For several thousand years, traditional farmers have thought horizontally, with sprawling use of rural land and labor-intensive operations. In the 21st century, however, the ability to grow crops vertically, with modern hydroponic systems, has emerged as a more efficient and profitable business model that can be exploited just about anywhere there's sunlight.
And the opportunity is now being driven by a powerful consumer trend.
"The big thing today is that people want locally grown fresh produce," said Tim Carpenter, founder and owner of Marion County-based Verti-Gro, founded in 1972 in Colorado as a pioneer of state-of-the-art hydroponic agriculture and relocated to Florida in 1996.
As a result of skyrocketing local demand, hydroponic farming is now one of the fastest-growing and most environmentally friendly enterprises in the U.S.
One of its more innovative manifestations is "community-supported agriculture" operations, known as CSAs. "CSAs are typically located just a few minutes outside a city or town," Carpenter said. "And they grow various crops on contract for local consumers, which means they have a guaranteed sales volume every week at retail rather than wholesale prices, which means they are more profitable than traditional farms."
One reason: "vertical" hydroponic farming, using stacking pots, makes much more efficient use of space, water and energy.
"With our systems, you do high-density farming," Carpenter said. "You can achieve densities of up to 100,000 plants per acre, or five to 10 times as much as an equivalent crop grown in the field."
A commercial-scale Verti-Gro system can grow about 12,000 tomato plants per acre, with 12,000 pepper plants above them and broccoli, cauliflower and root crops grown underneath them.
The result is maximum yields, with longer growing seasons.
Crops are fed precise amounts of hydroponic fertilizers via an injector-based drip irrigation system that reduces water use by as much as 85 percent. "And water use is an important issue in Florida," said Carpenter, who sells Verti-Gro products across the U.S. and in 50 countries.
Another advantage for hydroponic growers in Florida is an almost year-round growing cycle, with minimal downtime for cleaning and maintenance. "And actual harvest times for most crops are doubled," Carpenter said.
Another key benefit of hydroponic farming is diversification.
"For example," Carpenter said, "if a farmer grows corn or cucumbers in the field on a seasonal basis, he can increase his profits and keep his labor force employed year-round and increase his sales and income just by adding a small vertical farm to his traditional operation."
Hydroponic farmers typically run pick-your-own operations that sell strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, peppers or salad greens directly to consumers at optimal prices. Most of Verti-Gro's 10 large commercial growers in Florida now also feature retail stores on-site that sell all of their various crops.
"Direct marketing is where the money is today," Carpenter said. "It's a completely different business model from a traditional farm. You get higher prices and have no shipping costs, so the profit margins are substantially better and your growing season is longer."
One of Verti-Gro's biggest success stories is The X-Farms, launched last year on a 40-acre tract that was once a tree nursery in Sumter County.
Its goal is to become the most diversified, efficient farm in Florida.
The X-Farms currently grows strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, several types of lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach and kale, said manager Brad Patterson.
Its 12,000 strawberry plants are in eight tunnels, with plastic that protects crops from cold weather in winter and shade that protects them from heat in the summer.
Facilities for tomatoes, peppers and other crops sensitive to heat and wind include three greenhouse/shadehouse combinations that are naturally cooled without any energy and heated with well water.
An outdoor Verti-Gro system produces cold crops such as lettuces and other greens.
The X-Farms also grows about 1.5 acres of blueberries, as well as seedless watermelons.
Patterson plans to add a number of additional crops in the future.
Until now, The X-Farms' business model has been 100 percent retail sales, with both pick-your-own operations and a small on-site retail store. They also have begun to sell blueberries and watermelons at wholesale, as well.
A current business goal is to build their brand beyond their local area by expanding wholesale operations. Patterson said they also hope to sell to the new farm-to-school distribution channel recently pioneered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
"We've already had interest from several local schools that brought students to the farm to see how food is grown," Patterson said.
And based on the success of The X-Farms, he said, there is no doubt that commercial hydroponic growing is an important aspect of the future of agriculture.
"There are a lot of these small farms that are popping up," he said. "And the more we can educate people about the opportunity, the more they will want to do it, because it's definitely a trend. And based on consumer demand, it's going to get bigger and bigger. It really is the future of farming."
For more information on Verti-Gro systems, call (352) 347-9888 or visit www.vertigro.com.