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Hydroponics: An eco-friendly approach to water management

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Using 97% less water than traditional agriculture, hydroponics uses nutrient solutions specifically designed for each crop’s needs

© P. DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images

Report from the Caribbean

Across the Caribbean, farmers are currently struggling with prolonged drought. According to the Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology, drought conditions in 2015 resulted in a number of countries experiencing water shortages. In Jamaica alone, drought affected 18,000 farmers in 2015 and cost the agriculture sector over €700,000.

With drought a recurring problem, efficient water management is becoming increasingly crucial for agricultural production on island states. One potential solution is hydroponics, where plants are grown in a mineral nutrient solution rather than soil. Using 97% less water than traditional agriculture, hydroponics uses nutrient solutions specifically designed for each crop’s needs. Water is recirculated throughout the system and small losses occur only via evaporation and plant use.

In aquaponics – hydroponics with fish – waste produced by farmed fish supplies the nutrients, while the plant roots filter and purify the water for rearing the fish. Compared to soil planting, sowing to harvesting time in hydroponic/aquaponic systems is typically 45 days, with the produce benefiting from high nutrient quality and longer shelf-life. Furthermore, these systems produce high yields and require very little land, water or fertiliser. The systems can also be integrated into urban development, turning abandoned warehouses, storage spaces, and even car parks into food producing systems.

Acquiring access to information

Potential for the technologies has yet to be fulfilled regionally due predominantly to a lack of training or demonstration sites to teach farmers how to adapt hydroponic/aquaponics systems to the Caribbean. However, one entrepreneur successfully used the internet to carry out his own research. Gathering literature and watching YouTube videos on the topic, former DJ, Guido La Fond Bassgang, emailed professionals and asked questions on forums before building and testing his own system to learn how aquaponics worked in practice.

Bassgang set up AquapondsTT, in Tobago in 2013 and his 510 m2 system currently produces 50,000 lettuces per month. By utilising vertical towers, he is also planning to produce additional crops with the same space, including cucumbers, aubergine, mint and carrots. As an aquaponics system, AquapondsTT also farms tilapia and catfish. As well as selling produce through various local markets, Bassgang supplies supermarkets, food outlets and fast food chains across the island.

Despite the problems Bassgang faced in acquiring information, training is becoming more widely available. In Antigua, Indies Greens Ltd, which uses aquaponics technology to produce organic tilapia and vegetables, has created a training centre to provide week-long face-to-face training and owner Damon Francis and his brother are working to get aquaponics included on the school curriculum. “We would like to see this technology spread regionally,” says Francis. “Demand for organic lettuce is high and the fish really sell themselves so we believe in this technology for producing good quality local produce.” Science lecturer and hydroponics specialist at the Clarence Fitzroy Bryant College in St Kitts, Stuart LaPlace, also provides training on his climate-smart hydroponic system developed in 2012 which uses a shade house system to carefully control the environment.

Adaptation is key

LaPlace has spent the last 10 years working on hydroponic systems; adapting them to the Caribbean and simplifying them to ensure that anyone can use them. “With my specially designed system, water efficiency is even higher,” LaPlace explains. “There is no evaporation from the system and the water is delivered under pressure and constantly re-circulated.”

Farmers practising hydroponics generally use transplanted seedlings. However, with LaPlace’s system, seeds are directly planted into mesh cups filled with ‘hydroton’ clay pebbles – the growing medium. A wide variety of crops have been grown using the system since 2011, with LaPlace developing specific nutrient formulae for the different crops and growth stages. In two weeks, LaPlace can produce 110 kg of tomatoes from a 6 x 12 m system.

However, as with any agricultural activity, things can go wrong. “The three main risks are power failure, chemical imbalances and water contamination, and natural disasters such as hurricanes or floods,” Bassgang explains. To cope with these challenges, AquapondsTT has a generator and battery back up in case of power failure and uses digital pH meters and test kits to daily monitor and correct any pH imbalances.

To significantly increase uptake in these technologies across the Caribbean, a more structured training approach needs to be provided. However the cost of sourcing equipment and materials is also a factor in determining uptake of these technologies. LaPlace’s highly customised system – while designed with longevity, practicality and functionality in mind – is relatively costly at €3,900. Bassgang, on the other hand, used the internet to find the most economical and sustainable sources to build his system. For example, most of his system has been built using basic materials such as wood, PVC piping, pumps and netting that is locally available. The initial investment may be a consideration but the potential to supply organic local produce of a wide range of horticultural crops and make a good profit is attractive. One St Kitts farmer, who has adopted LaPlace’s system, is now earning €660 per month supplying vegetables to a few homes and a restaurant, while also continuing with a full-time job. And for hotels and restaurants across the Caribbean, there may also be potential to follow in the footsteps of the Cuisin Art resort in Anguilla, which is first to set up its own hydroponic farm to reduce imported goods costs, conserve water and provide organic fruits, vegetables and herbs for its restaurants.