Industry Survey Seeks Information on Hydroponic Food Production

If you are doing hydroponic food production or thinking about doing this type of production, your input is needed. Controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) production researchers Roberto Lopez and Kellie Walters at Michigan State University and Chris Currey at Iowa State University have developed a survey to gain a better understanding of current hydroponic food production practices. The researchers will also use the results of the survey to help determine future research projects as well as their extension efforts.

Kellie Walters, a PhD graduate research assistant at Michigan State University, is conducting a hydroponics industry survey to see where she can make the biggest impact with her research. 
Photo courtesy of Mich. St. Univ.
 
“One thing we like to do as researchers is to see where we can make the biggest impact,” said Kellie Walters, who is a PhD graduate research assistant at Michigan State. “We want to know what matters to growers. What would they like to see done? Some of the information collected from the survey might impact the research I will be doing for my PhD. I have already set up some experiments working with some of the environmental parameters that we ask growers about in the survey.

“One of the things that I am interested in is the environment, including temperature, carbon dioxide, light intensity and quality, how these interactions affect the growth and flavor of different herbs and leafy greens. In the survey we asked about the value of crop flavors. I want to know if growers really care if their crops are more flavorful.”

Determining production protocols

Walters is working with Michigan State horticulture professor Roberto Lopez, who is her major advisor for her PhD degree.

“We wanted to survey the industry and determine production protocols for growers. So we are asking questions related to where they grow hydroponically—in a greenhouse, hoop house, indoors or outdoors? What types of systems are they using? What crops are they growing? Even though we are focusing much of our research on leafy greens, we wanted to find out what food crops are being grown currently. We wanted to determine growers’ inputs as well as their cultural and environmental parameters. This includes their water source, temperature set points, and if they provide supplemental or photoperiodic lighting. Also, do they grow young plants for hydroponics or are they basically just finishing the crops?”

Michigan State horticulture professor Roberto Lopez said the hydroponics industry survey will provide researchers with information about growers’ production protocols. 
Photo courtesy of Mich. St. Univ.
 
Determining production challenges, research needs

Currey said the survey offers the opportunity to find out what challenges are occurring with hydroponic growers.

“There are so many more growers out there than I will ever have the chance to personally interact with whether that is with a phone call, through email, or visiting their facilities,” he said. “When I talk to growers and get to know them and learn what they are doing, I learn about their problems. It’s helpful to have all of those perspectives. It’s good to get a view of the landscape and the challenges that exist.

“Even before we did the survey we knew that growers were having certain issues with lighting and temperature, so we have been working on those. Productivity under low light or productivity under cool temperatures and coming up with predicative models for growth. There are certain things we know growers could use. Hopefully we are already focusing our research programs on some of those. The survey will hopefully validate the need for some of the research we have already been doing. The survey will also help us to plan research in the future to make sure that it is relevant and needed.”

Iowa State University horticulture professor Chris Currey is working primarily with leafy greens and herbs, which are generally a more accessible crop for growers beginning to do food production.
Photo courtesy of Iowa St. Univ.

Currey said most of the research conducted as a result of the survey results will likely be done using nutrient film technique or deep water raft systems.

“I work primarily with leafy crops, mainly herbs and greens,” he said. “Our facilities are well-suited for leafy crops. It takes a little more of a specialized facility for vine crops like tomatoes and cucumbers because of their dimensions. I also work on the leafy crops because I think they are generally an accessible crop for growers to begin food production. The barrier to entry with leafy greens can be a little lower than with tomatoes with respect to some of the learning curves. Leafy greens also have shorter crop times for ornamental growers who are looking for fast crops. Leafy greens could be a short “gap” crop rather than something like tomatoes which can be a six- to nine-month crop.”

Currey said he is also hoping the survey helps to identify growers’ needs that also compliment his skill set as a researcher.

“I expect there will be comments and questions about powdery mildew management on lettuce or some other pest issues,” he said. “There are other people aside from myself who are better equipped to conduct powdery mildew research. Hopefully the survey results will give ideas to other researchers as well. We want to make the results publically available. The survey might give other researchers ideas about what needs can be addressed with their skill sets.”

Walters said they will be publishing the results of the survey to give the industry access to the information.

“There is no way that we can create the optimal guidelines for growing all of the hydroponic crops growers are producing,” she said. “The survey will help other researchers know what areas growers would like to focus on and to help inform growers of issues other growers are currently facing.”

The Hydroponics Industry Survey consists of 24 questions and should take less than 10 minutes to complete. The deadline for participating in the hydroponics survey is Friday, May 12.

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