Hydroponics is the future of farming. Whether growing herbs for medicinal use, or food for the general public to consume, hydroponics is one of the most significant improvements in horticulture since we invented irrigation.

It is estimated that by the year 2050, more than 80% of the world's population will be living in urban areas. This will place a huge burden on our ability to feed everybody with conventional methods. On top of this, freshwater supplies are at an all time low, and will continue to drop off in the coming years, allowing less water available to grow these crops.

Hydroponic farms offer the solution to both of these major problems. Hydroponics, when compared to conventional farming saves up to 99% of the water needed for cultivation, produces 12% more yield per square meter. This has created a huge demand for large scale hydroponic operations to enter the urban landscape. But how does this happen? What are the steps that need to be planned in order to bring together a large scale hydroponics farm?

Industrial hydroponic farm

Step 1: Location

The location of your hydroponics operation needs some in depth consideration. Are you going to be selling your produce at local farmers markets or do you plan on supplying your produce to local restaurants? If selling at farmers markets it will be easy to find a location further away from the city that has a cheaper lease. If supplying restaurants specifically it may be better for you to find a location closer to the areas you will be focusing on supplying.


Step 2: Crop Choice

What crop you grow will need to be thoroughly considered before starting any large scale hydroponic farm. This will involve a combination of supply and demand in your local area, cost of production, and profit margin on individual crop types. Lettuce and spinach are amongst the easiest crops to grow and have some of the highest profit margins, but may be a saturated market in your area depending on how many other entrepreneurs have thought of it first.

Considerable amounts of market research will need to be done prior to starting your hydroponic farm because this is what is going to keep you in business. Try contacting your local Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

It is also important to consider whether you will focus your efforts on a single crop, or shoot for a wide range of crops to supply different markets. Both have been done, and both can be done effectively, however, the general consensus is that it is far better to focus on one specific crop and learn to optimise its production.

Lettuce hydroponics

Step 3: What System Will You Build?

Deciding on the type of system will depend directly on the space you have at your disposal, and the crop you are growing. Shorter, fast growing crops like lettuce and spinach do well in large flood table or aeroponics setups. These crops grow quickly and remain short, which allows the grower to pack hundreds of individual plants in a small area and still receive plenty of light.

If growing larger plants, like tomatoes or fruits, the plants will need more room to grow both horizontally and vertically. These plants will benefits from deep water culture, or NFT systems.

The cost of the setup will also need to be considered. Building large scale hydroponic farms will be very different than small scale on price. Flood tables can be made from metal and wood, compared to small operations that are generally made from pre-moulded plastic.

Hydroponics greenhouse

Step 4: Choosing Lighting

Lighting is an important consideration with large scale hydroponic farms because the power consumption margins will have a huge impact on cost with these setups. LED lights are nearly 3 times the price as HID lamps, but last longer and save considerably more power for the same lumens. Consider a 600 watt LED light that emits a comparable amount of light to a 1000 watt HPS bulb will cost about £46 per month to the HPS £78 (depending on local energy costs). Taking into account yearly replacement costs of HPS and MH lighting at £65 per bulb, the lifetime savings of an LED (25 years) is in excess of £12,589 per light. Considering that a large scale hydroponics operation will have many lights, this is huge money we are talking long term.

Considering whether you have the capital to put opt for LEDs early on or whether you will need to save the cost of development and pay more money long term will be an important part of the planning stage.