“Dirt is artistry. Hydroponics is science. It’s like baking: So long as you follow the instructions, you’ll be successful.” – Dale Abrahams, owner of Colorado Hydroponics & Organics in Montrose, Colo.
Abrahams attributed the analogy to why the hydroponic-farming market has started booming in western states among small farmers.
The movement has evolved and expanded, moving from the hydroponic farm-to-farmstand transaction to include a consumer and home gardener-friendly method of producing. Abrahams’ store is stocked with supplies and equipment essential of hydroponic farming. His clientele is a barometer indicative to the larger scale of hydroponic demographics through the state and region.
It’s split between commercial farms and locals eager to upgrade their home and community garden spreads. Geographically, indoor farming has found willing partners among the urban Front Range of the state, and has made a significant impact on its rural mountain towns.
Also located in Montrose, Black Canyon Hydroponic Farm is thriving. The farm has its own storefront, contributes to farmstands and farmers markets and is an eager contributor to several farm-to-table restaurants all along the Western Slope.
Scott Ludian, owner of Black Canyon Hydroponic Farm, has been producing via indoor, hydroponic farming for nearly seven years now.
“It makes sense,” he said, regarding the progress hydroponics has made in the high desert of Colorado. “We tend to have warmer climates here – more dependable climates. But we’ll get a snowstorm in May. We might get a frost in early September. It’s hard to supply a well-rounded variety of crops in that kind of weather. Indoor, hydroponic farming just clicks with the community and the needs here.”
In the central region of Colorado, the city of Palisade’s economy is driven by the vineyards, orchards distilleries and breweries that also serve as one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions. Colterris Winery is one of the first to dip their toes into hydroponic farming – specifically for their peach and strawberry wines and blueberry spirits that can be found in local and statewide farmstands. A representative from the winery said that after four years using indoor hydroponic methods, there’s less of a concern as to whether they can meet the demands of B2C tourism and their B2B transactions between farmstands and stores.
Hydroponic growing is the norm
The culture of produce has a stronghold on the consumers of the western region. Even in mountain resort towns like Vail, Colorado, and Jackson, Wyoming, indoor farms accommodate the demand for affordable, fresh produce. Mile High Hydroponics in Wyoming began business three years ago, and has already infiltrated regional farmstands and even local grocery stores and chains. The acceptance of hydroponic farming on local and even regional economics has been sweeping.
Abrahams has the unique experience of interacting with consumers who use hydroponic farming commercially and personally. Prices, he said, have been a huge influence in the acceptance.
“Some of my clients are just sick of paying such high prices for things like apples and tomatoes. On one hand it’s part of living in a remote area of Colorado, but on the other it’s unnecessary. They grow it themselves now. I think when that started to happen, it spread commercially. Farmers realized they could be making more money, too.”
Waste is a huge issue for wineries, distilleries and even breweries. Colterris Wines added that hydroponic farming not only runs with the traditional model of getting the most production out of the smaller costs, but also by using a tower they’ve cut waste significantly.
Flourish Farms also uses towers (Zipgrow) and sends them along to live farmstands and storefronts in Denver and Boulder, Colorado. “In this case, we eliminate packaging costs. While that takes away a branding opportunity, it reduces labor and transportation costs. We end up making more money, but so do grocery stores and farmstands, and with much less waste. And most importantly customers get a better, healthier and better tasting product,” owner Tawnya Sawyer said.
A culture of appreciation
Organic word-of-mouth has contributed to the flourish in hydroponic farmstands around the region, and so has the demand for more secondary produce suppliers. Colorado’s farmers markets exist in more than half of the state’s cities and towns, and still remain the direct marketing dynamo for hydroponic farmers and small organic farmers alike. A study conducted by Colorado State University in 2014 found a rise in farmers markets and farmstands by more than 6 percent just in the past five years – with more than 7,000 functioning markets in the state. Revenue from direct sales in those five years also jumped nearly $7 million. Wyoming saw proportional increases, as well as Idaho, with hydroponic mega-greenhouses like High Altitude Hydroponics in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
In Colorado specifically, the most significant increase in indoor farming occurred in more rural and rugged areas along the Western Slope, which are desert environments where producers are warming more and more to the efficiencies of indoor farming techniques. Among the Western Slope and mountain towns like Salida and Buena Vista, hydroponic farming accounts for nearly half of producers.
On the supply side of local food systems as a whole, the number of farms turning to direct sales through farmstands and farmers markets is growing impressively. And research also shows hydroponic and indoor farming accounts for more than half of these suppliers’ output. According to the 2012 census, 136,817 farms (6 percent of all farms at the time) sold a little over $500 million in hydroponic products direct to consumers.
While that is only 0.5 percent of total sales, it’s a 50 percent increase from 2007. This kind of growth means nearly 20,000 more farms are selling direct via farmstands and farmers markets – about 75 percent of which are small farms that typically generate under $50,000 in sales. It also means an average of $2,000 more in annual sales for small hydroponic farms in the past five years.
And while the rise of hydroponic home farming is noticeable, Abrahams noted it works harmoniously with farmstands and encourages a culture of appreciation for organic, hydroponic and local produce.
“Whether it’s for your home use, or for a full-blown farm, starting a hydroponic farm is efficient,” he added. “There are the initial expenses that tend to pay for themselves once you hone in on what crops you’re producing when, harness your winter costs, and things of that nature. And I haven’t noticed that having a consumer grow their own hydroponic crop makes them less valuable in the market. They’re still buying produce. They’re still at farmstands. That’s not a lost costumer.”
The future of indoor farming
“There’s a very viable association between hydroponic farming, organic food and local suppliers,” Ludian said. “Hydroponic growing is being much more understood by a wider audience of consumers.”
And it’s true there is an awareness of Colorado brands even in large grocery chains.
“The association is that it’s organic. That it’s healthy. And that it’s local,” Sawyer added.
The industry of hydroponic, indoor farming is beginning to touch two major consumer groups: those that seek out organic foods as an extension of their lifestyle, and those that are economic shoppers – seeking the best product for the best price.
Hydroponic farming is still something that’s being monitored, and it’s role in small farming is still evolving. Census data and economic analysis has found an impressive movement among the West’s small farms, and the list of benefits to consumers, businesses and producers is a growing one. Dirt is still the reigning producer for now, but out West the greenhouse next door is proving to be something to watch.