first Mongolian commercial hydroponic farm opened in 2013
Hydroponic and aeroponics systems are very interesting 21st century technologies. They are soil less systems where all parameters to grow vegetables can be controlled. Light, water, temperature, nutrients are all meticulously controlled. Its is usually done by a computer.
the whole system is controlled by a computer
Because it is inside the building, its easier to control for pests, making usage of pesticides not necessary if all the protocols are followed. Starting from seeds, to all the way to the full grown vegetables, every step is controlled for sterility and weaklings are discarded. In some ways hydroponics and aeroponics are a way to future. If we run out of soil to grow vegetables, we can always build buildings with these kinds of systems.
Growing vegetables in nutrient water also has an advantage of being harvested early. Typically a lettuce grows within 30 days in hydroponic environment, whereas in soil it is around 40–45 days. Lettuce grown in hydroponic environment does not need to be washed.
Since vegetables are grown inside the building, it can be grown all year around. A very important parameter for Mongolia.
one more commercial hydroponic plant in Mongolia. The cost 3 million USD
So commercial systems are available and have been used for some time already. They are fairly mature technologies. Having said all the nice things about hydroponics you might be wondering what are its weaknesses:
- its an expensive technology. Not many companies can afford it.
- daily costs associated with hydroponics are high. Light comes from LED lights (electricity), water is moved by pumps( water, electricity), heating the building either by electricity,gas etc. Many people are needed to run it.
- because of the above, only high margin of profit plants can be used.
- not every plant can grow in hydroponics.
- if the pumps stop pumping the nutrients, the vegetables would start dying within an hour.
So which plants are not recommended?
Root plants such as potatoes, onions, yams, don’t like hydroponics. They are also not cost effective to grow. One research institution in Mongolia grows potatoes in aeroponic systems ( similar to hydroponic but uses periodic sprays to water roots instead of dipping in the solution itself). And this is done only because they are needed to grow mini-tubers. These mini-tubers are the first generation of disease free, and perfect potatoes that would be grown later by the farmers. So they are higher priced.
Plants that need to be pollinated by bees. Of course it is possible to pollinate by hand, but imagine the cost. It better be a high margin fruit or vegetable.
But most importantly grains such as wheat and rice are not grown commercially in hydroponics. I heard some countries start subsidizing them to grow in hydroponics, but even then they are still expensive. You have to understand that modern day wheat and rice are highly subsidized agricultural produce, therefore making them not ideal for hydroponics. Even Google’s Moonshot Factory tried to grow commercial robotic vertical farms. They said that they had problems with growing the right size of wheat, but I think it all came down to cost.
So which plants grow well?
leaf based plants, strawberries, and other berries.
tomatoes (picture not in Mongolia)
and of course marijuana, but only if it is legal (picture not in Mongolia)