Hydroponic Vegetable Production Shooting Up

Chris Eversole

Robert Hochmuth (904) 362-1725
George Hochmuth (352) 392-2134 ext. 208

LIVE OAK — The Florida vegetable industry is moving under cover.

Greenhouse production of vegetables is surging in the state, with the vast majority of growers using hydroponics, said Bob Hochmuth, a vegetable specialist with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“Today’s discriminating consumers are demanding higher quality and more specialized vegetables, and the hydroponic growers are in a position to deliver them,” Hochmuth said. “What we’re seeing in Florida is part of an international trend.”

Hydroponic production uses water solutions to deliver nutrients. “Growing vegetables hydroponically in perlite and other inorganic material minimizes pests and diseases that flourish in soil. Indoor production also protects plants from damage from heavy rains and from chilly winters in North Florida.”

Hydroponic growing can produce up to 10 times the vegetable yields of field production. “The higher yields come about because plants are bunched closer together and are harvested over a long period of time,” Hochmuth said. “Hydroponic growers bank on the higher yields offsetting the increased costs of building and maintaining greenhouses.”

UF research on greenhouse production began in the late 1980s, when Hochmuth and his brother, George, started greenhouse research at the Suwannee Valley Research and Education Center outside Live Oak.

“Many of the growers who became interested back then worked on a small scale,” George Hochmuth said. “They started growing vegetables to supplement full-time jobs or traditional farming because of low prices for corn, soybeans and other field crops.”

Today, the big boys are weighing in.

Several large vegetable growers are developing hydroponic greenhouses or are negotiating contracts to market the crops of greenhouse growers, Bob Hochmuth said. “The newcomers have more money and more marketing muscle than the smaller growers,” he said. “They can develop contracts to provide a steady supply of their products to supermarket chains.”

One newcomer, Ladybug Farms in Naples, plans to expand from its present two acres of greenhouse tomatoes to 12 acres over the next year, said President Joseph Levy.

“Some of the major vegetable growers statewide are considering large greenhouse facilities,” Bob Hochmuth said. “The acreage in the works will make a big impact, considering that a survey we conducted in 1996 showed only 57 acres of greenhouse production statewide.”

Over the past three decades, hydroponic vegetable production has spread from pioneering countries of Holland and Israel to Africa, Canada, Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. “Florida growers need to consider this market as a way to stay competitive,” said George Hochmuth, who has visited hydroponic farmers in Spain, Israel and Mexico.

Hydroponic projects in Florida have an international flavor. Ladybug Farms’ Levy is a native of Israel and was involved in its thriving hydroponic vegetable production industry. In addition, several Israeli greenhouse and seed firms are supporting UF’s research on greenhouse production.

A recent UF workshop in Live Oak attracted Anthony Goodman from Barbados. “It’s tough to grow vegetables in our island’s rocky soil,” he said. “We import almost all of the produce for our hotels and restaurants, and I’m eager to get into greenhouse production to meet the demand.”

Many Florida hydroponic farmers specialize in a single niche market. One grows Bibb lettuce in plastic containers and ships it with some roots intact, so the plant is still alive in the supermarket. Another grower specialized in “burpless” cucumbers — long, tender vegetables with a gourmet appeal.

New quirks in greenhouse production are developing.

Women inmates at the John L. Polk Correctional Facility in Sanford are growing lettuce, green beans, peppers and cucumbers hydroponically. The project saves money on food for inmates and trains participants for potential careers.

One grower is cultivating nasturtiums, edible flowers that some chefs use to decorate their dishes.

Verti-Gro in Clermont has developed a hydroponic system that stacks square pots crisscrossed. “Our system allows planting densities of up to eight times that of flat hydroponic systems,” President Tim Carpenter said. “We’ve been swamped with phone calls from farmers with you-pick operations as well people living in apartments who want to have a garden in their window.”