San Diego

Locals Put Down Roots in Hydroponics Farming

Encouraged by the trend’s recent increase in popularity, potential upward revenue stream and its sustainability factor, local farmers have been, as of late, launching hydroponic farms around San Diego County

According to a report released in May, the hydroponics market is estimated at $8.1 billion in 2019 and projected to reach $16 billion by 2025. The growth is driven by “higher yields compared with conventional agriculture methods in limited land and other resources, which has had a profound impact in demand for hydroponics,” the report said.

Encouraged by the trend’s recent increase in popularity, potential upward revenue stream and its sustainability factor, local farmers have been, as of late, launching hydroponic farms around town.

Motherload Farm & Nursery, a family-owned and operated certified organic farm, founded in 2018 and located in Valley Center, officially launched its hydroponic arm in September.

Founder Susan Guenther, a local San Diego resident, decided to start a career in hydroponic farming when she found herself in search of a creative pursuit post retirement from the marketing and technology industries.

“I decided to direct that energy to something new, something I would truly enjoy: growing (and) farming,” she said, adding that her hydroponic farm sits on 0.9 acres of her 2.5 acres of farmland. “I saw that my 2.5 acres could compete in the marketplace by utilizing technology to grow, while protecting the environment and allowing me to be a sustainable woman.”

No Dirt

Hydroponics is a branch of agriculture where plants are grown without soil. According to the website How Stuff Works, the nutrients the plants normally derive from the soil are instead dissolved into water, and, depending on the type of hydroponic system used, the plant’s roots are suspended in, flooded with or misted with the nutrient solution “so the plant can derive the elements it needs for growth.”

Some of the tools and materials needed to set up a hydroponic farm are buckets, garden hoses, plant clips, nutrient tank, PVC pipes and PH testing kits, it said.

To kick off Motherload, Guenther said she used her retirement savings and attended Archi’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in partnership with Cal Poly Pomona. She said she learned about sustainable agribusiness and farming production methods there and earned a degree as a hydroponist in August 2018.

“I not only learned hydroponics, I learned about farmers,” she said. “Based on my career in sales, marketing and business/market development, I could see that although our farmers have grit and can grow amazing produce, most do not know how to sell and get to market. Most must rely on others, (like) brokers, farmers markets, etc. or let their produce go to waste.”

The problem with the middleman, said Guenther, is that the farmers must sell at a very low profit and, as a result, their farms fail to prosper.

Motivated by this and also the growing farm-to-table movement by San Diego restaurants, Guenther was not only ready to get her hydroponic farm going, but also to use her past professional experience to solve the above-mentioned problem by creating a web marketplace for local San Diego farmers.

Online Farmers Marketplace

“I set out not only to build the Motherload Farm & Nursery, but also a proof-of-concept for a local online farmers marketplace for San Diego farmers and chefs and ultimately for San Diegans to have a true local farm-to-table experience.” On the site, farmers could post their produce for sale and chefs could shop online, “quickly and efficiently,” she said.

In full production from Jan. 15 to Dec. 1, Motherload grows 198 heirloom tomato plants, 250 pepper plants, 75 squash plants, 120 eggplants, and much more, according to Guenther.

Her clients include Valley Center community members, chefs and farm and garden supply stores, she said. Hydroponic farming can not only help small farms compete with large farms while protecting the environment, said Guenther, but also grow food and feed people where farming is too difficult.

Adam Navidi, owner of aquaponics-focused Future Foods Farms in Brea, Orange County, said while his method of farming is more of a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture, he understands why hydroponic farming is currently a growing trend.

“We are the same in the fact that we are soil-less growers and use similar systems. It’s just how we get our nutrients that is different,” he said adding that in aquaponics, the nutrients found in the water used to farm and grow crops comes from tilapia, catfish and shrimp. “I read a study recently in which they tested the media in an older aquaponic system, and they found more beneficial micro biology than they found in organic soil. It’s a really healthy system.”

In the coming year, Guenther said she has accounts in place with four farm and garden supply stores and an agreement in progress that will allow “Motherload Farms to provide fresh organic produce for a 600-home community within Valley Center via a community farm stand and proposed farm-to-table specialty food store.”

Once that is set, Guenther said she will complete her goal of better supporting the local farm-to-table movement with the launch of her farm-to-chef marketplace.

Archi’s Acres in Escondido, founded by Karen Archipley in 2006, has nine employees and sits on six acres of land. The farm, the first organic hydroponic farm stateside, grows basil and hemp. Its customers include the likes of Whole Foods and Jimbo’s.

For Archipley and her business partner and husband, Colin Archipley, their primary goal is to not only grow sustainable, healthy foods but also be advocates for smaller farmers, especially those practicing hydroponics.

“Hydroponic farmers are a huge asset to California,” she said, adding that hydroponic farming uses up to 80% less water and grows up to three times more crop than soil farming. “If we are taking extra steps to conserve water and make sure our food is clean, that should be acknowledged… The magic is in the plant, not in the soil.”

Currently in San Diego, there are a handful of hydroponic farms in addition to Motherload, said Guenther. This includes Archi’s Acres, Dassi Famly Farm, Go Green Agriculture, Solutions Farms and Sundial Farm.

Endeavour Shen, founder of Sundial Farm in Vista, grows 22 varieties of leafy greens in his 16,000 square foot greenhouse, including butter lettuce, romaine lettuce, kale, arugula, chard and basil. Founded in 2016, Sundial’s clients are farmers markets, restaurants and some of the local school districts, he said.

“I heard about (hydroponics) around 2000 — I researched about it, about the way things are grown,” he said, adding that prior to farming, he was an accountant and also in the military.

His inspiration? The ability and desire to provide clean, healthy food to the masses.

“I want to provide good food for people,” said Shen. “There are conventional farmers here that say their food is organic, and they are not. Even organic food has organic pesticides. I want to go above that.”

The Setbacks

Shen said, while the entry level for hydroponic farming is easier than soil farming, hydroponics has its financial and performance setbacks. The initial capital for hydroponic farms is a lot, he said, estimating it takes around $150,000 to fund about 3,000 square feet. Still, Shen said if one is a first generation farmer and doesn’t have extensive farming background, it’s a smart route to take because one can get a decent amount of farming done in a smaller area. 

Controlling the environment is also hard, said Shen. “You have to get the right size, the right airflow ratio, what kind of water wall, how thick it will be, how long it should be,” he said. In essence, “you are trying to create a comfortable atmosphere within a closed environment. When humidity is heavy, it is harder to cool down the house. It is not easy.”

Yet, Shen is sanguine.

In the next year, Shen said he is working on making Sundial certified organic and also hopes to begin growing strawberries, Persian cucumbers and tomatoes, among other products.

The long term goal is to eventually create a system where he uses soil in raised beds, so that the soil is not contaminated in any way, he said, adding that he already strips the city water through reverse osmosis before it is mixed with fertilizer for his hydroponic practice.

“We want quality,” he said. “That is my number one goal.”

Archipley believes the hydroponic farming industry will continue to grow locally and nationally.

“Our soil needs a rest,” she said. “There is all this talk about how there is lead in baby food. The reason for that is because it is grown in soil. We are in a toxic clean-up state right now… I’m not against soil farming, and organic farmers are doing the best they can and we love that. But, hydroponics is the future.”

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