Growing crops in soil is all we have ever known. But climate change, more extreme weather and increasingly stringent requirements for emissions, quality of groundwater and pesticides/chemicals are making agricultural entrepreneurs to look for other solutions. Growing on water may be the clean alternative.
The benefits of cultivation on water are countless, according to entrepreneur Jan Botman of Botman Hydroponics (left) and researcher Matthijs Blind of Proeftuin Zwaagdijk (right), where this innovation has been tested for years.
“Instead of growing into the soil with their roots, crops grow in water that is enriched with nutrients. This prevents the growth of weeds and reduces the risk of diseases. Plus the product is sand-free. Moreover, one is more attractive as an employer since people do not longer want to work outside in the field.” Blind concludes.
“Therefore, the importance of hydroponics in agriculture is enormous. The possibilities are being fully investigated and developed. If the conditions are right, it is amazing how many plant species can grow roots in water. Now, the main objective is to scale up this approach of cultivation and making the production economically viable as well. And that is less easy than it sounds.”
We will achieve that in a few years
Jan Botman has been working on that mission since 2007. “Hydroponics fascinates me. I’m an entrepreneur, not a researcher. A researcher should be unbiased and neutral all the time. Sometimes I like to go against the grain. Only then you will achieve innovation.”
Proeftuin Zwaagdijk gave him the space to do his own research. “Before we started we thought: we will achieve that in a few years. Now twelve years have passed and many different versions of the growing system have been examined. Every time we ran into new issues. How should the system look, what is a good floater, how should the water be treated? Logistically there is a story behind all of it. It turned out to be very complex. Only since two years we have got the models we want to continue with.”
Aeration and flow
Proeftuin Zwaagdijk has demonstrated in various trails that proper aeration and flow of the nutrient basin water is essential.
At Botman Hydroponics this aspect receives a lot of attention. “I have developed a completely new aeration system that creates good flow through the entire basin and supplies the plant roots with sufficient oxygen. At very low costs and with minimal energy consumption. Since stress periods do not occur, a healthy, strong plant will grow.”
Lettuce is the foremost crop where hydroponics is being used on a large, commercial scale. Meanwhile, a number of companies in North Holland and elsewhere in the country are satisfied with the use of our cultivation method, Botman tells.
“Our customer B4Hydrogrow in Warmenhuizen is growing six different lettuce varieties on water for Albert Heijn under contract by vegetable processor Vezet.
Behind the scenes, I am working on demos in Germany where commercial projects are expected to ensue.”
Cut flowers pose the next big challenge
The next big challenge is growing cut flowers such as chrysanthemums and Lisianthus on water.
“We encounter entirely different issues with these cut flowers compared to lettuce. Flower breeders in the south of our country have spent years of researching hydroponics, but have thrown in the towel. Too complex. Together with companies in our region, we have taken up the challenge here. During the first year we faced a lot of issues as well. In the second year we discovered the most important problem for growing cut flowers on water. We are busy to elaborate this now. We will succeed in finding the solutions for the issues.
In parallel to this, we are also conducting research into automation for cultivation and harvesting. The techniques are already there, but we are experimenting how we can implement them specifically with this method of growing.”
Fraught with anticipation
Botman is convinced that the major breakthrough of hydroponics is closer than ever.
“By working very hard, convincing others and persevering with enthusiasm, we have achieved a lot in recent years. Confidence of the sector is starting to emerge. Several agricultural companies are fraught with anticipation. We now have to deliver and show that we can create systems that are a fullyfledged or even better alternative to soil cultivation.
This is only possible in collaboration with the entire chain. All parties must commit. It starts with the breeders, who have to start selecting and breeding for hydroponic suitability. Because I might be stubborn and think I can work faster on my own, but together you will achieve more.”
Source: ''Breakthrough cultivation on water'' Magazine Region North of Amsterdam - Agrifood - Greenport NHN (www.nhn.nl/)