Hydroponics for resilient farming
WHILE traditional farmers are crying in the drought, hydroponic farmers are unmoved.
Although the losses for farmers in the drought period have not yet been recorded, president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS) Lenworth Fulton, “estimates that it’s in the millions”. But while that data are still being collected, small-scale hydroponic farms have been operating like it’s business as usual.
Hydroponics is the growing of crops without the use of soil, it’s grown in water and supplied with liquid fertiliser.
“We are currently experiencing a drought and water disruptions and the crops growing in the system have not been affected, they are flourishing as they are getting the required water and nutrients daily,” Tameka Hector-Boyd, projects social enterprise manager at Abilities Foundation, told the Jamaica Observer in an interview.
The Abilities Foundation – a community-based organisation for persons with disabilities – has produced an urban farm to sell agricultural produce to the community and stakeholders in the Constant Spring, St Andrew area. Hector-Boyd said she decided to explore hydroponics after losing crops to drought and flood in the past adding, “we wanted to find a climate-smart solution.”
After acquiring the hydroponics system, the foundation saw its production per plot rising from “250 plants to being able to produce 1,000 crops in the same plot.” This was possible because of the horizontal design of hydroponic farms.
“You can grow crops anywhere. Even on your rooftop. You just need a space,” Ricardo Chambers, CEO of Chambers Hydro Farm, explained to the Business Observer.
“The sky now becomes the limit. You can go as tall as you desire,” he added as he pointed out that by stacking the plants, farmers reduce the need for space. A hydroponic farm can even be brought close to a water source which reduces cost.
Currently, most farmers who engage in hydroponics do so on a small scale, but Chambers would love to see larger scale hydroponic farms and is urging more people to get into this particular type of farming.
The cost of set up discourages many from attempting hydroponics, but Chambers views the investment differently.
“With hydroponics farming it’s a one-time cost. It’s not traditional farming where if you have one acre of land and you plough it up and something happen you have to start all over again,” he outlined. He said hydroponics can revolutionise agriculture and modernise the sector. Once a hydroponic farmer himself, when the pandemic hit, he pivoted to selling the system.
Chambers said the system works well, especially during a drought, because it uses less water to grow crops.
“That’s when we call it ‘cash pot’ time… because when there’s a drought hydroponics use 90 per cent less water. You get to recycle the water and the nutrients in the water. Whatever water the crops don’t use is captured and pumped back into the system. Everything you do is less with greater productivity. You use less water and less labour because you’re not planting in the ground. There is no digging, weeding or ploughing. None of that stuff you would spend money on.”
With this improvement in the way farming is done, Chambers is hoping more young persons might find farming attractive.
“Any youth nowadays, as long as you tell them to come and work for me [on a farm] and they have to dirty up their hands or they can’t post it on social media, they’re not doing it,” Chambers said.
Hydroponics techniques were taught as part of the Abilities Foundation’s recently concluded strategic engagement and empowerment of women with disabilities programme which was funded by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.
Hector-Boyd noted that because it’s “less time consuming, it’s a plus for us [Abilities Foundation], in a way of farming that is more accessible to persons with disabilities.” She said the foundation wanted to empower people with disabilities to grow their own food in the event of food insecurity, a threat that arose in the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, because crops are grown in water, farmers can escape soil-borne diseases which also reduce the need for and the amount spent on pesticides and other chemicals. Chambers explained that the cost of production is significantly lower and the crops grow quickly due to it being constantly fed with all that it needs because “it’s in an environment where it’s not competing for anything.”
However, there are some reservations from consumers and farmers alike, including the belief that because hydroponics use electricity to operate a water pump, the system will take a lot of electricity to operate. Chambers explained, however, that a work around is to operate the pumps on a time schedule.
“You don’t run your system at night, turn it off in the night,” Chambers advised, saying that will reduce energy consumption.
Others believe that only lettuce can be grown hydroponically, but Chambers asserted that “Just about anything can grow hydroponically. There are many different designs and types of hydroponic farms that use many different types of vegetables.”
However, JAS President Fulton does not agree with that sentiment.
“Hydroponics work mostly for vegetables. When it comes to Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, yam, coco, dasheen, banana and plantain, the permanent crops, hydroponics can’t apply.”
However, according to Chambers, “research is being conducted right now where we grow plantain in half a drum,” hinting at the possibility of the growth of more than just vegetables with the system in the future. For hydroponic farmer Hector-Boyd, “the only challenge is convincing some customers who believe that the crops are ‘not real’ or taste differently,” requiring of her to go the extra mile for consumers who are apprehensive to purchase by providing samples while using the opportunity to educate consumers. ” They see the pipes and think that it is artificially grown but it’s not.” Hector-Boyd added.
Both Hector-Boyd and hydroponics system retailer Chambers offer training in the systems at the Abilities Foundation in Constant Spring in St Andrew and at Chambers Hydro farm in Spur Tree, Manchester.