Once you’ve designated a crop, selected a setup, chosen a lighting system, understood the growing environment and had a sample of the product, the next step is to optimize the system.
Limiting factor theory
When adjusting or fine-tuning your systems, likely a factor or two will limit your production. It could be excessive temperature fluctuation, a nutrient deficiency or overload, too little or too much light or water, not enough CO2 or ventilation, inconsistent pH levels or an uninvited pest invading your produce. It may be a supply chain issue, a distribution model flaw or a labor-related issue.
Your job isn’t to focus on everything at once but instead to find the most constraining factor and focus your energy and efforts on addressing it. Once that is eliminated, gather data to determine the next limiting factor, abolish it and repeat the process. You will be incrementally moving toward a custom system ideal for your situation. This is a continuous process, as no system is perfect, and the ability to integrate new technologies and products into your evolving system is critical.
If you had a pile containing 50 hydrogen parts and another containing 50 oxygen parts, and you had to assemble them into water, hydrogen would be the limiting factor. Water requires two hydrogens for every oxygen (H2O), so you could make only 25 H2O molecules. It wouldn’t help if someone came along and added 50 oxygen parts to the pile, as hydrogen is the limiting factor. Conversely, if you acquired another 50 hydrogen parts, you could now assemble 50 units of water. Thus is the nature of the hydroponic industry. For example, if your produce crop has potassium deficiency, no amount of nitrogen will fix the issue. In fact, incorporating additional nitrogen into your fertilization program can compound the problem.
Dialing it in
After determining what components or systems and accessories work best for your environment and crop, it’s time to make minor tweaks. By making only one or two changes at a time, you can isolate the result of each change and integrate beneficial changes into the process. If too many changes are implemented at once, it is much more difficult to determine which factor was the catalyst for the resulting benefits or detriments. For example, you may hypothesize that plants grown in your aeroponic system need additional fertilizer, could benefit from supplemental CO2 and could use more light. In response, you raise the electric conductivity of the nutrient solution in your reservoir, raise the parts per million of carbon dioxide in your environment and lower the light canopy. The results are a net positive, but it is hard to define which factor (and how much of that factor) contributed to the positive result. It is possible that two of the changes were totally responsible for the entire positive outcome and the third factor was actually a slight detriment.
After you have met your production targets or quality benchmarks through small-batch testing, the goal is to repeat the process on a larger scale. Automation allows large growers to capitalize on the economies of scale.
Read more: What Is Hydroponics?
Automated system breakdown
An automated system should include remote visual monitoring of the grow area, as well as the incorporation of an environment controller. An automated environmental controller is capable of remotely performing adjustments to nutrient and pH levels by using injectors; maintaining carbon dioxide levels through use of propane or natural gas burners or tanks; managing atmospheric conditions by activating cooling, heat, humidity and other ventilation systems; and turning lights on and off. Many also include emergency features of sending you an alert if the temperature exceeds your parameters, if a pump shuts down, if reservoir levels are low or if it detects a leak in the system. Most automated systems are also capable of logging the data, which is stored in the cloud or on a physical hard drive. Modern controllers also can be set up and controlled by various smartphone apps, which can suggest parameters and provide integrated programs designed for a specific crop.
With diligence, patience and hard work, you will be in a position where all systems are calibrated and optimized and the resulting produce is delicious, abundant and cost-effective.
Read more: Basics and Popular Hydroponics Setups
The hydroponic industry, a subset of controlled environment agriculture, will continue to exhibit a growth rate that far exceeds that of its traditional counterpart. Although population growth will add to overall produce demand, the hydroponic industry is in a unique position to fulfill the consumer’s desire to move toward high quality, non-GMO and organic produce.
We can anticipate the future by looking at historical trends. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the amount of tomatoes grown in the United States in a greenhouse environment in the 1990s was insignificant. Over the last 20 years, the number of tomatoes grown in a controlled environment has trended upward, and currently the amount of greenhouse tomatoes has increased to occupy nearly 40 percent of the overall tomato market.
Controlled environment agriculture allows a producer to switch to organic methods almost instantly, contrasted with an approximate time frame of three years to transition from an outside environment, which received synthetic chemicals to one that can be certified as organic.
New developments in lighting, such as the use of double-ended bulbs, ceramic metal halide systems, wavelength specific fluorescents, induction systems as well as the increased use of LEDs will continue to permeate the industry and become more widespread. Newer concepts like vertical and tower gardening and bioponics will become more prevalent.
The rate of technological progress, as well as the number of new products available, will continue to accelerate. The ability to grow under controlled conditions in an indoor environment closer to the consumer will shorten distribution time and allow for fresher produce at the market.