Once considered a curious hobby for home gardeners, soil-less or “hydroponic” farming now is big business in north Florida, thanks largely to research and education programs at UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural sciences.

Statewide, Florida had 84 acres in hydroponic production during 2000, yielding a crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, lettuce, peppers and strawberries worth $16.8 million, said Bob Hochmuth, a multi-county Extension agent based at UF's North Florida Research and Education Center — Suwannee Valley near Live Oak.

“North Florida has many small hydroponic farms,” Hochmuth said. “More than half of all the hydroponic growers in the state are located here, but our production is only about 10 to 15 percent of the state's total. This is because there are fewer, but larger, greenhouse operations in south Florida. But, we expect continued growth during the next few years. Demand for greenhouse-grown produce is increasing and the industry is changing. Our job is to help farmers stay competitive.”

Staying competitive means using new technologies and marketing strategies, Hochmuth said. Hydroponic farmers throughout Florida and the Southeast look to UF for that expertise.

“In fact, the current state of art was virtually defined by UF/IFAS,” he said. “Very few land-grant universities have our level of commitment to hydroponics. Our programs are highly visible for that reason.”

Guide available

Hochmuth and his brother, George, director of the North Florida Research and Education Center, have edited a three-part guide on hydroponic vegetable production. The guide and other greenhouse vegetable publications are available from UF Extension.

In Florida, the current hydroponic growing medium of choice is perlite, a crushed, lightweight volcanic rock that the Hochmuth brothers helped popularize. To accomplish feeding and watering in one step, hydroponic crops are irrigated with precise nutrient solutions. Most hydroponic crops are raised in greenhouses where all growing conditions — temperature, irrigation, fertilization, pest control — can be managed more efficiently than in outdoors fields.

“Because reduced pesticide use continues to be an important issue, we are developing pest control methods that are more compatible with the environment,” he said. “For example, we designed a ventilation system for tomatoes that keeps plants dry and prevents fungal diseases such as botrytis. We also helped identify a new tomato virus that's transmitted by whiteflies and developed screening practices to keep whiteflies out of greenhouses.”

Outdoor production

While indoor hydroponic production has its advantages outdoor production can be successful, too. One change that may actually promote the use of hydroponic farming in open fields is the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to ban use of methyl bromide soil fumigants in 2005. Without this chemical, crops grown in soil may be damaged by nematodes and other soil-borne pests. Hochmuth said tests at the Live Oak center indicate outdoor hydroponic production could minimize soil-borne pest problems.

“It's too early to predict how significant outdoor hydroponics may become,” Hochmuth said. “But we do believe that it has merit for some specialized crops such as herbs, leafy greens, lettuce and strawberries. Some producers have already had good results with outdoor hydroponic production. So it's not a pie-in-the-sky thing.

“For more than a decade, our research and Extension programs have solved various production problems associated with hydroponics,” said Dan Cantliffe, chairman of UF's Department of Horticultural Sciences. “The result has been an impressive array of crops ranging from lettuce and tomatoes to strawberries and cut flowers. Now, we're focusing more attention on the marketing aspects of the industry here in north Florida, helping farmers to become more successful in today's increasingly competitive domestic and international markets.”

He said specialized or “niche” marketing now is essential for hydroponic farmers. By taking advantage of changing consumer preferences and offering unique or premium-quality items, growers can reach lucrative markets such as health-conscious consumers.

Niche marketing also has stimulated interest in new crop varieties, Cantliffe said. At UF's Horticulture Research Unit in Gainesville, Cantliffe grows hydroponic items that may be tomorrow's supermarket staples, like a seedless, high-yield cucumber developed in Israel and the Galia muskmelon, Europe's best-selling melon variety.

“What you sell is just as important as how you sell,” Cantliffe said. “Interesting new products like edible flowers, exotic herbs and specialty greens can command higher prices.”

High prices needed

He said the need for high crop prices is a constant factor in hydroponic farming, because the technology is expensive. Major investments for growers include greenhouses and equipment for heating and cooling, ventilation, irrigation and fertilization.

Larger farms use computer-controlled automation to accomplish some tasks. Start-up costs for a hydroponic farm average $4 to $8 per square foot of production.

“The trade-off is that with hydroponics you may have sustained crop yield eight months out of the year,” Cantliffe said. “You also can fit more plants into less space. One acre of a high-value crop grown outdoors may gross $20,000 to $30,000 per year, whereas one acre of the crop grown hydroponically may gross $200,000 to $250,000.”

Because many small hydroponic growers in north Florida operate on a part-time basis, they rely on UF Extension as their primary source of advice. For example, Michelle Schenk, who operates the only commercial hydroponic farm in Levy County, said Extension Agent Anthony Drew helped her solve a common problem in greenhouse strawberry production.

“I had just started growing strawberries and didn't have any experience with pest control,” Schenk said. “Something was making the leaves shrivel up and covering them with webbing, but I couldn't find the cause. Anthony took samples of the leaves, contacted UF and got me an answer within an hour — microscopic spider mites. Without his help I might not have had any strawberries to market.”

When it comes to marketing north Florida's hydroponic crops, no one is more involved than Suzanne Stapleton, a multi-county Extension agent based at the Live Oak center. She believes knowledge is the key to success.

“We emphasize three points for farmers,” the marketing agent said. “You must keep track of market prices, know your production costs and know the demand for your product. The Live Oak center provides marketing education for farmers, and we work to develop new marketing opportunities.”

Stapleton said networking can develop new and stronger markets, particularly if potential buyers and sellers are unaware of each other. To promote that awareness, she and Tom McGinty, executive chef with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, recently held a workshop at the Live Oak center for two dozen local produce farmers and chefs from Tallahassee, Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Gainesville.

Everybody wins

Baker County Extension Director Mike Sweat, said cooperation between UF and successful hydroponic farmers is a “win-win” situation that will become more important in the future.

EDITOR'S NOTE — This article appeared in the winter edition of the University of Florida's Impact magazine.