Research examines making indoor, greenhouse hydroponics more efficient

Effort may allow farmers to lengthen growing season in colder climates, boost incomes, make vegetables available year-round

Consumers increasingly want to know where their food is coming from and how it’s being grown. Specifically, they want to know if their produce is raised sustainably and safely, especially as they learn more about the effects of fertilizers on the environment and see news reports on outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

The growth of farmers markets is proof of the trend, but Indiana’s climate makes growing fruits and vegetables locally only possible for part of the year. That means most of the produce Hoosiers eat comes from warmers climates hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Krishna Nemali an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture & Landscape Architecture and an Extension specialist, heads Purdue’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Lab. His goal is to make both indoor and greenhouse hydroponics more efficient.

The growing methods would allow farmers to lengthen the growing season in greenhouses and produce vegetables year-round in climate-controlled indoor facilities, adding to their incomes and connecting consumers more closely to their food.

“Indiana is mainly dominated by commodity crops like corn and soybeans, and we only have one season. Farmers are looking to enter niche markets that will provide them with year-round income,” Nemali says. “At the same time, people really want to know where the food is coming from, what is sprayed on it, how fresh it is, if it’s safe. Those questions are easier to answer when the food is grown by your neighbors.”

Hydroponic growers can give plants precise amounts of nutrients, water and light, reducing costs and waste. Being indoors also reduces the need for pesticides and allows crops to be grown in tiers, increasing the amount of produce that can be grown by area.

Nemali’s research.  is answering fundamental questions about the amount and type of light, nutrients, temperature and other variables necessary for efficient and sustainable growth. In addition, they hold workshops to disseminate the knowledge to current and prospective hydroponic growers.

Another project is introducing Indiana intermediate school students to science behind hydroponic methods as they learn to grow their own foods.

“When they grow crops and are responsible for that, the likelihood that they will start eating healthy foods, like leafy greens, will help with issues such as obesity and other health issues,” Nemali says.