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Hydroponics offers soil-less farming option

Petrus Langenhoven Lettuce heads growing in a Purdue University greenhouse
LETTUCE HEADS: Lettuce heads grow in a Purdue University greenhouse filled with hydroponic systems.
Hydroponic crop production can complement traditional farming methods.

After losing all their vegetable crops to a 100-year-flood during the summer of 2008 in Indiana, traditional farm couple Darin and Deb Kelly decided to try a soil-less farming system known as hydroponics. Their first system was made from a plastic bin and a 400-watt lightbulb in their basement and could only hold six lettuce plants.

When the Kelly family first made their transition to hydroponic farming, they were still growing a small number of crops with traditional farming, proving that having a hydroponic system while still farming traditionally is manageable. The small system they developed in their basement made them fall in love with hydroponics, and their farm only grew from there.

In 2009, they put up their first greenhouse and began growing multiple varieties of lettuce, vegetables and herbs. Eventually, they bought 120 Nutrient Film Technique hydroponic systems to begin the mostly soil-less journey in their greenhouse. Later, they built two more greenhouses, making a total of three, and harvested around 1,250 plants each week.

While it was a long journey because they knew nothing about hydroponics at first, they did their research, continued to expand and became successful. They created Good Life Farms in Bloomington, Ind., but have since sold it and are now the owners of The Fungi Connection in Canada, where they currently live.

The Kellys proved they didn’t need to have an expensive system at the beginning of their soil-less journey to become successful in hydroponics, and made their dreams come true. Even if you start small — with a plastic bin and a 400-watt lightbulb in your basement, with no background in hydroponics — there are multiple markets you can seek out to help you begin.

Overall, traditional farming combined with hydroponic farming is manageable when you put your mind to it, especially because hydroponic systems do not require as much maintenance as traditional farming. Hydroponic systems can be rewarding year-round, especially in Indiana where there are harsh winters and humid summers.

Flexible system

Hydroponic systems, depending on the size, can range anywhere from $50 on the lower end to $100,00 on the upper end. “You do not have to find hydroponic markets before you start growing, and the systems do not require as much maintenance as traditional farming does,” says Petrus Langenhoven, a Purdue University horticulture and hydroponic crop specialist.

Langenhoven adds that plants take roughly four weeks to grow in the system, which is much quicker than traditional soil-growing methods. This also provides the ability to grow more plants year-round, even in the harsh Indiana winters.

The most popular thing to grow in a hydroponic system, as well as the thing the system grows best, are leafy greens such as lettuce, according to a Purdue Extension website. Hydroponic farming is very manageable and something you can do during the off-season of traditional farming.

Harvesting for hydroponics is also much easier and not as costly. For example, if you had a 300-acre farm in Indiana with various farm animals, you would still be able to maintain a hydroponic system because the system does not require daily maintenance, experts say.

Sweatland is a senior in agricultural communication at Purdue University.

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