By YANG ZHANG
Capital News Service
LANSING – Gardening without soil goes back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But it’s not just an ancient story.
Many farmers and indoor gardening enthusiasts in West Michigan have grown plants in water instead of soil for years, a process called hydroponics.
Hydroponics is a technology that allows plants to grow in nutrient-enriched water with artificial lighting and heating.
“You don’t have to water or weed, just put your plants in there. They just grow,” said Kris Van Haitsma, co-owner of Mud Lake Farm in Hudsonville.
Her husband’s family has lived on the farm for more than a century.
The farm floods three or four times a year so soil erosion has been a problem, Van Haitsma said.
She said the couple didn’t want to do traditional farming because tilling and fertilizing would increase erosion.
Therefore, they started hydroponic farming in 2004, using float-style hydroponics to grow lettuce, watercress and herbs.
“We are putting in seedlings every week and harvest every week,” Van Haitsma said.
She said the farm’s two greenhouses produce about 300 pounds of hydroponic vegetables a week and the third one, which is under construction, will increase the yield to 500 pounds.
Plants in hydroponic systems don’t need manure, so there’s no worry about E.coli in lettuce, Van Haitsma said, and they don’t use pesticides, either.
Their farm participates in Community Supported Agriculture, whose members buy shares and get fresh produce regularly. They also serve local restaurants and sell vegetables through the West Michigan Cooperative in Grand Rapids, the region’s first online farmers’ market.
Maryann Esert of Wayland, a Community Supported Agriculture member of Haitsma’s farm, said lettuce from the farm is fresher, more nutritional and tasty.
And it’s interesting to learn how hydroponic systems grow food, she said.
Bridgette Ujlaky, co-owner of a Grand Rapids-based hydroponics business, said more commercial farmers are switching to hydroponics.
For example, Bowerman Blueberries, a 56-year-old farm in Holland, started a vertical hydroponic system to grow 15,000 strawberry plants on a half-acre.
Hydroponics allows longer growing periods and higher yields, which increase farmers’ bottom line, Ujlaky said.
Ujlaky’s Horizen Hydroponics has developed from an online store to a business with two retail outlets. The company sells to growers across the state and internationally.
She and her husband also educate the public about hydroponics and offer classes to gardening clubs in greater Grand Rapids.
Other hydroponics stores in West Michigan include the Green Forest Indoor Garden Supply in Ionia, the Holland Hydroponic Outlet and the Grand Rapid-based Growco Indoor Garden Supply.
Ujlaky said hydroponics enable farmers to grow more food on limited land.
“The opportunity is infinite with food production,” she said. “It will feed the world one day.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.