Indoor hydroponics: quantitative farming

Indoor hydroponics presents a new opportunity to control even more aspects of a plant's grow cycle. Significant advances have been made in agricultural sciences that have helped us develop more effective fertilizer and seeds, but most of these technologies have assumed outdoor soil growth, and that weather and lighting conditions are difficult to control.

With indoor hydroponics, however, we have entered a new era of horticulture where we are able to further control the environment using air conditioning and lighting, and easily measure our nutrient solutions.

Why do I call this quantitative farming? Well, indoor hydroponics allows us to quantify everything, using specific numbers and measurements to explain what we are doing.

If you look at traditional gardening and farming guides, you will see vague terms like "well-lit area" or "nutrient rich soil" - that can mean anything depending on where you live and who you ask.

In indoor hydroponics, however, we are recreating nutrients and the environment to the point where we can quantify the amount of light and nutrients we are using. In fact, micromoles / second is an often used to describe the intensity of light useful for photosynthesis. This is a measure of the number of photons that are being released per second. You can't get more specific than this in measuring the amount of light! Similarly with nutrients, we are measuring PPM - parts per million - of nutrient molecules vs water - i.e. we are getting an actual number to tell us how much nutrient is in a particular solution. Couple this with the power of data analysis, and we have such a powerful platform for improving your yield and chances for success.

I have a lot of respect for farmers and families who have worked in agriculture for generations. They have undoubtedly accumulated a wealth of knowledge and intuition that allows them to be successful.

At the same time, indoor hydroponics presents a whole new future for farming precisely because we are able to measure and quantify all of the possible factors that influence plant growth. In an outdoor soil farm, it is impossible to control the exact amount of sunlight, rainwater and soil composition in a way that allows for extensive study and research, as these factors are out of our control. In an indoor hydroponics setup, you can run a variety of scientifically controlled experiments that allow for extensive data collection and analysis that could draw very powerful conclusions.

Quantitative analysis places the burden of calculations and data aggregation on computers which are becoming more and more powerful. Want to know what combination of soluble nutrients, light spectrum and temperature encourages the best growth for lettuce? In a matter of minutes, you can set up up a test to run this experiment, right from your home. That's a powerful proposition.

The biggest obstacle to full-blown quantitative farming is an effective way to measure success. Measuring biomass weight would be a good start, but still not that easy to set up in a home hydroponics system without manually weighing your plants. What about aesthetics? Or taste? I'm confident one day there will be an effective way to quantify this efficiently, but that's likely still many years away, and so the initial focus will likely be on total yield - in other words quantity over quality.

Being able to measure both your inputs and outputs, in a controlled environment is the holy grail of scientific inquiry. Being able to perform this in your home via indoor hydroponics is extremely powerful and is one of the things that makes it so exciting.


Other articles you may be interested in