Aquaponic tomatoes

Aquaponic tomatoes ripening

Someday soon, tomatoes grown in greenhouses will become not only harder to resist but unavoidable — and even extremely delicious if… they are grown in an Aquaponics system. The four largest U.S. greenhouse growers (located in Arizona, Texas, Colorado, and California) together make up 67 percent of domestic tomato production. All of them use hydroponic growing systems, in which tomato plants are grown with only water and nutrients.

That’s right: no dirt required. By the beginning in the early 1990s, production of hydroponically grown tomatoes began to increase nationwide. Today, nearly 40 percent of the fresh tomatoes sold at retail around the country are hydroponic. In that time, overall U.S. tomato consumption has exploded; in the past 20 years; our chomping of fresh tomatoes has grown more than 30 percent, to approximately 20 pounds per capita per year. Also as demand has increased, growers are trying to find ways to improve the flavor and texture of the hydroponic tomato.

Tomatoes are merely the first in what growers hope will be a long line of commercially successful greenhouse-grown products. The sheer volume of tomato production worldwide overshadows all other greenhouse vegetables, but greenhouse cultivation of herbs, cucumbers, and salad greens is continuing to expand. Much experimentation is also being done with strawberries, which are highly susceptible to soil-borne diseases that are no longer treatable with the toxic and ozone-depleting methyl bromide. Customers focus mostly on greenhouse-grown vegetables in January, but availability isn’t the only motivator behind water-grown produce. Hydroponic growing appears to be the next big revolution in worldwide agriculture. Many believe it has the potential to feed large populations while using fewer chemicals, making better use of resources, worrying less about contamination, and harvesting much higher yields per acre. In research circles, hydroponics is referred to as controlled-environment agriculture, also known as space-intensive agriculture. The goal is optimum use of resources while maximizing output through manipulation of all growing conditions. The uniformity of the produce coming out of these controlled environments — where the growing media and the light and nutrient inputs are all carefully calibrated — has made hydroponics commercially viable after the high initial startup costs of greenhouse construction, equipment, and supplies. Growers can therefore turn around and charge more for the privilege of eating perfectly formed tomatoes or peppers in the dead of winter. The costs of greenhouse growing vary greatly, depending on location. In Canada, winter growing is more expensive due to the region’s cold weather and short days; there’s simply a greater need for heat and artificial light sources up north in winter. Those needs are the reason why, in this country, huge commercial operations have developed in areas such as Arizona and New Mexico, where sunlight is abundant and warmer weather more frequent.

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