Takeaway: The learning curve of hydroponics is littered with the remains of failed hydroponic ventures and millions of dollars in lost investments. Dr. Nate Storey’s guide for beginning growers who are interested in operating successful hydroponic systems details seven of the most common obstacles encountered by hydroponic growers.
Why focus on mistakes? Let’s face it: we learn a lot more through our mistakes and failures than we do through our successes. Working with new farmers over the years, we noticed that the most successful farmers see mistakes as opportunities to learn from and improve their farms.
As you begin to navigate the world of hydroponics, learn from these mistakes and keep them in mind when starting or scaling your own system. Doing so will save you a lot of heartache and possibly financial despair associated with these seven mistakes.
Mistake #1: Designing Unusable or Hard-to-Use Farms
Designing an unusable farm is a mistake of inexperience more than anything else. Many growers haven’t grown before (at least not on a large scale), so they don’t think about factors like workflow and efficiency. This results in farms that:
- Don’t use space efficiently;
- Are hard to harvest;
- Require a lot of transplanting and tending;
- Aren’t conducive to pest control;
- Don’t allow easy access to important components.
Since labor is often the largest variable cost on farms, a labor-efficient design is important. The cure for this mistake is to think carefully from the start about how you will use your system.
Consider all your variables, from growing needs (light, water, nutrients, pests) to user needs (access, convenience, automation, redundancy) from the start, and only begin to design your system after you’ve seriously considered these variables.
Talking to established growers and touring their system designs can be a great help as well. Be sure to ask questions and find out what they would do differently if designing their systems today.
Mistake #2: Underestimating Production & System Costs
Most beginner growers fail to completely understand their costs. They get started, invest in large facilities, expensive utilities, and equipment, but never get the chance to fully utilize them because the budget is consumed by unanticipated costs. Some commonly forgotten costs are:
- Pest controls
- Printed marketing materials
- Ongoing maintenance
- Heat removal
- Equipment replacement
These are major costs that add up. The cardinal sin is that most beginning growers vastly underestimate the cost of labor—whether it’s their own or someone they’ve hired. Raft production is an example of a common, labor-intensive, hydroponic production technique.
For raft systems, the labor costs can be significant—as much as 45-60 percent of total costs! Most producers don’t even consider this in their labor estimates, so when the cost of harvesting and processing comes in, the bottom line quickly drops from being black to turning red.
Mistake #3: Confusing Biological Viability with Economic Viability
There is a misconception that starting a farm business is 90 percent growing and 10 percent selling. In our experience, it’s just about the opposite. Most farmers make one of two mistakes in this regard.
First, they don’t account for the time and financial costs of getting their produce to market once it’s grown. As a result, they don’t budget enough time or money to effectively sell their produce.
Second, they plan the biological function of their farm (technique, crops, equipment) without testing the feasibility against their markets. Does local demand match their particular type of produce?
If it doesn't, then they’re stuck with a facility, a lot of produce and no one to buy any of the products.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how healthy your crops are if you can't sell them.
Mistake #4: Choosing the Wrong Climate for Your Climate or Technique
It’s easy to be seduced by flowery descriptions of exotic new crops that populate so many seed catalogs these days. If I had every dollar back that I’ve wasted over the years trying to grow crops that are either: a) not suited to my production technique or climate or b) not in demand in my local markets, I’d have a hefty chunk of change back from seed companies. Before you choose crops, you need to ask a few questions:
- What constraints are placed on growing by your climate?
- What growing technique will you be using?
- Can you grow this crop with your production technique?
Different crops have different needs, and some can only be cultured in certain ways. Folks using rafts should not be trying to grow tomatoes. Similarly, folks using crushed granite media should not expect to be able to produce marketable root crops.
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, trying to grow long day-length crops in an eight-hour day won’t work well for you. If you’re in the South, and constantly battling the heat, attempts to grow a cool-weather crop like rhubarb would be a terrible decision.
Be thoughtful about what you grow.
Mistake #5: Choosing the Wrong Market
Another element that must be considered is your market. Whether you’re growing for your family or a farmers’ market, you’re still directly or indirectly selling your produce. Growing a crop that no one wants is a waste of your time and money. When I was growing up and zucchini season hit, everyone would try to unload zucchini on unsuspecting neighbors and friends.
The home gardeners in our neighborhood made the mistake of growing an easy-to-culture, but unwanted, crop. There’s only so much zucchini a human can consume. Analyze your market carefully. Consider what your competitors are growing.
If you live in an area where summer competition is fierce from field producers, then concentrate on something they can’t grow during that period. Most likely, if a restaurant customer wants local organic lettuce and a field producer will sell it at 50 cents a pound, you won’t be able to keep that customer over the summer.
Determine what you can do to make ends meet in light of this seasonal competition, or lock your customers into long-term purchasing contracts.
The bottom line: choose a crop with a guaranteed market.
Mistake #6: Expecting Different Results
When you’re thinking about implementing a system, don’t be sold on the supposed profitability. Ask for references from system users that have been in business for several years. If they can’t provide them, walk away. Interview references carefully to find out whether or not they’re profitable and doing well.
For example, raft designs can be very productive and profitable in areas where greenhouse production is not required for most of the year and where labor is fairly inexpensive. In northern climates, however, greenhouse raft production is simply not cost-effective, as evidenced by the lack of established commercial raft growers in the Northern United States.
Although many are drawn to raft production because of the low start-up costs, the poor productivity per square foot of greenhouse space means that expensive resources are not used as efficiently as they must to be a viable business.
Mistake #7: Growing Too Big, Too Fast
Going too big too fast is a common mistake. This leads many beginning growers to get funding for large, expensive facilities before they fully understand their cost structure or the market they’re attempting to service. Growers that grow too fast also have catastrophic failures more often.
Big system failure means big money failure. More importantly, system failure causes a gap in supply for customers who want consistent delivery. When this happens, these customers begin to look elsewhere, and by the time the grower is back online, many valuable clients have been lost.
These are failures that threaten the entire enterprise. Growing slowly, on the other hand, requires patience, but allows growers to grow into their market organically, meeting local needs and demands with products. Large entrants tend to flood the market with products that they believe are desired—often with mixed results.
To avoid the pains of growing too fast:
- Rein in the desire to overwhelm the market;
- Develop a niche market;
- Get creative and give value.
Overcoming the Learning Curve with Grace
Every farmer, whether seasoned or completely green, experiences a learning curve when they start building a new system. This much is inevitable. But, the learning curve doesn’t have to represent losses and pain.
Smart planning is the best thing you can do for your farm, for although beginner mistakes are inevitable, big losses don’t have to be.
Hundreds of tools—from farm planning software like Able to learning programs like Upstart University—exist to help new growers and new business owners. Take advantage of them as much as you can.