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Hydroponics at Terp Farm

Terp Farm connects students with their own food system by welcoming classes, interns and volunteers to venture to the farm to get their hands dirty.  However, this summer one intern spent a little more time out of the soil. Michael Wijesinghe, a rising junior, dedicated his efforts over the past several months to introduce hydroponics to Terp Farm, in collaboration with the farm’s supervisors.

coconut vs perliteIn hydroponics, plants are grown in soilless materials such as coconut coir (a sustainable byproduct of coconut production), perlite (a volcanic mineral), or even the air.  In contrast to soil based growing, these plants receive nutrients from a nutrient rich solution which is applied directly to their roots.  The feasibility of hydroponics in terms of the profitability and marketability of its crops is a hotly debated subject in the agricultural community.  To develop a stronger understanding about the difference between soil and hydroponically grown crops, and to add our own contribution to the debate, the farm crew grew two varieties of tomatoes using both soil based and hydroponics methods.

At Terp Farm, our tomatoes are grown in a 96 foot high tunnel.  While the majority were grown in 12 raised beds, space at the end of the tunnel was reserved for Michael’s hydroponics experiment, consisting of two rows of dutch buckets (made out of reused Maryland Dairy buckets).  Growing the tomatoes in the same high tunnel structure allows the team to better compare the results of the two methods.  Upon harvest, the two growing techniques will be compared for yield per plant and per area, cost inputs, and flavor (objectively measured using a refractometer).

Young tomatoes forming on Michael's plants!

Young tomatoes forming on Michael’s plants!

In addition to being concerned with the aforementioned results, the farm also works towards lessening the unintended consequences of agriculture on the environment.  In an effort to be as sustainable as possible, the hydroponics system reflects the organic methods the rest of the farm practices.  The nutrient plan was designed to select additives that are not only OMRI approved but also those which are renewable. In Terp Farm’s dutch bucket system, nutrients are dissolved to make a 30 gallon solution consisting of hydrolyzed fish, seaweed powder, epsom salt, and beneficial microbes, which recirculate between a reservoir and direct contact with plant roots.  The solution is reused for one week, until the majority of the nutrients are depleted, and then replaced with a fresh solution. Recirculation utilized in this system conserves water, especially during summer days when more water is typically needed to grow in soil.  Hydroponics also reduces agricultural impacts on soil health and erosion as well as the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the equipment used to maintain and prepare raised beds.  

Project manager, Michael Wijesinghe, understands that “hydroponics will not overtake conventional agriculture, but that it is a critical component to the future of sustainable food security.”  In the upcoming semester, Green Roots, the university’s hydroponic club, will continue to be develop more projects at the Terp Farm and grow other plants such as lettuces and herbs using various other hydroponic techniques.

                                                           For those interested in getting involved contact greenroontsumd@gmail.com

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