By: Olivia Heinz
Hydroponic agriculture is an alternative and innovative farming method that has the potential to drastically affect climate change, food insecurity, and the food industry as a whole. Through my rotation with Frederick County Farm to School, I had the opportunity to tour District Farms. District Farms is a hydroponic facility located in Frederick, Maryland that utilizes greenhouse growing in order to provide the community with high-quality local produce year-round. Prior to this rotation and tour, I had recognized ‘hydroponics’ as a buzzword in the agriculture community but was not totally confident on what this term meant and what the advantages of this farming technique were. I have now discovered that hydroponics is a type of horticulture wherein plants are grown without soil, usually inside a greenhouse where the moisture, air temperature, and fans are controlled and computerized.
As I first entered through the doors of District Farms, I was utterly shocked by the amount of green that I saw. The entire greenhouse was packed full of varying types of leafy greens, as far as the eye could see! The plants were all aligned in rows, with the irrigation system situated down the aisles and connected to every row of plants. The irrigation system provides the plants with nutrients and water through an aqueous solution, due to the fact that soil is not utilized in the process. These nutrient solutions provide plants with the essential elements that they need. Some minerals that are commonly included in hydroponic nutrient solutions include calcium, magnesium, sulfur, and trace elements such as zinc, iron, boron, and manganese. Micronutrients are more readily available at a lower pH, making the optimal pH for hydroponic nutrient solutions around 5.8-6.3. During my tour, Lara Meehan, the Sales & Marketing Manager at District Farms, informed me that hydroponic facilities use 90% less water than traditional farming techniques. The actual greenhouse we were in, she stated, produced the same amount of product that would be produced from 5 times the amount of traditional farmland. These statistics shocked me. I couldn’t wait to learn more about the technology and advantages of hydroponic facilities and to share that information with others.
Our tour began in the seed germination area, where the process begins with the sprouting of singular seeds. As we continued on our tour, Lara showed us the different types of crops that District Farms produces. The first crop that we saw was crunch lettuce, one of their specialties. We also were able to see different types of microgreens that are currently in demand from the culinary and restaurant industry. Microgreens are young plants that are approximately 1-3 inches in height. Some examples of these microgreens included a crunchy mix, a spicy mix, micro arugula and micro basil. We even got to pick a stalk of micro cilantro straight from its hydroponic chamber, and I have never tasted something so intensely flavorful! Currently, business is booming for District Farms in the foodservice industry, and they are hoping to initiate a larger push into the retail industry.
Towards the end of our tour, we each got to harvest our own head of butter lettuce, package it into the signature plastic clamshell and stick the District Farms label on the outside. District Farms estimates that they currently produce about 37,000 heads of lettuce annually, but with their current expansion plans, this number will increase.
Lara shared with us a couple of her favorite ways to enjoy District Farms’ products. With the signature butter lettuce, Lara likes to make Thai chicken wraps or use the leaves as a taco shell substitution. She also likes to use a combination of the Lola Rosa and crunch lettuce to put together a delicious watermelon and feta salad that must taste like summer.
Hydroponic farming techniques allow for produce to be grown at a faster pace, using less land and in areas where traditional farming methods may be futile due to urban development or weather and climate factors. Additionally, the factors that most significantly affect the flavor of produce (air temperature, humidity, and moisture) can all be tightly controlled in order to deliver the most optimal product. These are significant traits of hydroponic farming methods that could aid in increasing the average consumption of fruits and vegetables and could not be more applicable to the field of dietetics. District Farms currently has partnerships with the Farm to School programs at Frederick County Public Schools and Baltimore City Public Schools where they plan to bring in hydroponic lettuce and basil into the schools. I am sure that these school districts look forward to promoting hydroponics, as well as providing their students with more local, Maryland-grown produce.
I could not be more grateful for such an unforgettable and educational experience at District Farms through Frederick County Farm to School. I look forward to seeing more hydroponic products being implemented in the school meals and sold on the shelves of grocery stores in order to raise awareness of this innovative farming technique and the advantages that it provides!