While driving southbound on I-95 to Philadelphia, I noticed a grouping of large greenhouses by the Newtown, Bucks County, exit that appeared to have been built overnight. It seemed like one day it was a corn field, and the next, it had several gleaming buildings in neat rows. Being a curious person, I found the driveway that looked like it might lead to the greenhouses; there was no sign posted stating that trespassers will be shot, so I decided to see what was going on.
It turns out that they are a new greenhouse complex that was erected to support a hydroponic farming system. The farm is called Bright Farms and consists of a 56,000-square-foot greenhouse that will hydroponically grow approximately 500,000 pounds of produce per year.
Bright Farms’ website states that “their state-of-the-art greenhouse farms allow them to grow hundreds of thousands of pounds of the freshest, most flavorful local produce year-round. Each farm is designed to conserve land, water, eliminate agricultural runoff and reduce greenhouse gas emission from transportation.” It’s pretty cool—most of our lettuce is shipped from California, whereas Bright Farms supplies local supermarkets and restaurants with fresh lettuce and produce daily.
Bright Farm sows their seeds in small floating rafts, then places the rafts in man-made ponds filled with water and the essential nutrients required for good plant growth. The seeds germinate and grow by absorbing the nutrients from the water without the use of any soil. These rafts slowly float toward the opposite end of the pond, which takes approximately 21 days. After the rafts have reached the far side, Bright Farms will have a finished product, such as lettuce, that is salable to the local market.
The term hydroponics originates from the ancient Greek “hydros,” meaning water, and “ponos,” meaning work. The simplest explanation would be the art of growing plants without soil. My mother practiced a form of hydroponics by placing a leaf cutting from one of her African violets into a glass of water and allowing it to grow roots. The nutrients that the plants would normally absorb from the soil are basically dissolved into the water, and the plant’s roots are suspended in the nutrient-rich solution, deriving the nutrients it needs for proper growth.
Hydroponic growing systems only require about 10 percent of water that standard based soil agriculture requires, and allow the water and nutrient solutions to be reused through the process of recycling with little or no water loss. Plants grown in this manner have direct access to water and nutrients, and therefore are not forced to expend energy in developing an extensive root systems as in a normal farming situation. This saves time and produces healthier more attractive salable produce in a shorter amount of time.
Hydroponics allows growers the opportunity to grow food in places where traditional soil based agriculture simply is not feasible. Using hydroponics in dense urban areas is a great way to grow food where land is scarce and at a premium, and there is a consumer need for fresh produce. While the population of our planet increases and prime farmland gets developed into track housing, our food production declines and we suddenly realize that we are receiving our food from across the nation and even other countries thousand of miles away. Hydroponics provides us with the ability to grow healthy produce locally in greenhouses that are dedicated to agriculture. At the present time, where the cost of land is at a premium, hydroponic crops are being produced on rooftops and in greenhouses.
“Perfumes are the feelings of flowers.” —Heinrich Heine, The Hartz Journey
Craig Dupée is a garden-design consultant. He lives in Ewing with his wife and daughters. Send him your email questions at email@example.com.