This week we’re featuring a post from AmHydro VP Joe Swartz.
Prior to joining us, Joe amassed over 30 years of experience as a farmer, and is widely regarded as one of the industry’s foremost experts on controlled environment agriculture and hydroponic technologies. This year we’ll be featuring more original content from Joe. If there are any subjects you’d like to hear from him on, just let us know. Enjoy!
When looking at the state of our industry today, I see a lot of reasons to be hopeful.
Controlled environment agriculture isn’t going anywhere. That much is clear. While there may be fad-type trends and technologies that arise from time to time, the foundations are sound. As communities and nations look for ways to meet food needs sustainably and close to home, CEA continues to be recognized more and more as a part of the solution.
One trend in particular is especially encouraging to me as a farmer.
In conversations and at conferences, I see, within our industry, a movement to put horticulture back into CEA.
I think we got off track for a little while. Many new technologies have pushed the boundaries of CEA’s capacity to grow quickly and at high volumes. Unfortunately, many of these innovations, and the mindset that accompanied them, promoted a fixation on technology – not on the needs of plants. One result was unsustainable business models and companies that could not actually grow with sufficient quantity or quality to remain economically viable. Another result was that many people developed an expectation that they could just get a plug-and-play technology that would grow food without needing to actually learn about horticultural principles.
It reminds me of the diet and exercise industry, which makes billions by selling people on products, routines, and plans that promise to help them meet their health goals without really educating them on any underlying principles. The promise of tried-and-true approaches can certainly be beneficial for many people, but many others end up disappointed and disillusioned. Without an understanding of dietary or physiological principles, and without an understanding of what our bodies need, it’s impossible to make adjustments on the fly to increase chances of success.
Just so, when speaking to both prospective and experienced growers, I find myself more often surprised than I should be by just how little people know about plant growth. People want to talk about technologies. They want to know what lighting or nutrition is “best.” They are often unprepared to talk about what a plant really needs.
The Three Principles of Plant Growth
However, with some tough lessons learned in the industry, the conversation has been getting back to basics. Back to the plants. To be clear, I’m not saying that you need a graduate-level understanding of plant biology to succeed. But by understanding the principles of how plants grow, you can gain a better understanding of how we as farmers can help them do it extraordinarily well.
I want to share the three principles of plant growth. These may sound rudimentary, but I believe that it’s crucial to start with this foundation and let technological solutions follow from here – not vice versa.
I know, this is elementary stuff. But it’s crucial to understand a plant’s incredible ability to take sunlight and convert it into energy which activates elements like water, carbon dioxide, and nutrients in order to grow carbohydrate plant matter.
It’s like natural solar panels. Solar panels don’t do anything for us on their own, but they create a pathway to translate the natural energy of solar radiation into power for all sorts of useful devices. Just so, plants naturally require sunlight as a primary driver of growth, but they need other components in proper measure in order to do something useful.
This is the stage where plants use their stored energy for growth and repair. Via respiration, plants grow new leaves, fruit, and roots. Respiration is very heavily impacted by temperature, relative humidity, and light. In fact, the most effective respiration occurs in the dark. More light does not always equal more growth. Plants need a dark photoperiod. These are inputs that a CEA grower has control of.
Finally, transpiration, which is like a plant’s circulatory system. It concerns the movement of water and nutrients throughout the plant. Stomates (microscopic pores on the underside of leaves) open, allowing the plant to release water vapor. This energetic process draws water and nutrients up through the roots, and causes mobile elements like nitrogen to be moved around the plant. This is something plants want to do! But they need the correct environmental conditions. Your inputs impact the plant’s ability to do this.
For all three processes, a CEA farmer has significant control over the critical elements. Anything that impacts these processes impacts your crop, your bottom line, and your wallet. If you don’t understand and account for these processes and miss something, it’s like baking a cake without the right ingredients.
Our systems are really simple to use! Once you find a routine, it may almost feel like the plants just grow themselves – because in many ways, they do! But you can’t just buy a hydroponic system and plug it in. That will always end badly. You have to understand the “why,” not just the how. If a crop does not appear to be growing optimally, you need to assess “why” things are going wrong before you can figure out what interventions are necessary.
As I’ve said, unfortunately, sometimes even people in the industry don’t place enough value on these obvious things. As we look to expand and innovate, flashy new solutions are marketed as a skeleton key that can help us unlock the next era of CEA. I’m glad to see innovation, but I’m also glad to see the pendulum swinging back toward an emphasis on plants and principles, not just tools.
I’d encourage any prospective grower to learn even more about the basics of plant biology and the incredible research that has been done to apply horticultural principles to hydroponics and CEA.
Here’s some excellent resources to take you further in your hydroponic learning journey:
- Book: Hydroponic Food Production by Dr. Howard Resh (Available via AmHydro)
- Book: Hydroponics: A Practical Guide for the Soilless Grower by J. Jones
- Videos: AmHydro’s Youtube Library
- Hands on Learning: Attend an AmHydro Seminar!
If you’re getting started and want to learn more, don’t hesitate to contact AmHydro. Our team of experts is available to help answer your questions and make sure you’re set up for success.