Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hydroponic Strawberries?

A few weeks ago I was informed of a strawberry grower in a small New Hampshire tourist town growing hydroponic strawberries for the upcoming summer tourist season. Not being terribly familiar with hydroponic growth methods I scoffed at the idea. Although New Hampshire doesn't exactly have a reputation for being outstanding farm country, many strawberry farms do quite well during the summer months. When I inquired further as to why this farm needed to change the way strawberries are cultivated from that used for many many years the answer I got was simple: this way, strawberry pickers won't have to bend over.

So what is hydroponics anyway? To put it simply, hydroponics is the cultivation of plants without the use of soil. Commonly thought of as actually growing plants suspended in water, it more frequently refers to growing plants in a sterile medium, something to suspend the plant and its roots, like plastic beads, while providing everything the plant needs besides air and sunlight in a water solution. Hydroponics is commonly used in tight spaces like apartments, and now apparently, for strawberry patches.

This is not to say that the process is simple. Hydroponic water solutions required, by some accounts, thirteen different additives, mostly chemical fertilizers and nutrients, and you can't always find them easily. Not only that, but chemical fertilizers and commercially produced nutrients are mostly petroleum products, so who makes them? The big oil companies of course. Keep that in mind the next time you buy fertilizer for your house plants or eat just about any crop grown in this country and many others at a large scale, they all use products made and sold by big oil. What you pay at the pump isn't the only purchase you make that lines the pockets of oil execs.

Water and nutrients aren't the only thing plants need either, as any house plant grower will note, but one of the most important things plants need is air. Not only air, but a supply of air to the roots. Why air? Well, air contains oxygen, and oxygen is required for the conversion of carbohydrates into energy. Plants turn the sun's energy and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, which are transported through the plant to the roots, so that the roots may metabolize those carbohydrates and grow. Roots grow to find more water and nutrients as the visible part of the plant, or shoot, grows larger. So, you may have heard that the most common cause of house plant death is overwatering, and this is why. If you overwater a plant, and its roots are submersed in a water and soil solution, the roots can't breath, and when they can't breath, they can't grow. In addition, this water allows the build up of ethylene, a plant hormone, throughout the plant. Ethylene triggers plant cells to break down, and is the hormone responsible for lovely speckled ripening bananas and other fruits. But, when there's too much ethylene, a plant commits suicide. The leaves turn yellow and drop off.

So, to prevent plants from going suicidal, hydroponic growers must provide either a drying out of the growth medium or aeration so that roots can breath and get oxygen while expelling harmful hormones and toxins. Soil does this for plants naturally by allowing water to drain out through pores between soil particles of different sizes. Soil also provides all of the organic nutrients and fertilizers needed for a plant to grow.

To get back to our hydroponic strawberries, do I think they're worth all the trouble? Well, no. But, I'm sure at least a few tourists with back problems traveling through that small town in New Hampshire will disagree with me. The success of the hydroponic strawberry patch remains to be seen, but I'll pick my strawberries from plants grown in the soil, thank you. And it wouldn't hurt for them to be free of fertilizers and pesticides either; I wouldn't want to eat toxins, and I certainly don't think Joe Oil-Exec needs the cash.


At 12:48 AM, June 23, 2006, Anonymous DavoDownUnder said...

Keep in mind that Nature makes chemicals (including pesticides) that are just as powerful as synthetic ones. See Ames et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1990 Oct;87(19):7782-6, and Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1990 Oct;87(19):7777-81.

Without artificial fertilizers, 60% of the world's human population would die from protein deficiency. See:Smil Nature. 1999 Sep 30;401(6752):429.

At 1:06 PM, June 29, 2006, Blogger Thomas said...

While this is true, and natural chemicals can be just as harmful as artificial ones, nature determines where they are present and for what purpose, through the processes of natural selection and evolution. In addition, we currently depend on artificial fertilizers because we have not tried using "green fertilizers" like compost or livestock manure. For a study on compartive output of farming practices using artificial versus natural fertilizers and the costs incurred by both, see AGRICULTURAL SYSTEMS 86 (2): 190-206 NOV 2005, and AGRICULTURE ECOSYSTEMS & ENVIRONMENT 39 (1-2): 101-122 MAR 31 1992. Not only is sustainable agriculture a possibility, but the research and development required to implement it would create new jobs and bolster the global economy.


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