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Hydroponics vs Soil: What’s Best For NWT Food Production?

Let’s get this out of the way early, hydroponics is not a bad method to grow crops, it’s just not our preferred method. We grow crops in soil using bio intensive methods at our Yellowknife market garden.

Hydroponic systems have proven time and time again to have many benefits, such as water conservation, faster plant growth, less pests and disease, and the use of vertical space. To go even further, container hydroponic systems are mostly computer controlled, other than a few required human tasks. 

The idea behind hydroponics is to have complete control over lighting, temperature, humidity, nutrient profile, and pH. This more often than not means production happens in a fully enclosed environment, completely separated from nature. A popular hydroponic unit right now is a converted sea can container, such as the Growcer. You can see an example of this type of container at the Yellowknife Co-op

Even with all the perks of hydroponics, we want to share our thoughts on why at Bush Order, we believe soil-based field production (including greenhouses) is a better approach to food production.

Credit: shop.ingeniousstorage.com

Energy Requirements

Container systems require electricity to run lights, fans, pumps, and the computer system. Electricity, as most of us know, is an expensive utility in the Northwest Territories. Some container units do however have the capacity to use solar panels but these features are often cost prohibitive on top of the already high cost of purchasing these units, and therefore not often implemented. 

When considering solar, one should also consider the lack of sunlight the arctic gets in the winter. Chances are you’ll be using a generator or grid-power at some point. Again, electricity isn’t cheap. 

Field and greenhouse operations on the other hand do harness the power of the sun. Hydroponic systems can exist in a greenhouse setting as well with natural light, but for the purpose of this post, we’re focusing on container growing. 

One thing that is often overlooked when debating indoor growing facilities, is the need for CO2 enrichment. Plants need CO2 to grow and when growing in a sealed container will often deplete the available CO2 needed to carry out photosynthesis. The most common method of generating extra amounts of CO2 is by burning hydrocarbons such as propane, butane, alcohol and natural gas, or trucked in as CO2 canisters. 

Other potential and experimental methods of generating extra amounts of CO2 are dry ice, fermentation, and decomposition of organic matter. We are not aware of these methods being used on a large scale. Definitely not in northern Canada. 

All of this is to say that in an indoor growing facility you will need to expend energy to make up CO2 levels, something that is not an issue with field and greenhouse growing.

Looking at the whole system, we don’t have specific numbers on fuel consumption required to produce a certain weight of lettuce or herbs in an indoor growing container but the take home message here is it’s reliant on a non renewable fuel at every level of operation at some point or another.

Crop Selection

Technically, any crop can be grown hydroponically, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it should, or that it will translate into a good yield, and may take more effort than it’s worth. 

Part of the appeal of hydroponics is taking advantage of space and choosing quick growing, compact crops. Choosing to grow crops such as carrots, potatoes, beets, and other large root crops hydroponically would take an exorbitant amount of space and defeats the goal of hydroponics. These species need plenty of soil for their roots to spread out in search of nutrients and moisture. Growing larger root crops in soil is substantially more cost effective. 

Hydroponics are better suited for leaf-type crops such as lettuce, spinach, chard, herbs, etc. With the exception of tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers which have been proven to be successful and economical in large scale greenhouses in places like Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.

Growing those flowering crops (aka fruit) such as tomatoes and cucumbers, requires artificial lighting with a full spectrum that best mimics the sun. Simple blue and red LED lights that are commonly seen in hydroponic systems will not be enough to trigger the plant to grow past its vegetative stage (stems and leaves) into its reproductive stage (flowers and fruit).

These specialized full spectrum lights can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, per unit. More expensive than the simple blue and red LED lights. On top of that, shipping full spectrum lights to any northern community (Yellowknife included) would be just as expensive as the lights themselves, if not more.

Root crops (and many others) are already very well suited for our northern environment and do well without the need of artificial controls. Season extension methods for root crops would be a more viable solution increasing crop yields.

One argument that actually works in favour of hydroponics, that we can’t overlook, is the short shelf life of lettuce. Local hydroponics greens and herbs are much higher in vitamins and minerals than anything you will find at the store because of the reduced food-miles.

Think of the spinach picked in California, packaged in a processing facility, sent to a distribution facility, driven on a refrigerated truck, and placed on store shelves weeks later. By the time that spinach is blended into your morning smoothie, it has lost over half of the benefits claimed on its packaging. As you will see below, food quality is a part of food security.

Calories

Insert the buzz terms “food security or food sovereignty”. If you’re a northerner and you haven’t heard these terms before, you’re not paying close enough attention. Simple as that.

3 years ago, CBC published an article titled: “The obsession with hydroponics and indoor growing damages northern food security”. This article elicited a whopping 85 comments. For a CBC North article, that’s a lot. One comment in particular, really resonated with us (it has been edited for ease of reading).

The term (food security) has been overused and abused for years largely to evoke emotional and irrational responses…… Food insecurity means no food and little prospect of food in the future, full stop. Here in the North we are not “food insecure”, our problem is imported food is expensive. The traditional harvest was and remains relevant and needs to be fully supported, expanded and augmented….If we want to get serious about addressing the issue then we should be encouraging communities to develop plans to open up land to community garden co-operatives, commercial food producers and livestock. You don’t need a boatload of cash, just tools, commitment and effort.”

Reading that comment (and many others) made us stop and think of the true meaning of food security.

Food security should also take into consideration food and nutrient diversity, not only caloric intake. Hydroponic operations give us quick access to local perishable items such as lettuces and herbs all year round. That’s a win for food security. It’s a piece of a very complex issue, albeit a very small piece that doesn’t carry much weight.

Food diversity in the Northwest Territories is something we are striving for at Bush Order. No one is going to, nor can they survive, on a diet of strictly leafy greens. Food diversity looks at the larger picture and finds balance in crop diversity between quick crops and storage crops. Crops such as carrots, beets, potatoes, cabbages, squash, etc. can all be stored and shipped to remote communities without compromising much quality. 

One last thing on food security and food diversity which we would love to see in the NWT is an experimental farm that develops and breeds northern specific crop varieties and seeds to be sold to local farmers. What a trip that would be! And an ENORMOUS step towards being more food secure.

Lack of (fun) problem solving

We are not saying that you will not face any problems in a hydroponic system. Quite the opposite. A lot can go wrong. The potential problems will be very different from field operations. Chances are, issues that arise will mostly be mechanical (water pumps, fans, nutrient injection system, CO2 injection system etc.) or computer or software errors. This may be a biased opinion, but these are not problem solving opportunities that excite me (Marie). Kyle may disagree on that one. Even then software patches and updates would come from out of territory.

On the other end, identifying a nutrient deficiency in a soil based system without all the gizmos and gadgets takes a lot of skill, experience, and appreciation of nature’s diversity. A soil based producer may become very skilled at identifying a nutrient deficiency just by looking at a plant. This is not recommended but the potential is there. Just like a carpenter might have a good idea what a 90º angle is but will still measure to make sure. It’s rare you’ll find a nutrient deficiency in a hydroponic system, unless a piece of machinery malfunctions.

The same can be said for identifying a garden pest based on visible crop damage. A soil based system requires more skilled labour.

The plant-soil relationship

These next two words are what settle the hydroponics vs. field debate for us: carbon sequestration. 

Large scale, mechanized farming is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrous oxide from the overuse of chemical fertilizers, carbon dioxide from deforestation and over tillage, and methane from raising livestock, all contribute to our climate crisis. 

Carbon in our atmosphere is only increasing. A major solution to this issue is the ground beneath our feet.

We can take that excess carbon from the atmosphere and put it back underground.

Plants and carbon have a unique relationship. Plants take carbon dioxide out of the air and use it as the building blocks to grow tissue, and in turn feed us. They’re the original power plant (haha)!

Carbon-based sugars are then extruded from the plant’s roots, feeding bacteria and fungi in the nearby soil. With proper land management (such as reduced or no tillage) carbon is trapped in the soil for decades, even centuries. 

Healthier soil truly means a healthier planet. Soil creates this wonderful cluster of life that just cannot be created in the sterile environment of a hydroponic container system.

Mitigating the climate crisis requires a concerted effort, and that includes efforts from our current and future northern farmers. We should all be striving to replace mass agriculture with agriculture by the masses. And the bulk of this mass should be soil based. 

From a business perspective, soil also appreciates in value over time. Soil is an asset. Pretty cool, right!

So, it all soils down to this.

While we appreciate the enthusiasm and innovation put into developing hydroponic container farms in the NWT, we believe efforts and resources can be better spent elsewhere.

There are benefits to hydroponic systems, but we don’t find the arguments to be very strong. The long term stability of soil outweighs the quick benefits of hydroponics. In our opinion these types of containers should be used as nurseries in the early spring and be operational only part of the year as a support to field production.

For us, innovation will come in the form of implementing biointensive growing methods that will increase yields and extend our growing season while reducing the use of fossil fuels. 

We may also be a little biased since soil management is a labour of love for Bush Order and we just love to get our hands dirty.

3 thoughts on “Hydroponics vs Soil: What’s Best For NWT Food Production?”

  1. Interesting read.

    I use Kratky method, simple hydroponics & soil as mediums for growing food.

    Indoor hydroponics can be a simple way to grow. All you need is an inexpensive bucket, lid with a hole, aquarium pump & tubing, some nutrients, and a ph balancer. Setting them near or in a window utilizes natural light when possible. In the summer, you can also set them outside or in the greenhouse. A recirculating system can makes it even easier and can be diy or purchased at various price points.

    I love using all three methods. Certain types of crops do better in soil though. And certain ones are impossible or very difficult with hydroponics.

    Good luck with your venture – there’s nothing as fun as growing in the dirt!

    Reply

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