This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
When the owners of R & A Hydroponics first began cleaning their greenhouse, Ron Murphy thought it would alert the local authorities.
“I swear I thought the cops were coming,” he chuckled. “When we opened the door, it just smelled like, you know, marijuana.”
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Ron, 59, and Anita Murphy, 58, bought their fully equipped hydroponic farm in West Jordan from a licensed hemp grower. The 4,200-square-foot greenhouse is what caused them to jump at the opportunity in March of last year.
“The greenhouse is the dream,” Anita Murphy said, “It’s the house that’s a nightmare,” pointing to their fixer-upper century-old home.
To conserve water and save on their utility bills, the Murphys opted to replace their grass lawn at their old home in Sandy with a small vertical farm. They grew cherry tomatoes, various herbs and peppers. The taste of sustainable farming had them searching for new properties so they could expand their hobby into an income.
For Anita, their little farm presented them with an opportunity to feed the community.
“People who are low income can still eat healthily,” Anita said, “that’s really what has been motivating me.”
Inside their greenhouse lay rows of greens like sage, lettuce, kale and catnip. They’ve grown a variety of produce since they owned the farm. Right now, they’re growing Marigolds (not only are the flowers beautiful, but they’re also delicious) to put in the salad mixes they sell at local farmers’ markets.
They’re still trying to be cost-effective. Someone requested they grow watercress. So they did. It grew really well just by being submerged in water. But it wasn’t their bestseller.
Experimenting with their hydroponic farm is worth it, though. It takes them about six to eight weeks to fully harvest the majority of the food in the hydroponic greenhouse year-round. The process is faster and it uses about 70% less water than a traditional soil farm.
“It takes less to water the farm than it did our lawn,” Ron said.
How hydroponics conserves water
Hydroponics involves growing produce in nutrient-enriched water. The water is the soil, effectively. Growing vegetables in water may not seem like a good way to conserve H2O, but hydroponic farms can use 80% to 90% less water than traditional agriculture. That’s because hydroponics continually recycles unused water, making the most out of each drop.
Surrounded by suburban sprawl in Pleasant Grove, you’ll find another hydroponic operation, Snuck Farm. Snuck is one of the larger hydroponic operations that hits a 90% reduction in water use. Their water recycling is so efficient that they grow 500 to 700 pounds of lettuce each week and only change the water every four or five months. Even what’s left isn’t wasted.
“Any remaining water is flushed out to grow feed for our alpacas,” said Rachel Chamberlain, chief greenhouse officer at Snuck Farm.
Snuck isn’t just greens and alpacas, it’s also a legacy for owner Page Westover. “This land has been farmed by my family since the 1800s,” said Westover. Named after her grandfather, Boyd “Snuck” Fugal, the hydroponic farm carries on the family legacy while looking to the future of food.
“I wanted to have as much impact as possible,” said Westover. “I wanted to grow as much healthy food as we could on a small piece of land.”
That is the other secret of hydroponics’ success, the ability to grow 300% to 1,000% more than crops with the same amount of land.
While some companies in Utah are pursuing audacious experiments in sustainable agriculture on a huge scale, hydroponics could be the key to producing food year-round on relatively small plots of land in the middle of Utah’s urban core.
Snuck Farm operates as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), with nearby customers purchasing shares and receiving weekly shipments of greens. Besides building community, locally supplied food means significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than most grocery store produce, which likely traveled thousands of miles before landing in your local supermarket.
Could commercial farms make the transition?
In short, yes.
Joe Swartz, vice president of AmHydro, a national hydroponic technology company, is living proof. As a fourth-generation farmer in western Massachusetts, he’s no stranger to the grind of the farmer lifestyle.
“My dad had a number of farming injuries,” Swartz said. “My uncle, who did all the pesticide spraying on the farm, died prematurely due to pesticide-related illness.”
He didn’t want to give up on the family’s 30-acre legacy. So Swartz started investigating ways he could farm that were safe and sustainable. He discovered hydroponics and transitioned the family farm in 1984. Since then, he’s reaped the benefits.
Swartz used lettuce production as an example, stating traditional farming can produce roughly 70,000 heads of lettuce per acre every year. But, he says, with one acre of land and 90% less water, hydroponic farms are able to grow 35,000 heads of lettuce per week.
“So instead of producing 70,000 heads of lettuce, I’m producing 1.8 million,” Swartz said, “using less water.”
However, Swartz says hydroponics primarily focuses on harvesting leafy greens, tomatoes and other produce for smaller, localized farms. When it comes to large, intensive agricultural farms, it’s not always cost-effective.
While it’s totally doable, Swartz says growing alfalfa hydroponically, for instance, comes down to “the economics of the space.”
Most soil crops, like alfalfa, soybean and corn, require lots of farmland to produce enough profitable supply. Swartz says a 10,000-acre corn farm would need to spend billions of dollars to cover the property in greenhouses.
“To build a high-level controlled environment and facility,” he said, “would cost between a million and a half and $3 million per acre.”
Additionally, Ron Murphy of R & A Hydroponics acknowledges it’s expensive to build a hydroponic farm from scratch. And with ongoing material and supply chain challenges, it’s even more difficult to construct something like a greenhouse.
“It’s almost cost-prohibitive now because of the spike in steel,” Ron said. “Look at how much steel is in here,” he said, gesturing to the steel that held up the structure.
Swartz is hopeful hydroponic technology will evolve to where it’s economically viable for big farmers to make the switch. And with the growing popularity of hydroponics, the possibility may not be too far away.
“Growers are challenged by increasing pressure of water cost and water availability. Both farmers and consumers are much more concerned and aware of the environmental impacts of farming,” Swartz said. All these factors are pushing this industry forward.”
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