Friends of Farming
San Diego County
San Diego County agriculture is not a static industry. Farmers have long adapted to changing resources, pests, and climate and population shifts, but these days it seems those challenges are coming faster than ever.
Farmers adapt by changing methods to increase efficiency, production, reduce overhead, and add value to their product. Today, some local growers are looking to hydroponics for those benefits, and say they’re finding them. Is hydroponics in San Diego County a viable way to keep food production local, and still make the sales numbers necessary to sustain a business in dry Southern California? Three local growers say yes.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. Plants may be grown with their roots in the nutrient solution only or in an inert medium such as perlite or gravel. In many hydroponic systems the water is in a closed loop constantly circulating over plant roots and closely monitored. Crops typically grown like this include leafy greens, herbs, strawberries, and vining crops like tomatoes and cucumbers, and at least one local grower is experimenting with some root crops.
“The primary benefits of hydroponic production is water and land conservation,” says Sean Keany of Sundial Farm in Vista. “Recirculating hydro systems use on average 80 percent less water and produce 10 times more produce than traditional field watering crops. The greenhouse is a key component to most hydroponic productions but not necessary, but it is the greenhouse that keeps pests and pesticide use down and saves the plants from being exposed to all weather elements.” Keany grows a variety of leafy greens as well as basil in greenhouses.
Despite the significant savings in water costs and increased production, as well as reduced pest and disease pressures, there are far more hobbyist hydroponic growers than commercial, illustrating the difficulty in scaling up. “Startup costs are the largest barrier, I believe,” says Colin Archipley of Archi’s Acres in Valley Center. “Hydroponic systems are expensive to build and operate. Also, a lack of understanding of how hydroponic systems work.” Those points are echoed by Keany at Sundial Farm, “I think the difficulties with commercially growing hydroponically vary drastically because of the resources and knowledge that one has to begin with. It could be the electricity, fuel and power used to grow the plants. Growing hydroponically is nothing like how plants grow in soil, and it’s a big leap from field grown crops. We use benches, no soil, and greenhouse structures. It is a very urban activity.”
Alongside heavy startup costs, hydroponics comes with a steep learning curve. Mike Castro is head grower at Home Town Farms in San Marcos. “Technical knowledge,” he says, is a primary challenge to getting started, but he adds that information is out there freely available online for people who want to learn; he sees plenty of opportunity for more growers. “Given the current issues with the drought, I think this is the wave of the future. More than anything, for every upgrade to the growing systems that we employ, markets are willing to pay a premium for quality produce.”
Though startup costs are significant, many local growers who have created businesses growing hydroponically managed to keep initial overhead costs down by converting existing greenhouses, which often meant replacing entire irrigation systems, and retrofitting spaces to house new equipment for holding and monitoring circulating nutrient solutions. Home Town Farms went that route, and Mike Castro expects to see more of that. “I see more growers converting to some type of more efficient ways to manage the water usage in their crops. The combination of hydroponics and shadehouse or full blown greenhouse is the future for higher production. As we continue to introduce more products into the market, and demonstrate that we can produce high quality, nutrient dense, and most importantly, excellent tasting products, the sky is the limit.”
Recognizing the hurdles inherent to converting to hydroponics or starting from the ground up, hydroponic growing systems seek to address the most pressing challenges facing San Diego County farmers, and bring new opportunity. “We are intrigued by the integration of organics within hydroponics (hydro-organics), and harnessing the power of biological processes which naturally occur,” says Colin Archipley. Mike Castro says he enjoys “the fact that when done correctly, you get "instant gratification" based on the quick plant responses to water and fertilizer. I also like the cleanliness and lack of having to deal with weeds and the pests and problems associated.” Sean Keany at Sundial: “What I find most satisfying about growing products hydroponically is the health of the veggies for your body. I believe that there needs to be a major change in our corporate food system and the overall health and well-being of our nation, and in the process of wanting to grow something healthy we discovered all of the sustainability benefits of greenhouse grown hydroponics and it became apparent that this was the path for us.”
Is there a future for hydroponics in San Diego, and opportunity for growth? “Yes,” says Colin Archipley, “we continue to improve and learn new things. Most of what we are learning are smaller things, like planting techniques or fine tuning the controlled environment, but it continues to decrease shrinkage, increase yields, and decrease growth time, all of which leads us to become more efficient.” Sean Keany concurs, “I see a great opportunity for growth over the years, especially in Southern California and other desert regions of the world. With the great increase in population conserving our resources while producing higher crop yields is a must, so I see much more innovation on the horizon.”
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