Farmers Opt for Water, Not Soil, to Nourish Crops

Jun 29, 2017

This root system on a lettuce plant is nourished through nutrient-rich water. The plants do not grow in soil.
Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU

In this Sense of Community segment on Innovation in the Ozarks, we’re in a large greenhouse. It belongs to Craig Jennings in Davis Creek, in rural, south-central Missouri.

“Here we have over 120 channels at this end of the greenhouse. And we have enough for eighteen hundred head of lettuce, which we put on a six weeks rotation,” Jennings said.

There’s no soil in this greenhouse.  The plants are grown through hydroponics—just using water.  Those channels he’s referring to are long, narrow, white gutters. Each gutter has about 15 heads of lettuce in a row.  A tiny hose at the end pumps water filled with nutrients across the roots.

Jennings spots a hose that’s not flowing like it should be.  He picks up the tube and hits it against the gutter to unclog it.

“If we have a clogged system here, even just one little tube clogged, we will los3 15 head of lettuce,” he said.

Gardening without soil may sound new, but experts say it’s been around for awhile—ancient cultures in Babylonia, South America and China are all believed to have grown plants without soil.

But innovators are still exploring new nutrients and discovering what works better than before. And trying to take this practice mainstream.

Jennings was introduced to hydroponics when he was tapped to manage a greenhouse at Missouri State University-West Plains

“And I was just thoroughly impressed with how that operation works.  We’ve grown in the field for a few years here.  And when I started dabbling in hydroponics at the university, it was quite impressive on what actual, just food machines they were,” Jennings said.

So he thought:  I can do this at home.

Craig Jennings inspects the small pipes carrying water to his lettuce plants using hydroponics.
Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU

And he had very, very good success with lettuce. And the leaf crops. And moderate success with tomatoes and peppers, he said.

The water fed through the tubes is packed with nutrients. Some of those nutrients come from fish waste.

“Well, we have the basic three:  your nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. We also use a micronutrient solution, which is your iron, your copper, your zinc,” Jennings said.

Jennings gets guidance on the business side of things from the Small Business and Technology Development Center, or SBTDC based at MSU-West Plains.

Some stores specialize in soilless planting. Sho-Me Hydroponics, based in Nixa, is owned by Bill Rajewski.  He does hydroponics, and aquaponics, which is the practice of using fish to grow plants.

“I’ve got a 1,500 gallon circular tank that I cut the top off of. And I have anywhere from 350 to 400 tilapia, from two pounds all the way up to, I don’t know, eight pounds,” he said.

The water with the waste from those hundreds of tilapia finds its way to his plants growing in beds.  The soilless beds fill with that water and then the water goes into a tank to be cleaned before being delivered back to the fish.

His system is obviously complex. But Rajewski says not everyone’s has to be.

“I have so many hobby farmers who come in here who are doing herbs,” Rajewski said.

He can grow year round in Nixa, without using soil, and indoors.

And back in Davis Creek, farmer Craig Jennings says that’s a plus for both farmers hoping to make a dime and for local buyers who want to trace their food source.

“In the future, if people really want to have local food and we want to provide it, we have to grow year round. This is a great tool to be able to provide year round, fresh, local produce to the markets,” Jennings said.

Come winter, he’ll still be taking his lettuce to the farmer’s market, and to the bank.

I’m Jennifer Moore.