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  6.  | Say ‘Hi’ to Hydroponics

Say ‘Hi’ to Hydroponics

by May 29, 2023Agriculture, Magazine

Vertical Harvest Hydroponics


Creating a fluid food production system for Alaska

Greens at the Able Raceway minigolf course in South Anchorage look more verdant than the industrial park across the fence, but looks can be deceiving. Inside a nondescript building, Vertical Harvest Hydroponics (VHH) is pursuing a greener vision. From that office, VHH runs a manufacturing facility in Palmer than makes hydroponic systems for growing vegetables and herbs. Inside cabinets or containers, leaves bask in artificial light while roots soak up nutrients from pans of liquid.

Dr. William Frederick Gericke coined the term “hydroponics” after he developed a commercial means to grow plants in 1929. Until then, it had only existed as a laboratory technique. Hydroponics gained greater acceptance when the US Army used the method to grow fresh food for troops stationed on the Pacific Islands during World War II. By the ‘50s, viable commercial farms existed in America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Currently, hydroponics is primarily used by small farmers, hobbyists, and small to mid-sized commercial enterprises. VHH Vice President Jamie Boring says hydroponic enterprises are more common in the Lower 48 than in Alaska. He reasons that this has to do with the risk-averse nature of Alaskan entrepreneurs who contend with higher business expenses and greater logistical challenges.

VHH markets its own unitized hydroponic farm systems. Boring says products sell as fast at the Palmer factory can make them. Manufacturing is one of the company’s four core pillars, though. The others are workforce development, education, and community. VHH evaluates each of these areas as it works with clients and partners to assist them in becoming more resilient in the face of climate change and uncertain economic times.

“We are working with communities to create long-lasting food production opportunities,” Boring says. “We are not just doing equipment drops and saying, ‘good luck.’”

Hunger in Alaska

Anyone shopping at a grocery store post-pandemic has probably seen an occasional string of empty shelves due to shipping issues.

“Long-time Alaskans have always known the risks to our state due to our geographical location,” says Boring. “Shipping costs have always been high and are increasing. We have always had supply chain instability for fresh food.”

Boring says disruptions to the supply chain caused by the 2018 earthquake and the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for foods, only emphasized the importance of hydroponic farms in Alaska.

According to the Alaska Food Policy Council, a statewide source on local and state food systems, Alaska imports roughly 95 percent of food purchased, and most grocery stores are only able to carry a 3-to-5-day supply on their shelves. The “2021 Alaska Food Security Investment Recommendations” called for Alaskans to strengthen in-state food systems; to increase access to fresh, local, and healthy foods; to create economic opportunities; and to reduce food insecurity statewide.

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Alaska Business May 2024 Cover

May 2024

Alaskans of all ages are affected by chronic food insecurity. According to Feeding America, a charity working to end hunger in the United States, 79,670 Alaskans (1 in 9) regularly face hunger. Of that number, 26,910 (1 in 7) are children and 1 in 10 are seniors. Several factors contribute to food insecurity. At the top of the list is poverty. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute, shows 85,000 Alaskans receive federal SNAP benefits (formerly food stamps) annually, with children living in 67 percent of SNAP households. Though urban Alaska has a higher absolute number of people experiencing food insecurity, the rate of food insecurity is higher in rural areas.

As supply chains lag and the cost of food continues to rise, the issue of food security has moved to the forefront, with several manufacturers, retailers, and innovators advocating for increased use of hydroponics to supplement food supplies.

Anchorage Greens sells produce from its hydroponic farm at its onsite Garden Market and offers a weekly Green Bags subscription service that provides a rotating selection of premium greens and herbs.

Anchorage Greens

The Liquid Solution

The US Department of Agriculture considers hydroponics to be any technique of growing plants using a water-based nutrient solution rather than soil. The setup can include an aggregate substrate or other growing media such as vermiculite, coconut coir, or perlite. The benefits of hydroponic farming include less use of water compared to soil farming, less use of land, extended growing seasons, decreased carbon footprint and spoilage due to less travel to market, and increased nutrient density since it’s harvested closer to the point of consumption.

However, funding to purchase and set up farms is limited, and utility costs are sometimes too high for an economically viable hydroponic farm. This is generally the case for communities that are off the main road system.

To encourage farm financing, VHH started its Growing Farmers Program to gain better awareness of farming-related funding challenges and opportunities through collaboration. The program is a hands-on partnership between growers and VHH specialists as they work on a viable business plan and market analysis prior to approaching local lenders. Information gathered in the collaborative process is shared between program participants and community and government leaders in hopes of removing the barriers to success.

“Hydroponics is as important as any food production system… It is another option for specific crops that can grow in a specific situation.”

—Trevor Kirchoff
Anchorage Greens

“Challenges, when reframed, become opportunities,” says Boring. “If we start at the 30,000-foot view and look holistically at the entire food system, we can affect change within our scope of influence and ensure there’s a viable financial revenue model.”

At no point does Boring suggest that hydroponics should replace soil farming. In fact, he says it’s unfortunate that a false bifurcation even exists between soil and hydroponic farming, where people see it as an either/or way to produce food. Instead, VHH advocates hydroponics as a method that adds to what is produced by traditional soil and livestock farming, and as a way to let soil rebuild to insulate farmers from environmental disasters such as floods, hail, and droughts.

Lettuce Go Green

Hydroponic markets are already gaining ground in urban areas. A short walk across East 76th Avenue from VHH’s office, Anchorage Greens sells hydroponic produce at its onsite Garden Market and offers a weekly Green Bags subscription service that provides a rotating selection of premium greens and herbs.

In 2019 Anchorage Greens started growing and harvesting produce in a hydroponic farm to maximize product freshness, shelf life, and value while minimizing shipping, packaging, and food waste. Its mission was to create a pesticide-free cultivation using exclusively non-genetically-modified varieties.

“Hydroponics is as important as any food production system,” says Trevor Kirchoff, owner of Anchorage Greens. “It is another option for specific crops that can grow in a specific situation.”

Even though Anchorage Greens experiments with a variety of greens, Kirchoff isn’t planning on investing in new technology soon. He says the basic hydroponic equipment is capital-intensive, and plants sometimes grow differently than expected. Bouman adds that growing plants without sunlight does require a large amount of energy, but he foresees a time when indoor farming will become a major way that Alaskans acquire fresh produce.

Also in the Taku-Campbell neighborhood, CityFarms Alaska started growing produce indoors in a warehouse in 2017, selling it locally to Alaskans through Natural Pantry, New Sagaya Midtown Market, New Sagaya City Market, Fred Meyer, and Carrs Safeway. Its mission is to make healthy food available to everyone regardless of the season.

Currently, CityFarms Alaska grows and sells arugula, spring mix, kale, basil, mint, dill, rosemary, thyme, chives, and sage. Nik Bouman, owner of CityFarms Alaska, says the only difference with growing food in a hydroponic farm is that the nutrients are dissolved in water instead of being tied up in organic matter. Most of the routine work is related to managing nutrients and the water system, improving space efficiency, lighting, and labor productivity to increase crop quality and yield.

“At the end of the day, we believe the quality of our food is just as good as that grown outdoors in soil,” says Bouman.

For CityFarms Alaska, hydroponic farming is more labor efficient; large indoor systems are easier to clean and maintain versus the labor-intensive management of soil farms. However, Bouman says the nutrient solution does need to be actively maintained and often flushed and refilled at frequent intervals to maintain good nutrient balance.

“You can’t just set and forget and expect to grow healthy crops,” says Bouman.

Quality and Quantity

There are currently six main types of hydroponic systems: wicking, deep water culture, nutrient film technique (NFT), ebb and flow, aeroponics, and drip system. There are also several variations based on these six types, including the Kratky Method, Fogponics, and Dutch/Bato Bucket. Commercial growers tend towards the NFT method because it’s often considered the most efficient technique.

CityFarms Alaska produces a variety of greens that are sold widely in Alaska supermarkets. Owner Nik Bouman says hydroponic farming is more labor efficient compared to traditional soil farming.

CityFarms Alaska

Depending on available space, commercial growers will use either a horizontal or vertical setup. In general, horizontal NFT systems are best suited for larger spaces and maximizing the growth of plants, while vertical NFT systems are better for smaller spaces and faster yields, as they limit the maximum growth of the plant. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages, such as initial investment, power consumption, risk of flooding and clogging, and light requirements.

“Changing the status quo won’t be easy… But considering the benefits of sustainability, it will be worth it. Food is part of us. We must work together to solve food accessibility issues.”

—Jamie Boring
Vice President, Vertical Harvest Hydroponics

Wasilla inventor Cecil Ellsworth saw the need to develop a growing system that brought together the best parts of a vertical and horizontal NFT. During the 2022 UAF Arctic Innovation Competition, he conceptualized a rotating rack system that would maximize the growth of plants in small spaces at a high rate. Each round rack was designed to hang arrays that allowed forty-eight rows per fixture. Based on a 260-by-260-foot growing room, Ellsworth determined that his HydroSlats system would produce approximately 547,000 heads of lettuce per month, or 18,000 per day, double the entire state’s daily lettuce demand.

“No one has created an automated system at this scale,” says Ellsworth. “Hydroponics is a proven technology. Now we just need to make it more energy efficient.”

His design earned HydroSlats third place in the Main Division of the competition in addition to recognition in the Sustainability Kicker category. Ellsworth is preparing to pursue funding for a prototype; he estimates that he needs $275,000 to manufacture all the components and create a small pilot facility. He plans to start actively seeking funding this summer.

Boring says any successful hydroponic movement is going to take a combination of manufacturing, education, and workforce development to create a localized food production system that can offer the variety and quality at the needed quantities. He says creating a vision and an action plan is key to adapting existing food production methods with hydroponics farming for maximum output.

“Changing the status quo won’t be easy,” says Boring. “But considering the benefits of sustainability, it will be worth it. Food is part of us. We must work together to solve food accessibility issues.”

Alaska Business May 2024 cover
In This Issue

Making History

May 2024

The track of oil and gas development in Alaska shows the footprints of bold companies and hard-working individuals who shaped the industry in the past and continue to innovate today. The May 2024 issue of Alaska Business explores that history while looking forward to new product development, the energy transition for the fishing fleet, and the ethics of AI tools in business.

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