at Cornell, Louis Albright. Taking into account the lighting and the heating of an enclosed warehouse or skyscraper, Albright calculated that it takes nearly three times as many kilowatt hours to grow a head of lettuce vertically as it does to grow it in a glass greenhouse outside of the city. Even when factoring the carbon cost of shipping lettuce en masse, he has found that it is still more environmentally friendly to grow lettuce away from urban centers.

Albright also found that wheat, one of America’s most consumed crops, is not genetically suited for hydroponic production. He calculated that it currently costs $23 worth of electricity to produce enough wheat for one loaf of bread in an enclosed warehouse.

Brechner highlights another major vulnerability with large-scale hydroponic production. A power outage will stop the circulation of the nutrient solution. With most systems, this could destroy a whole season’s worth of crops in a short time. From Brechner’s perspective, hydroponic technology has not progressed significantly since Gericke’s time. As long as hydroponic systems cost more money and require more resources than conventional growing techniques, Brechner remains opposed to hydroponic farming. “I understand the value of making healthy plants more visible to residents,” she says. “But the sheer amount of energy that it takes to grow things in the warehouse — we would say in our more passionate moments that it’s environmentally irresponsible.”

Space Race

Gene Giacomelli, the director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) at the University of Arizona, encounters Brechner’s concerns every day. Hydroponics can’t compete with conventional agriculture when it comes to start-up costs, but Giacomelli thinks hydroponics can become much more resource efficient — so efficient that it could literally feed a planet. The planet he has in mind, however, isn’t our own.

NASA has contracted CEAC to create a hydroponic bioregenerative life support system for astronauts on extended missions to the moon or Mars. Giacomelli is perfecting a closed-loop system where the plants consume the astronaut’s carbon dioxide and liquid waste and in turn the plants provide the astronauts with oxygen, fresh water and food. The current module relies on a complex computer system with infrared monitors to ensure that each plant is growing to its maximum potential. Giacomelli said his high-tech hydroponic system could fit in a six-hundred-cubic-foot tube and provide a single astronaut all of his daily oxygen and water needs and about half of his daily calories. A prototype is currently being tested at the South Pole.

Giacomelli said his high-tech hydroponic system could fit in a six-hundred-cubic-foot tube and provide a single astronaut all of his daily oxygen and water needs and about half of his daily calories.

Giacomelli admitted that the technology for the module is currently too expensive for use in American cities, but he says, “It’s very easy to point to topics that will be translated immediately back to Earth applications.” Giacomelli predicts his research will change the way that all farmers think about productivity.

“People will begin looking at the kilos per square meter per input of water, nutrition, labor or energy.” As growing systems become increasingly valued for their efficient use of resources, people will realize the potential that lies in a closed-loop hydroponic system. Already hydroponic systems can use 60 to 90 percent less water than conventional methods.

Major advancements in greenhouse technology are allowing hydroponic growers to use natural solar light — supplemented with artificial lights in darker regions and during the offseason — to grow plants more efficiently here on Earth.

The Future of the American Farmer?

As consumers become increasingly aware of where their food comes from and how it’s grown, it seems that we could be entering a new era of hydroponics. Moce can attest to the growing interest among hobbyists and backyard DIYers, but the growing social demand combined with recent technological advancements means hydroponics has a new potential to influence the food system, in the way that William Frederick Gericke once dreamed.

Companies like Lufa Farms in Montreal, BrightFarms in Philadelphia and Gotham Greens in New York are growing food hydroponically in giant greenhouses directly on the roofs of supermarkets. They take advantage of the available natural light while also significantly cutting down transportation costs. By selling directly to the markets below, their hydroponic produce can theoretically be competitively priced against conventional produce.

The ever-increasing returns in computing power from Moore’s Law and efficient automatization are making large-scale hydroponic operations more accessible to even the most inexperienced farmers. Freight Farms outfits old, metal shipping containers with intense insulation and a standardized hydroponics system that “can be put anywhere around the world, in any environment,” according to the communications coordinator for the Boston-based start-up, Rebecca Liebman. She says a restaurant owner in Minnesota can grow straight through the winter months and produce 13,000 pounds of fresh basil annually.

The initial investment is still steep. For $60,000 a new farmer gets an 8’x40’ shipping container filled with everything he needs to start farming on the spot. “A tablet computer inside controls everything — the lighting, the pH and the temperature,” Liebman says. In an area smaller than the footprint of three parking spaces, a single person working eight hours a week can grow one acre’s worth of leafy greens. Liebman says that the “freight farm” pays for itself in 9 to 12 months because the farmer harvests high-quality produce every week, year-round. After the initial investment, which is likely less expensive than the cost of an acre of land, annual costs remain under $5,000 dollars.

‘We looked at what everyone else did wrong and then fixed it — we took the tools and created a system that is innovative.’

“We did not create the concept of hydroponics, it’s been around for a long, long time. We looked at what everyone else did wrong and then fixed it — we took the tools and created a system that is innovative,” Liebman says.  Energy-efficient LED lights and thick insulation keeps electricity costs low (around $1,500 annually) and the closed-loop water system means the water tank is only filled four times per year. The company plans to add solar panels to future designs, using alternative energy sources to cut down on costs and increase resource efficiency. The technology is continuously improving to address the environmental concerns expressed by people like Brechner and Albright.

Where Gericke failed to bring hydroponics to the public, Freight Farms hopes to succeed. The internal computer is loaded with informational tutorials and the farmer can video chat with experts at Freight Farms if they have any trouble.

Zach Yohannes, himself a farmer, a student and a businessman, suspects the next generation of American farmers will be of a new breed — one ready to embrace Gericke’s hydroponic dreams. “They have the drive, the education and the willingness to help the planet.” The utopian dream of a long-dead botanist is still far from reaching fruition, but someday soon it might grow to its full potential. No soil necessary.

Dirt-Free Farming: Will Hydroponics (Finally) Take Off?