All Hydro 101

Five pros and cons of growing organically in a hydroponic system

by Guest Author Annie S. White, Freelance Technical Writer & Horticultural Consultant.

The marriage of hydroponics and organics makes an unlikely couple. Hydroponics is all about feeding the plant and eliminating the soil, and organics is more about feeding the soil than feeding the plant. Needless to say, adapting organic methods—a system created for soil-based farming—is challenging for a growing system that doesn’t use soil.

However, many of the same benefits of growing a crop organically out in the field also apply to growing hydroponically indoors or in a greenhouse. Here’s a quick look at the top reasons to go organic along with the top challenges of growing in a organic hydroponic system.

Top reasons to go organic:

#1: Organic growing is better for the environment

Organic growing methods promote ecological balance, conserve biodiversity, and ultimately, are better for the environment than conventional methods, according to advocates for organic farming. Although scientists frequently debate the extent of these environmental benefits, the basic requirements for organic certification involve avoiding synthetic chemicals.

#2: Organic crops are better for you

Many growers and consumers believe that organically grown crops are better for your health. Some studies suggest organic produce has higher nutritional content; other studies say there’s no difference. Most growers feel more comfortable working with “natural” pesticides and fertilizers than synthetic chemicals.

#3: Organic crops taste better

Taste is a matter of opinion and difficult to measure, but many organic advocates believe organically grown crops have superior flavor. I’ll leave the taste test up to you.

#4 Certified organic is a widely recognized and trusted label

The USDA certified organic seal is one of the most widely recognized and trusted labels out there. Consumers trust that that little label vouches for the quality and integrity of the organic product.

#5: Organic crops sell at a premium

With the trust that consumers have in the certified organic seal comes a willingness to pay more for the product. Consumer demand in tandem with the price consumers are willing to pay for it, inspire some commercial hydroponic growers to pursue organics, despite a myriad of challenges.

What challenges you ask? Organic hydroponic growing does come with a unique set of challenges that makes it unlike any other growing system. Here’s a look at five of the big challenges you’ll likely encounter.

Biggest challenges with organic hydroponic growing systems:

#1: Organic hydroponic fertilizers can be tricky*

The big challenge is that refined substances and mineral salts that are the foundation of most conventional hydroponic fertilizers are prohibited in organic growing, and unrefined minerals, which are “organic,” don’t dissolve well in water.

The components of organic fertilizers are largely dependent upon organisms in the soil to convert the “organic” materials into a useable form for plants. Soil or no soil, the organisms are still needed. Most organic hydroponic growers design a system where bacteria digest the organic matter to create nutrients in a separate location, which are then delivered to the plants via solution. By relying on microbial release of nutrients from organic sources, the nutrient supply is less predictable in an organic hydroponic system.

Commercial options for organic hydroponic fertilizers are expanding, but remain far more limited than conventional options.

#2: Pest management options are limited

When unwelcome pests take up residence on your crop (and they will), your arsenal of organic weapons will be smaller than a conventional farmer’s. Things like oils, sulfur, soaps, bicarbonate products, and beneficial insects are useful organic pest management strategies, but many growers report that these products work more slowly than conventional pesticides and may just control a pest situation rather than eradicate it.

#3 Organic yields may be smaller

Growers often struggle to reach the same yields using organic methods compared to conventional methods. However, some researchers believe that a skilled grower with great attention to detail can be just as productive with an organic hydroponic system.

#4 Organic materials are sometimes limited and more costly*

Designing the growing system is a critical step in planning an organic hydroponic operation. Both nutrient film technique (NFT) and drip systems with growbags, the two predominant commercial hydroponic set-ups, can be designed for organic growing, but you may have to pay more for materials. Keep in mind that some hydroponic substrates (i.e. rockwool) are not organic and others (i.e. organic coconut coir) can be more expensive.

Reason #5: Can something grown without soil actually be organic?

A number of organic farming associations are angry that hydroponic growing methods are certifiable as organic in the first place. In fact, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) made a formal recommendation to the NOP in 2010, urging action to exclude hydroponic methods from organic certification. To date, no action has occurred, and hydroponically grown crops are still certifiable as organic in the U.S.

Ultimately, choosing to pursue organic hydroponics or choosing to keep it conventional, is a multifaceted and individualized decision. It should take into account your level of experience, time commitment to growing, crop production goals, crop marketing plan, as well as your environmental, social and political views.

* Editors Note: The hydroponic industry has made significant advances in the last few years making it much easier to grow organically with predictable results. While coconut coir was at one time an expensive grow medium it is now widely available and affordable.