Growing Vegetables in Controlled Environments

How many ways are there to grow a head of lettuce? Besides growing the traditional way in an open field, you can grow lettuce and other vegetables in various soilless, protected systems. Protective structures include high tunnels, greenhouses, shade structures, or even warehouses or shipping containers with LED lights. Vegetables can be grown in soilless media, hydroponic or aeroponic systems, and of course in native soil. Production systems include vertical towers or racks, floating rafts, shallow gutters (NFT), buckets, bags, and trenches. These systems can be low tech or high tech with sensors, climate controls, artificial lighting, and automation. Growing in protected systems is also called controlled environment agriculture (CEA).

Expansion of CEA vegetable production

CEA systems appear to be on the rise. Although data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture are not available yet, the 2012 Census showed a 5-year 59% increase in the area of vegetables and herbs grown under glass or other protection (USDA). Recent news reports suggest that the expansion of protected vegetable production continues. Last year, Wendy’s announced that it will source tomatoes that are greenhouse-grown only (The Packer).

Why is CEA becoming more common?

Protected agricultural production offers several advantages, but also challenges. CEA systems achieve higher yields per acre than open field production. In areas with high land values, it can become economical to substitute capital and energy for land. In other words, CEA systems use less land but have higher expenses for structures, heating and cooling systems, and electricity or fuel. Controlling the environment allows the harvest season to be extended, in some cases going year-round. CEA systems also have the potential to reduce weather-related risks, decrease water use, and reduce the need for pesticides. Wendy’s cited consistency of supply, quality, and freshness as reasons for switching to greenhouse-grown tomatoes (The Packer). Still, growers may find it challenging to grow vegetables in these systems and keep costs below the value of production.

UF/IFAS Extension programs on hydroponic vegetable production

The University of Florida, IFAS Extension, offers several programs on protected and hydroponic vegetable production. Four programs are offered this spring at the UF/IFAS NFREC-Suwannee Valley in Live Oak: Starting a Successful Hydroponic Business (March 15-16), Hydroponics Short Course for Teachers (March 29), Hydroponic Gardening for the Homeowner (April 10), and Greenhouse Economics: Costing & Profitability for Hydroponic Vegetable Production (April 11). You can register online by clicking the course links above.


Posted: March 8, 2019

Category: Agriculture, Events, UF/IFAS Extension
Tags: Hydroponics, Kevin Athearn, Small-farms


Kevin Athearn

May 16, 2019

This Farm Business Start-Up Checklist outlines information and resources on business licenses and farm-related permits: Another good resource is the Florida Direct Marketing Handbook, available soon through the IFAS Bookstore: Please check with the Volusia County government ( or the Volusia County Extension Office, (386) 822-5778, for county-level requirements.

Glenn Broderick
May 15, 2019

I am interested in starting a business in Florida, Volousia Couty, growing micro greens hydroponically indoors. I have been doing this successfully for family and friends for some time now. I' m looking to move into the farmers market arena for starters and hope to grow from there. I am filing an LLC with the state to form the business. What else do I need to do with the state or county as far as any licensing or permits, etc?

Robert Glaser
May 24, 2015

Hey Tommy, Just got a melon from Wards. Truly the best! Can't remember the last time I actually ODed on watermelon. Good right down to the white. What's this I hear about gourds? I'm still in the game. Rob

Effie Pate
August 22, 2013

Chef Bearl is a personal friend of mine and has always been an extraordinary person. I worked with Chef Bearl for several years and will always remember those years as being a high light in my career. Thanks David for all you are and have given.

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