The year 2020 will go down in history as one of the most challenging years in the modern age. Not only for the COVID-19 pandemic, but for historic drought conditions that caused a number of devastating forest fires, the drying of wetlands, lakes, and streams, and a significant impact on local wildlife. Shipping issues on both a global and nationwide level caused disruptions in the fragile food systems Americans rely on to survive.
With these obstacles in mind, an unlikely hero in the age of increasing climate change issues may seem surprising to desert-dwellers: hydroponics.
Hydroponics is a type of agriculture that uses no soil, and instead grows food through water and added nutrients alone. The term “hydroponics” was coined in the early 1930s, and research has continued in the decades since to push agriculture into a new, technology-controlled indoor state.
Currently, all of Nevada is in a state of being “abnormally dry” and within a “moderate drought,” while 90 percent is considered in a “severe drought” and more than half is within the range of “extreme drought,” according to current U.S. Drought Monitor Conditions.
When it comes to water, those in the Sierra region are particularly attuned to its conservation. Being within a high desert, residents understand that they – and the environment – rely on the winter snowpacks for the majority of their water.
The idea of pumping plastic towers full of precious water to grow food may seem strange to some, or even wasteful, but using hydroponic growth methods saves between 70 to 90 percent more water than traditional growing methods.
As climate change and food system insecurity continue to present challenges to traditional agriculture, hydroponics is becoming more and more popular, whether through a local hobby gardener with a grow operation in their garage to feed their family, or entire countries pouring millions of dollars each year into the construction of grow houses.
In the Sierra Nevada Region greenhouses have been popping up across the desert thanks in part to Miles Construction, who came to the forefront of indoor growing facilities due to a niche Nevada market: cannabis.
“We continue to be very active in the cannabis industry, the specialized knowledge and relationships that we established with cannabis facilities has catapulted us into the indoor farming arena for multiple crops,” said Cary Richardson, Vice President of Business Development with Miles Construction. “As we learned more about indoor farming we became captivated by the opportunities, not just from a construction standpoint but from a society perspective as the path forward to address the many challenges that exist in feeding the world. This is the future of agriculture in the US and we are helping to build this revolution.”
According to Richardson, while some in the U.S. might consider this ground-breaking, cutting-edge technology, these types of facilities have been adopted and put into use for years in other countries across the world.
Especially within Nevada, Richardson believes that hydroponics could be a viable answer to growing within the drought conditions of the desert.
“In general, indoor farming utilizes 90 percent less water than traditional farming practices,” said Richardson. “This is only one of many benefits. No pesticides are utilized, crop yield is increased several-fold per area utilized, and of course, crops can be grown in any climate year-round. Another huge advantage is the ability to construct these facilities to reduce shipping times to urban areas thus reducing the carbon footprint and literally delivering a fresh picked tomato same-day to your plate in the middle of winter.”
Leafy greens seem to be the most popular and easiest to grow in a hydroponic indoor system, but hydroponics lends itself to various commercial crops such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, etc., as well as specialty crops.
Tucked into a hand-built greenhouse in a residential neighborhood in Carson City, Brian Harasha has turned his hobby into a lucrative livelihood growing specialty edible succulents for local restaurants.
Harasha first began growing microgreens in a grow room he built in his garage, but quickly expanded into what he calls “Sea Ice,” an edible succulent popular in Japan which he grows in hydroponic towers in a home-made greenhouse made of PVC pipes, thick plastic, and ventilation units made to create a precise growing environment.
Harasha experiments with growing conditions for many of his crops, which he says he’d like to evolve into “farming on his phone,” or using technology to handle the entirety of the growth process, controlling humidity, temperature, and more in a hands-off style that he says could revolutionize the agriculture industry.
“Hydroponics are not going to save the world and end hunger, but they are a part of the future,” said Harasha. “My vision and goals are to bring food to not only food deserts, but real deserts as well where food doesn’t grow easily due to heat, or even cold deserts like the arctic.”
There are several limitations to what hydroponics can accomplish, however, at least right now. Technical knowledge and high start-up costs can be prohibitive, and water-borne diseases can quickly wipe out an entire crop if left to spread. And, importantly in the discussion of climate change and global warming, indoor greenhouses and hydroponics require energy to power grow lights and temperature controls.
In addition, according to Richardson, there are challenges even in simply constructing these types of facilities at the local level.
“There are many hurdles to overcome regarding entitlements and local jurisdictions that are not accustomed to greenhouses,” said Richardson. “These are agricultural facilities, but many jurisdictions misinterpret them as commercial facilities, which greatly complicates the structures and significantly increases costs.”
According to Richardson, until recently building codes didn’t even recognize greenhouse structures as its own building type.
“As the industry gains traction, it is imperative that jurisdictions recognize it for what it is: agriculture,” said Richardson. “Misclassifying them as commercial facilities will take its toll and potentially undermine the entire movement.”
Whether or not hydroponics will be able to save those suffering from food insecurity, the fact remains that many communities are food insecure and, in times of strife, such as disruptions to the supply chain or economic downturns, local producers will be needed more than ever.
Between 2008 and 2011 during the height of the recession, almost 15 percent of U.S. households reported experiencing food insecurity. Since that time it has decreased, but in 2020 10.5 percent of U.S. households still were counted as being food insecure throughout the year; that’s over 3.4 million households.
For households living below the federal poverty line, the number increases dramatically to 35.3 percent, and households with single mothers near 30 percent as well. In Nevada alone, almost 400,000 residents live below the federal poverty line.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 23 million Americans live in food deserts with inadequate access to healthy, affordable, and fresh food, according to a study performed by UNR researchers.
In the 2015 study, researchers analyzed the nutritional benefits of hydroponic-grown versus soil-grown berries, noting that while local communities are turning towards alternative farming techniques, little research at the time had been done regarding the quality of the produce. However, their studies found that in some cases, hydroponically grown fruits, such as strawberries, gave a much higher yield with significantly higher vitamin levels.
“The advantages allow soilless systems to address several environmental issues while providing sustainable systems in food deserts, in arid or urban regions and areas affected by the drought,” the study stated.
For proponents of indoor farming like Richardson and Harasha, the path to hydroponics is an evident way to increase food diversity and security, especially in the arid desert landscape of Nevada.
“Until recently I would speak to indoor farming as the industry is coming to the US, that we as a company are ahead of this industry, but the future is here, it is now,” said Richardson. “We are working with several companies that are well funded and are moving forward quickly with developing indoor farming projects throughout the US. It will soon become commonplace to see large greenhouse facilities and have the ability to purchase vegetables grown in these facilities.”
“We are believers. We are excited. This is the future of agriculture in the US, and we are helping to build this revolution.”
Kelsey Penrose is a native Nevadan journalist covering everything from agriculture to historic preservation in rural Nevada and beyond. Support her work in the Ally.
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