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Sustainable Vegetable Production Options for Small Operations

The growth of the local food movement has fueled a rise in citizens interested in urban farm operations. We might call them part of the local food movement, or people who are just concerned about what their family is consuming. For producers, the concerns are time and money. What will cost us the least to start up, maintain, and thus provide the most profit margin. For small operations in the extreme part of the panhandle, one production method rising in popularity is raised-bed hydroponics. Might sound like a crazy term, but it is simply what the title implies: a raised bed, lined with plastic and operated as a hydroponic growing system. The West Florida Research and Education Center and Dr. Ronnie Schnell, along with educational programs from the Escambia County Extension Service, are working to gather data and provide education opportunities for producers interested in diversifying their operation.

The startup costs are minimal compared to buying large equipment for in-ground production or ready-made hydroponic systems from a horticulture supplier. Costs of materials will total $235 or less for a bed that will hold up to 250 plants. The system does not require a pump (the machine in the photo below is for nutrient data collection) and proper placement of the styrofoam can block almost all growth of algae. Miracle-Gro® can be used as the nutrient solution, with an addition of Epsom salts. The experiment has used a tomato solution mixed for greenhouse use with tremendous success.

Several varieties of lettuce and herbs have been growing in the system since installation at the center last August. The system typically holds up to 6 weeks worth of production with a harvest out of the tanks at least once a week depending on when they were transplanted into the system.  Seedlings are grown on-site from seed and typically take 4 weeks to reach the right transplant stage. From production observations, we have encountered little disease or pests. The only worry about the system has been making sure there is proper monitoring of the nutrient solution after significant rainfall events.

Market value for crops grown in these systems will mean that the potential for turning a profit the first year is high. With proper attention to plant nutrition, seedling health, and when to harvest, it’s not uncommon to market these lettuce or herb varieties as pesticide-free and command top market value. Price will vary based on location, but $3-$5 would not be uncommon for lettuce where there is demand. For more information or questions, please contact Allison Meharg, Escambia County Extension, 850-475-5230 or

photo of hydroponics system at the West Florida Research & Education Center in Jay, Florida

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ronnie Schnell, West Florida REC

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