How to Start a Small Scale Hydroponic Farm
Photo Credit: Vegetable Gardening Life

Written By Andrew Carter

So you’re ready to take the leap into large-scale hydroponics. Not terribly large-scale, but a little larger than your average hobby grower. You may already be farming in soil or you may have not touched a seed in your life. Either way, this guide is here to help you start out, and make the most important decisions first.

What do you want to grow?

This is most likely the driving factor in your moving towards hydroponics in the first place. Your outdoor lettuce is taking too long, you’re tomatoes aren’t fruiting, or you want fresh kale microgreens for your family or even the local grocery store. Each choice drives the scale and technology used within your farm, so choose wisely. Leafy Greens – Lettuce, basil, chard, frissee, all of these plants require a less intricate system, but the ability to space plants efficiently. Since you want to grow as many of these as possible, you want to utilize the whole system footprint for growing area. The most common systems for these plants are Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) and Floating Raft Systems. Both of these aren’t terribly difficult to set up and allow for a certain amount of automation, if that’s what you’re after. Tomatoes, peppers, and any other flowering / fruiting plant – Well, you can’t grow banana trees (or any other tree, realistically), but most vining and flowering crops can be grown quite successfully in hydroponic systems. Since you are focusing on having vertical space to vine and grow the plant, as well as a really strong base, you give each of these crops ample space to grow. Generally you allow these crops to grow for many months, so their root system becomes quite large. They benefit from periodic watering and a different nutrient schedule than solely vegetative plants. The most common small-scale systems for these crops are Bato/Dutch Buckets or ebb and flow buckets. When you get to a much larger scale you see flood to drain, or multiple other types, but let’s keep it simple for Microgreens – At this point you have probably have seen microgreens in your local grocery store. Charging $5-6 per ounce, you are probably tempted by the opportunities in this rising industry. Rightfully so! It’s labor intensive, but due to the short turnaround (1-2 weeks from seed), you can produce a whole lot of greens in a short period of time.

Generally people use flood trays for this type of growth. Additionally, you can stack systems due to the low light needs of these early-developed plants.

What type of building

So you’ve chosen your crop, you have your system and you’re almost ready to go. Not so fast! You need a place to grow! One of the major benefits of hydroponics is the absolute control you have over your crops. Why would you leave it outside, subjected to the elements? You could, technically, but you may as well be growing in soil beds at that point. Here are a few options for you, but don’t stop there! You can grow almost anywhere if you put your mind to it.

Indoors, inside your home –

With adequate artificial lighting, you can easily grow indoors. People grow in basements, attics, closets, bedrooms, you name it, as long as you don’t mind the constant sounds of a hydroponic system bubbling away. It’s cheaper in that you can use already constructed space, but it’ll cost you more in artificial lighting, energy, and living space.

Microgreens can do really well indoors. They don’t need the full spectrum lighting that full-grown plants need, so you can stack systems and provide pretty low light.

Hoop House

This is the next step up. You need outside space, a structure and skin, but you can place hydroponic systems within these houses and keep them out of the rain. Generally they don’t have walls and aren’t very controlled as far as climate and environment are concerned, but depending on your climate it may be a perfect fit for you.

Greenhouse

This is the best situation. A space dedicated to growing, with natural light, and in a size and shape easy enough for you to control the climate, pests, and whatever else nature might throw at you. You need power and a heating and cooling method depending on your climate, but that’ll come in time. There’s radiant heat through pipes towards the ground, blown heat from commercial heaters, vents and shade for passive cooling, and swamp coolers for more energy intensive cooling. The possibilities are endless, really, it just depends on how much money you want to spend.

What type of lights

If you’ve done any research you’ll note that there are tons of different types of lighting you can use for your hydroponic setup. LEDs, High Pressure Sodium lights, and even shop lights depending on the setup. Truthfully, what you need to note is the spectrum released from the light source. Any old LED or lightbulb doesn’t emit the correct type of light for photosynthesis, it has to be emit in the correct spectrum for your plant choice.

Generally people choose from 2200-6000k depending on the crop and stage of growth. If you go for LEDs, do your research! Many think that just having 2 colors (RB) of LEDs will do the trick, but it’s much more complicated than that.

Overall there’s a lot to consider when building a greenhouse. Although it’s a huge task, the benefits are huge. Fresh produce for your friends and family, a great hobby, and who knows, maybe even a source of income. Good luck!

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