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Vertical Farming Mitigates Food Safety Concerns

With the rising popularity of urban agriculture and hydroponics, more people recognize the clear benefits of controlled-environment agriculture, which include water savings, year-round production, and reductions of pesticide use. This month I researched another benefit that consumers often take for granted: food safety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, “roughly 48 million people (1 in 6) get sick from food eaten in the United States,” and “among all types of foods, produce accounted for nearly half of illnesses.” There have also been cases of foodborne illnesses from improper use or manufacturing of manure, either from sewer sludge or contaminated Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). While foodborne illnesses are notoriously difficult to trace, produce grown by outdoor farms carries a higher risk of foodborne illness than a greenhouse or vertical farm.

The CDC’s list of food borne illnesses, sources, and symptoms. Image via CDC.

Milan Kluko of Green Spirit Farms, a vertical farm near Buffalo, Michigan, agrees. He says, “Food safety should be inherent in vertical farms.” Here are his reasons:

1. Growing indoors eliminates variables of wildlife, weather, and cross-contamination.

2. Traceability is much easier through indoor farming.

3. Technologies like floor cleaners, dosing systems, and water quality sensors help keep the systems clean.

Green Spirit Farms is committed to food safety and delivering the best product to its customers. Kluko is ISO 14000 certified and runs a tight ship to keep his staff from contaminating any of the produce grown in their huge, indoor vertical farming warehouses. Staff must change out of their street clothes and shoes before working on the farm. Hand washing stations and signage demanding cleanliness are spread throughout the operation. Milan says that his whole team participates; “everyone takes part in cleaning on the farm, and it’s an integral part of our staff training.” Everything in the farm operation is tracked for traceability, including substrates and the non-GMO seeds used.

Paul Hardej of FarmedHere, another vertical farm near Chicago, stated that FarmedHere spent over $100,000 on its food safety pursuits. FarmedHere also plans to make its strategy publicly available for free to make the work easier for other indoor farmers.

As the founder of Agritecture.com, my focus has always been on collaboration in the industry, so I asked Kluko what he thought about those costs and how collaboration between vertical farmers could help. He responded that the best practices are “already out there,” and “there is nothing really to share publicly.” According to Kluko, vertical farms and greenhouses should look to hospitals as guides for cleanliness and best practices.

Green Spirit Farms’ Food Safety Tips for Greenhouses or Vertical Farms

1. Prioritize sanitation – use common sense. Look closely at how your farm is maintained. Hand washing is step one.

2. Focus less on technology – look at a hospital; cleanliness there is more about operations and procedures than technology.

3. Learn from existing programs – stay up to date with public auditing standards like USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

4. Analyze your inputs and outputs – know your traceability!

5. Communicate effectively – display clear graphics to illustrate clean practices to your staff

Inside Green Spirit Farms’ controlled vertical farming operation. Image via Green Spirit Farms.

Kluko isn’t the only person who thinks that food safety concerns are mitigated in controlled environments. This Scranton Times article explains how food safety and the local food movement are interconnected. The traceability of products makes consumers feel safer as local farmers build their business around serving local customers.

“Thousands of consumers have been sickened by E.coli and salmonella contaminations of spinach, scallions, chilies, cantaloupes, and other fresh produce in recent years. The outbreaks have helped boost demand for local produce.” – James Haggerty, Staff Writer, Scranton Times

It’s exciting that farmers of Green Spirit and FarmedHere have joined the movement of bringing food indoors to provide healthier, local produce. Others have taken part in helping to navigate the challenges of food safety. Be sure to check out this guide for serving food grown on-site in school cafeterias by ChangeLab Solutions, a law and policy innovation group.

Despite the progress in food safety, work remains to be done. USDA Good Agricultural Practices certification is still prohibitively expensive for small-scale farmers, and many of the safest indoor farms in the country start relatively small. Reducing the cost of USDA GAP certification could be another step toward providing healthier, local produce.

Do you run a greenhouse or vertical farm? Share your strategies for mitigating food safety concerns.

Feature Image: Farm manager, Michael Suter inspects lettuce at Stone Bridge Farm’s USDA GAP certified hydroponic greenhouse. Image via Stone Bridge Farm.

Copyediting by Scott Lindquist

15 Benefits of Aeroponic Growing

aeroponic-growing-food-production-farm

Though aeroponic technology was initialized in the 1930’s it hasn’t gained popular awareness until recent years. In fact aeroponic technology is now seen as a major advantage in the movement for large-scale urban food production. More and more facilities are opting to go with aeroponic growing methods as opposed to regular hydroponic or aquaponic hybrid methods. With ongoing advancements in soilless growing technology and plant sciences it’s no wonder growers are seeking to understand the benefits of aeroponic growing methods.

Here are 15 important benefits of aeroponic growing:

1. Delivers nutrients directly to the plant roots

2. Completely programmable technology conserves energy

3. Closed-loop system conserves water

4. Conserves water through runoff absorption into roots

5. Moisture control for better plant growth

6. Can be combined with hydroponics

7. Crops are easier to harvest in the absence of soil

8. Higher density crops optimizes output

9. Reduce labor cost through automation

10. Produces higher quality food in a controlled environment

11. Reduced risk of disease and pest infestation in a controlled environment

12. No need to immerse immerse roots in water which offers more control

13.  Roots are provided with better exposure to oxygen

14. Scalable systems can range from commercial level to apartment-sized gardens

15. Produces more food with less effort

4 Hydroponic Substrates

In soilless growing, instead of using soil you use a hydroponic grow medium or substrate. These substrates are used to support the plant’s root system and hold them in place by supporting the weight of the plant. These substrates also retain moisture and provide oxygen to the plant’s roots.

Unlike soil which generally contains fertilizer in it, hydroponic substrates are inert and therefore need a nutrient solution added to them to boost plant growth.

Here are four of the most common forms of hydroponic substrates used in soilless growing.

4 Hydroponic Substrates

  1. Clay Pebbles
  2. Coir/Coco
  3. Rockwool
  4. Perlite

Read more.

7 Artificial Lighting Factors That Impact Plant Growth

artifical-lighting-indoor-gardening-plant-health

Indoor growing typically requires artificial lighting to replace the sunlight that plants would otherwise receive in nature. A plant must be exposed to a certain amount of light in order to create energy through photosynthesis. When purchasing and setting up your grow lights there are several factors to consider which will determine many things about your artificial lighting requirements. Knowing these factors beforehand is important so that you can build a sustainable indoor garden that produces strong, healthy plants faster.

7 Artificial Lighting Factors for Indoor Gardening

1. Placement: you will need to determine at what distance to place your lights away from the plant. This will depend on the growth stage of the plant, as seedlings will require more direct placement than mature plants which have more leaf surface area.

2. Temperature: some lighting types, like standard incandescent lamps emit more heat than others. This is important to watch as too high of heat levels will damage your plants.

3. Spectrum: you must determine the spectrum of light being emitted by the bulb – either red or blue.

4. Stage of growth cycle: the stage of the growth cycle will determine whether you use red or blue spectrum lighting. Blue spectrum is applied during vegetative stages, while red spectrum lighting is applied during flowering stages.

5. Timing and cycle: depending on the requirements of the plant, you may decide on a timing cycle for your grow lights so that plants receive their recommended amount of light regularly.

6. Coverage area: you may need to add or remove lights depending on the range of light needed to reach all plants. With too wide of a lighting range you’ll waste energy. But with too little range you’ll risk eliminating some plants from the light coverage.

7. Number of plants: You’ll want to make sure that you don’t have too many plants under your grow lights as plants will start to compete for placement under the light. Less is more.

Read more about the artificial lighting needs of your indoor gardening including ways to boost light and save energy.Feature Image: Hydrofarm JSV4 grow light system. Image via Hydroponic Systems Zone.

Aquaponics Education: A Growing Food Trend

As our population grows, so does the need for healthy and sustainable food systems. Researchers and food scientists are searching for ways to conserve our natural resources while still being able to grow enough nutritional food to properly feed the population. Often the best answers are right in front of us and almost always found by blending nature with technology. Aquaponic farming and aquaponics education, a growing trend, happens to be one of those solutions that will sustainably feed our society.

Backyard aquaponic gardening. Image via BeforeItsNews.com

Aquaponics, Agriculture & Technology

Agriculture students and entrepreneurs alike are striving to syndicate traditional methods of growing food with new technologies which enable us to grow in our evolving built environments. The goal is to produce food that’s locally-grown, flavorful, and nutritional enough to sustain our families.

Aquaponics is sustainable, environmental, and economical for both personal food production and commercial enterprises. This closed-loop food production system offers value to everyone who chooses to grow using aquaponic methods. The possibilities for aquaponic growers are endless with proper aquaponics education. In aquaponics, the growers can harvest the fish, raise organic produce, and practice water conservation, while growing almost anything faster. Yes, aquaponic growing can feed the world.

In many cities like San Francisco, Denver, Portland, and even communities in Florida, the residents have developed a culture of concern and care regarding their food. Aquaponics growing methods offer a perfect solution for these large urban environments as the systems can be totally scalable.

Aquaponicals is an easy at-home aquaponics system perfect for families. Image via Aquaponicals.com

Aquaponics Education

More and more aquaponic educational facilities are popping up with more programs being offered. For example, Green Acre Aquaponics in Brooksville, Florida provides students with the skills to develop a successful aquaponic farming business. Students of this program will learn how to build and operate the system from integrated components, analyze the farming business, and implement marketing and sales development techniques.

For beginners, an essential aquaponics education resource is Aquaponic Gardening: A Step by Step Guide to Growing Fish and Vegetables Together by Sylvia Bernstein. Sylvia is widely regarded as the guru of aquaponic gardening and has been the leader in bringing this kind of sustainable farming to the forefront of urban agriculture.

The Future of Aquaponics

Aquaponic farming not only provides families and communities with a fresh, local, and nutritional food supply, but it also provides an economic opportunity for entrepreneurs. Urban agriculture through aquaponics education is also a terrific method of balancing out social challenges that are often faced in urban settings. It’s also a wonderful tool to teach kids about environmental education concepts. Overall, aquaponics has the ability to cultivate and maintain a resilient community.Feature Image: Aquaponics education from Aquaponics for Research and Education at Michigan Technological University. Image via SuperiorIdeas.org

Know Your Ponics: Distinguishing Between Soilless Growing Methods

know-your-ponics-growing-lettuce

When it comes to soilless growing methods, most that are familiar with hydroponics are also relatively familiar with aquaponics. However, there are two other notable methods that we at PowerHouse Hydroponics think readers should be aware of. Below we cover the similarities and differences between four different soilless growing methods.

Four Soilless Growing Methods

Hydroponics

Ebb-and-flow system, the classic hydroponics setup. Image via Hydroponics101.com.

The most common, and longest-tenured soilless growing method, hydroponics is speculated to have been utilized as far back as the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The basis for hydroponic growing is that nutrients are inorganic, and thus plants do not need soil to grow; the soil simply acts as a reservoir for the nutrients. Since plants absorb water soluble nutrients, the only thing the roots need are water and mineral nutrients. Thus, in hydroponics, plant roots are suspended in a nutrient-rich water solution. Nutrients are purchased and input by the grower. To support the plants, a variety of non-soil substrates, such as perlite are used. The water is aerated to provide enough oxygen to the roots and prevent the development of pathogens, which can arise in anaerobic conditions. There are several different methods of growing hydroponically, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.

Aquaponics

closed-loop-aquaponics-system

Closed loop of Aquaponics. Image via Theaquaponicsource.com.

Aquaponics is basically an augmented version of hydroponics that combines the system with traditional aquaculture. Instead of having to purchase and add nutrients, these are instead provided by fish waste. Occasionally, supplementation is required, but for the most part, fish are able to supply enough fertilizer to nourish your crops. Our friend Sylvia over at The Aquaponic Source has written about nutrient management in aquaponics systems.

Basically, what aquaponics creates is a closed-loop, symbiotic system; the fish provide nutrients for the plants, while the plants provide clean water that is cycled back to the fish. A variety of fish can be utilized in the system, sometimes serving as an edible commodity (Tilapia, Carp, Catfish), sometimes simply serving as nutrient sources (Goldfish, etc.) Like any hydroponic system, aquaponics can be a DIY project, as contributor Nathan Harben has shown us.

Aeroponics

Aeroponics is designed to provide an aerobic environment as possible to plants. This is done in a couple of ways. The first way, which most differentiates it from hydroponics and aquaponics, is the fact that plants are not produced in any sort of substrate. How are the plants’ roots supported in such a system? For herbs and leafy vegetables, a dense foam is wrapped around the base of the plant. Trellising is typically employed for larger fruits and vegetables.

The second characteristic of aeroponics that fosters an aerobic environment is how water and nutrients are delivered. Unlike hydroponics, which requires that the roots are suspended in nutrient-rich water, either a sprayed or atomized solution is applied to the roots of whatever is being produced. A good deal of research has actually been conducted by NASA on aeroponics, as it represents a more viable growing method in space (a mist is easier to handle in zero-gravity than liquid water). Environmentally, aeroponics actually represents a significant upgrade over hydroponics, in terms of inputs: Water usage can be reduced up to 60%, and only about 1/4 of the nutrients are needed.

Fogponics

An ultrasonic hydroponic fogger. Image via Buzzle.com.

Also known as “mistponics”, fogponics is a form of aeroponics. The only difference is that an ultrasonic fogger is used to create vaporized water (yes, the same machines used in your garden variety haunted house can be used to grow produce.) Fogponics operates on the principle that plants better absorb the smaller particles produced by the fogger. Less water, and thus energy are needed to achieve the same amount of biomass.

 

 

How To Germinate Hydroponic Seedlings

germinate-hydroponic-seedlings

When discussing hydroponic growing for beginners, an often overlooked yet crucial step is where to get the plants from. A popular option for beginners who want a truly authentic DIY gardening experience is to start from seeds. It takes longer of course before you can enjoy the fruits of your labor, so to speak, but the process could be just that much more enjoyable.

You’ll also have a better appreciation when your plants reach maturity. Not to mention, it’s quite educational as well to start from mere seedlings. When you germinate hydroponic seedlings, you also prevent bringing pests and diseases into your controlled growing environment.

grodan-rockwool-cubes-germinate-hydroponic-seedlings

Grodan Rockwool Cubes for germinating hydroponic seedlings.

Techniques to Germinate Hydroponic Seedlings

In traditional gardening you can place seeds directly into soil to begin sprouting. However, in hydroponics you cannot place seedlings directly into the grow medium. They won’t take hold or they could be washed away by the nutrient solution. Instead you need to begin to germinate hydroponic seedlings externally from the hydroponic garden.

When you germinate hydroponic seedlings they need a lot of moisture in order to sprout. Seeds also need warmth (around 70 degrees or more) and bright light in order to be brought to life. To get started, it’s recommended to use grow mediums specially designed for seed germination. Rockwool cubes are good for this. They retain moisture and break apart easily to insert seeds.

If you’re growing multiple plants, you can create a “nursery” by placing several different rockwool cubes of seeds in a grow tray. Place the tray in a brightly lit area. Make sure to keep the grow medium moist while the seeds begin to sprout. You’ll notice sprouting a only a matter of days.

Transplanting Germinated Hydroponic Sprouts

Once the sprouts have reached about 3 inches in height and have multiple leaves, you’ll be able to transplant them in to your hydroponic garden which should already contain your grow medium of choice. You won’t even need to necessarily break the plant out of the rockwool. You can simply insert the cube directly into a hole in the grow medium of the garden.

mondi-mini-greenhouse-germinate-hydroponic-seedlings

Mondi Mini Greenhouse is a protected environment for germinating hydroponic seedlings. Image via Greenhouse.net

Post-Transplant Care Techniques

It’s recommended to water the plants from the top with your nutrient solution for the first week. This will prevent them from drying out and will give the roots time to grow downward.

Remember not to place your artificial lighting too close to the newly sprouted plants. You don’t want to burn them. Start grow lights up high and then lower them incrementally week by week until they are at the appropriate height – approximately two feet away from the plants.

Recommended Products for Germinating Hydroponic Seedlings

Grodan Rockwool Cubes: These retain water really well and are easy to mix in with other grow mediums.

Rapid Rooter Grow Plugs: These plugs keep moist and contain beneficial microbes which help condition plants’ root systems and fight off disease.

Mondi Mini Greenhouse: This provides a mini nursery for your plants during the early stages. It protects seedlings, traps in moisture, keeps them warm, and has ventilation.

How Hydroponic Technology Solves Our Food Security Issue

food-security-issue-hydroponic-technology

The Problem

We’re hearing more about our planet’s over-population problem and the constraints that go along with it. These are constraints on our resources which manifest in the form of a food security issue. Presently our planet has a population of around one billion hungry people. That’s one in seven. These aren’t only people in under-developed countries. These are people who are potentially our neighbors.

However, the real problem isn’t that we have too many mouths to feed. The problem is that our present methods and systems for growing, distributing, marketing, and selling food are not efficient. They’re outdated and they isolate a certain portion of our society based on socioeconomics. Fresh, nutritious food is expensive, and it’s not widely available like its unhealthy alternatives.

An efficient and modern food system would be inclusive for all, would combat our resource constraints, would produce and deliver safer food, and would do so in a localized capacity.

We believe that hydroponic technology can solve our food security issue.

hydroponics-solves-food-security-issue

Traditional agriculture practices are facing climate change problems globally. Image via Alive.com

Current Food System

In our present system of traditional agricultural output, we consume masses of land to produce crops. Sadly, crops are being lost due to droughts, floods, and pest infestations all a result of climate change. All of these factors cause hardship on farmers and on communities. These problems increase production costs – an increase that gets passed on to the consumer in the form of a higher price tag.

Who suffers the most? The poor. They can’t afford fresh food so they opt for less nutritional food, high-in sugar. Or they simply don’t eat. This begins a vicious circle of developmental and social challenges.

Hydroponics as a Food System

By establishing hydroponics as an alternative to our current food system, we can mitigate many of the uncertainties that are causing crops prices to increase. Additionally, we can further reduce the harm that’s being done to the environment through food transport.

Advantages of Hydroponics over Traditional Agriculture

Here are some of the ways hydroponic technology can produce a more efficient food system in a localized setting:

  • Less labor intensive through automation
  • Produces higher yields faster
  • Can grow year-round, less dependent on seasons
  • Safer food and better control
  • Scalable from home-sized to commercial level
  • Uses fewer resources through controlled and precise energy and water consumption
  • Able to be established within a city as opposed to rural locations
hydroponic-solutions-plant-factories-food-security

Plant factories are highly efficient hydroponic food producers. Image via Zimbio.com

Hydroponic Technology Solutions for Food Security

Skeptics are still concerned with the feasibility of hydroponics as a food security solution. But the technology is advancing rapidly as more and more commercial hydroponic facilities are being invested in around the world. The more prolific this technology becomes, the lower the overall costs will be due to a growing demand.

It’s important to note that hydroponics is not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are many forms of hydroponics all which solve food security in their own right.

Here are various hydroponic technology solutions for our food security issue:

  • Plant factories
  • Vertical farms
  • Building integrated agriculture
  • Personal systems
  • Commercial greenhouses
  • Rooftop gardens

Each one of these solutions provides self-sufficiency in our homes, businesses, schools and cities. With enough awareness and investment, hydroponic technology will reach a point of critical mass which will ensure a more efficient food system that impacts its local community.

New Product: Art Garden Brings Families Together Over Food

art-garden-soilless-gardening-system

As the consumer demand for sustainable food security solutions continues to rise so do the available at-home gardening systems. Many of these systems provide families and individuals with the opportunity to cut down their grocery bills, take charge of their health and nutrition, and experience the positive effects of growing your own food. Additionally, these systems today are designed for your convenience, by maximizing space and saving on water and energy costs.

One of the newest gardening solutions on the scene is the Art Garden – a vertically designed soilless growing system that uses aeroponic technology to produce more crops in a smaller space. The Art Garden has the potential to grow up to 90 plants in just 4 square feet of space. Developed by the husband and wife team Benjamin and Sara Staffeldt, the Art Garden fills the need that a growing number of families have not only for better nutritional options for their children, but for supplemental income as well.

benjamin-sara-staffeldt-art-garden

Sara and Benjamin Staffedlt, creators of the Art Garden, believe that growing food is an important way to bring families together.

In fact, family is the primary drive behind the creation of the Art Garden. As a young couple, the Staffeldts are looking to design their lifestyle so that it may be focused on the raising of their family in a healthy and positive setting. Gardening and producing your own food is truly an ideal foundation from which they can make their vision a reality.

“This system is about family staying together and creating income together.”

The efficiency of the Art Garden allows Benjamin and Sara to produce enough food that they are able to rely on its sales as supplemental income. Despite the cold Wisconsin climate, the family can continue to grow year-round with the Art Garden even in less than ideal conditions. The Art Garden’s light refracting technology allows them to recreate a spectrum of light necessary to produce healthy yields faster.

Believing in the solutions and benefits they’ve created through the Art Garden, the Staffeldts have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise capital in order to increase production and provide solutions for other growers who, like Benjamin and Sara, want to support their families.

art-garden-soilless-gardening-food-production

By pledging to their Kickstarter campaign you will receive your Art Garden so that you may begin growing your own food in any climate as well. With your pledge you may also be eligible to receive organic and non-GMO seed packets, a PPM meter for testing your nutrient solution, and Art Garden swag including t-shirts and key chains.

To learn more about Benjamin and Sara and the passion that fuels the Art Garden, check out their video below or visit their Kickstarter page for the full story. You can also check out their YouTube channel to see the healthy produce grown using the Art Garden.

Selecting Your Best Hydroponic Plants

Because of the controlled nature of soilless gardens and the ability to grow either indoors or outdoors, there are far more plant options for you to choose from. Different hydroponic plants do however, grow better in different hydroponic systems. Here’s a look at the different types of hydroponic plants you may want to consider as well as the method or system they seem to best grow in.

Hydroponic Fruits

  • Tomatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries

If your system if vertically oriented then vine plants like tomatoes or strawberries grow ideally as long as they are given the proper support with stakes or cages.

Hydroponic lettuce grown in net pots with clay pebbles using the deep water culture method. Image via oocities.org.

Hydroponic Vegetables

  • Lettuce
  • Various salad greens (kale, spinach, rocket, arugula)
  • Micro greens
  • Carrots
  • Radishes
  • Cucumbers

Horizontal systems are more conducive to plants like lettuce, radishes, and carrots. Cucumbers and other salad greens however, can also be grown vertically. Lettuce is actually an ideal hydroponic plant because it’s lightweight and its root systems are not large, therefore the plants can float using the nutrient film technique.

Window farming - growing your own herb garden in your window space. Image via windowfarms.com.

Window farming – growing your own herb garden in your window space. Image via windowfarms.com.

Hydroponic Herbs

  • Cilantro
  • Basil
  • Mint
  • Parsley

These plants do not bear any fruit and therefore do not need their weight supported by stakes. Because these plants generally don’t take up much space, it’s quite easy to create your own simple DIY hydroponic herb garden using recycled bottles with any type of soilless grow medium. A basic drip system works well.

Space Saving Considerations

Of course the important thing to remember is how much space you have to work with. Assess your positioning near your windows and measure out how much space you can give up.

You should then determine how much you actually want to yield from your plants. Families will need to grow multiple plants and individuals will require fewer plants. So as to avoid food waste, we recommend starting with fewer plants and then adding more if need be.

What fruits, vegetables, or herbs have you grown hydroponically and what type of system have you found works best? Send us your system here.

Feature Image: Fresh salad ingredients. Image via mollotchka.blogspot.ca.