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Food For Thought

Is Hydroponic Farming the Future for Baja?

Ensenada is a rich agricultural state: Open-air and enclosed farms abound in the Maneadero area and produce vast crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, spinach, and other vegetables, as well as sunflowers and a variety of decorative flowers. To the north, toward Tecate, olive orchards and wine vineyards abound.

The open-air farms are subject to weather anomalies, damage by insect predators, drought, contaminated water supplies and even outright theft. Hence, the proliferation of the enclosed, climate-controlled monolithic farming “factories” has occurred, and these operations produce vast amounts of fresh food that is consistent in quality and free from most of the problems which regularly plague the open-air farms.

These farming facilities are easily recognizable by their sheer size, in addition to their traditional white “warehouse” appearance. A new one has just begun production at the bottom of the hill south of Ensenada.

Unfortunately, even the enclosed operations must use large quantities of water to produce their crops successfully. While some of the farms enjoy the luxury of having their wells, many of them are dependent on an inconsistent and drought-threatened water supply.

Farmers in San Quintin are already using hydroponic techniques to address the water problems in the area.

Although a recent series of rainstorms has bolstered the existing reservoir temporarily, the water supply is going to be stretched by an increasing population, an anticipated surge in tourism and the hot summer months ahead, aggravated by the relentless factor of global warming.

To survive the inevitable, and to ensure longevity, farmers must begin to seek ways to produce high-quality products while simultaneously consuming far less water. An obvious solution (and one that has been in practice for centuries) is hydroponics.

The word “hydroponics” is derived from two Greek words, which mean “water” and “work.” This makes sense because, over the centuries, agricultural physiologists discovered that plants absorb their nutrients from ions in the water. The soil itself is actually counterproductive and superfluous: Removing the soil from the process allows for a 90% reduction in the amount of water necessary for the plant to thrive!

The biggest problem facing the proponents of the hydroponics industry is the start-up cost of their housing facilities. One of the primary obstacles was the expense of the concrete growing beds, which were later replaced by plastic. The sub-irrigation systems also replaced the stationary pods that hindered the consistent availability of vital nutrients. One by one, the problems were addressed, and the costs were reduced. Still, the start-up costs are significant, beginning with the purchase or leasing of land, and continuing with the building of the structure and installation of the support mechanisms used in controlling the environmental conditions within it.

Currently, the most efficient hydroponic techniques in operation use no sub-strata (or anchoring material) for the roots. The “ebb-and-flow” system, for example, allows the plants to absorb nutrients directly from ions in a strictly liquid process. The cost becomes rapidly offset by the profit gained when high-quality, fresh, pesticide/herbicide-free food is made available to consumers demanding and willing to pay for it.

The techniques of hydroponics have been developed for over two thousand years by many different civilizations. The hanging gardens of Babylon used an early version of this science. The Aztecs of Mexico created their floating gardens, and the ancient Chinese also used this technique. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic records dating back several hundred years B.C. reveal that even then there was knowledge of the value of growing plants solely in water.

By the 1970’s, the virtues of hydroponic gardening had become so widely appreciated that even traditional farmers and home gardeners began to investigate and use the technology on some level. Meanwhile, scientists and analysts continued to investigate and develop methods of making the system more efficient and more profitable. The most obvious driving force in the proliferation of hydroponic farming is the fact that fresh, healthy food can be grown anywhere, in any climate, even in areas where the soil is non-arable and/or the climate is unsuitable for normal outdoor farming methods.

Hydroponic Farming saves about 90% of the water comapred to regular open air farming.

The advantages of the hydroponic method are numerous. Hydroponic plant production uses much less land surface to provide much more food, and may even be “stacked,” as in high-rise multi-level structures. Again, a hydroponic greenhouse can produce as much food as a conventional outdoor field covering 10 times as much space, and can guarantee a consistent level of quality unheard of in traditional farming!

Obviously, the fact that hydroponics enables plant production without the necessity of soil allows for the production of food in areas with non-arable land or very limited space. Again, because hydroponic greenhouses are environmentally controlled, the use of herbicides and pesticides is virtually eliminated. A further advantage is that our land, air, water and food are environmentally more pure and healthy. Hydroponic farming allows for the production of food year-round, without regard to “season.”

In the San Quintin Valley, hydroponic strawberry production on a large scale has already begun. Although most of the farming in the area is still open-field, farmers (such as Jose Pablo Santana and his grandfather) are beginning to embrace the hydroponic system for obvious reasons: Groundwater must be treated due to its high saline level, thereby making it a very costly commodity; using less water reduces cost, thereby ensuring a more affordable product for the consumer; once treated, the nutrient solution may be recycled, further reducing production costs; and enclosing the fields reduces wind damage and all but eliminates insect infestation, resulting in a more consistently high-quality crop.

Hydroponics has come a long way since Babylon, ancient Egypt and the Aztecs. Scientists insist that it will be the pioneer farming technique for developing the possibility of life on other planets. NASA studies it and integrates it into the space program. The U.S. Navy is testing hydroponic gardening on board submarines. The research is an ongoing process and will have many applications into the future.

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