How hydroponic farming can bring you produce that aren’t locally grown…

Published September 24, 2020, 4:00 AM

by John Legaspi

…with no soil needed

When we think of farming or planting, the basic ideas that come to mind are digging up soil, dumping in seeds, sprinkling it with some water, and letting the power of nature turn the seed into a plant. Of course, humans take part in the process. But looking at the big picture, the soil plays the most crucial role in growing plants and vegetables. It’s going to be their cradle and, for some, their longtime home. Its quality and location will determine the life of a seedling and affect the fruits it will bear. After all, as soil scientist Charles E. Kellogs said, “all life depends upon the soil… There can be no life without soil and no soil without life.”

But what if the soil is taken out of that picture? Now that is what we call hydroponics. Thanks to the advancements made in science and agriculture, we can now manage to cultivate crops without soil. Derived from Greek terms hydro (water) and pono (work), hydroponics literally means “working water” as plants are grown in water beds, with liquid solution feeding them the minerals and nutrients they need. 

This method of horticulture may sound like a recent breakthrough, but studies about soilless farming dates back to the 1600s with works of English philosopher Francis Bacon and geologist John Woodward. According to a 1981 article in The New York Times, since nutrients are brought right to the roots, plants do not have to branch out and fight for food. Unlike farming on soil, hydroponics allows plants to be placed closer together as nutrients are equally distributed.

In the Philippines, many have adopted the hydroponic way of farming, as it offers vegetables that are safe from soil-related disease and typhoon damages. 

For business owners Kevin and Kristine Co, hydroponics has also paved a way for a more eco-friendly process of bringing produce to the table. Their brand Herbivore Philippines not only provides vegetables that are free from pesticides and other harmful chemicals, it gives produce that can’t be grown locally.

The couple chats with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle and details the benefits Filipinos can get from hydroponic farming, its sustainable impact, and how their work has been during the pandemic.

How long has Herbivore PH been operating?

Kevin: Herbivore has been operating for a little over a year now. It took us nine months to construct and set the system up. Kristine is a big proponent of clean and healthy living. The idea started during a casual dinner conversation with some friends. It was about the difficulty of sourcing good quality produce and how anybody can easily claim and label themselves as “organic,” “farm fresh,” and the like. We spoke about how there was a lack of customer education on how fruits and vegetables are being grown. For example, did you know that fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets in developed countries have Price Look Up codes to help customers distinguish how the produce are grown? This can be conventionally grown (most probably with pesticides and chemicals in nutrient-depleted soil), genetically modified (unnatural and has been known to cause various diseases), or certified organic. The desire to grow top-notch, truly “clean” produce is what fueled us to bring this idea to life. We even have our produce tested to make sure that we are completely pesticide and chemical-free. 

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What is the advantage of using hydroponics compared to other indoor gardening?

Kristine: Some hydroponic farms are not temperature-controlled, hence the quality of the veggies aren’t that great. With our system we can give the plants optimum temperature, light, and nutrients to give them the best possible opportunity to reach their full potential, making better and more consistent quality produce. They are like spoiled babies. By having a completely controlled environment, we could grow produce that are typically imported—our contribution to reducing the carbon footprint of having to keep importing these vegetables. 

How did the pandemic affect your operations?

Kristine: The pandemic shifted our business to be more retail-focused because of the increased demand from retail customers. We saw a significant drop in our wholesale business as many restaurants’ operations substantially decreased during the lockdown. 

‘By having a completely controlled environment, we could grow produce that are typically imported—our contribution to reducing the carbon footprint of having to keep importing these vegetables.’

What are the imported vegetables you cultivate?

Kristine: We currently grow a handful of produce that has to be imported. Some examples include garland chrysanthemum, domiao, sangchoi (Chinese lettuce), wawachoi (Chinese cabbage) and even for those that can be grown locally like mizuna, kale, arugula, watercress, etc. Our produce is far superior than what you can normally get in the market. 

How important is sustainability for the brand?

Kristine: Of course, sustainability of the brand is important so we can carry out our ethos which is to provide our market with the freshest and healthiest vegetables without sacrificing social responsibility. We are constantly trying to improve our system to work toward this.