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Top considerations when planning for hydroponics

IMG_3292Hydroponic crop production has seen continued growth throughout the past few years, and for good reason. While early adopters have already established themselves within the industry, many more are now looking to tap into this highly promising and productive market. While making the decision to grow hydroponically may come easily to some, it is important to plan carefully in advance in order to see the most positive results. Once the decision has been made to grow with hydroponics, there are four major factors to consider when planning and preparing for the actual system itself.

Market Demand – What crops do you plan on growing and how will those crops be received by consumers?

It is incredibly helpful to know what you are going to be producing before purchasing a system, and there are a number of reasons why. If you are currently growing and selling to an established market, then you are likely already aware of what crops you are going to produce and how well they are received by consumers. In this instance, knowing your crops beforehand helps in determining what type of hydroponic system is best for you. Generally speaking, NFT systems are best for crops with small root systems, such as leafy varieties, while Dutch Buckets are recommended for crops with larger root systems, such as fruiting crops.

If you do not currently have an established market however, planning your crops and their estimated demand beforehand can help you properly judge your overall size requirement. As an example, if you were thinking of producing lettuce within a market that is already oversaturated with lettuce varieties, demand for your specific product would be low. In this example, if you were certain that you wanted to produce lettuce and nothing else, it would be wise to size your system for small scale lettuce production, as opposed to purchasing a system for commercial scale use.

P1020797Alternately, if you plan on producing cucumbers within a lettuce-heavy market, you may discover that your product is so highly sought after that you cannot meet the demand. If you were looking for your hydroponic produce to act as a major income source for you, this would mean that you would want a large scale system in order to meet the natural demand. Understanding the demand for your produce is a vital first step in sizing your system.

If you are looking to break into a new market, try talking with some potential consumers beforehand and do some research on your own. Talk to potential customers to learn what crops they are looking for and meet with current growers within your market to learn what crops they are producing. This can help you discover what crops are highly sought after by consumers, as well as what crops are currently flooding the market. This information will help lead you to the most profitable crop selection.

Start-Up Budget – How much money are you looking to invest initially, and what is your desired time frame to make that investment back?

This of course, is a consideration that varies greatly for everyone. If you are looking to turn your hydroponic crops into a full-time business, you may consider a large scale investment with a 3-4 year goal for your return on investment (ROI). However, if you are simply looking to produce crops for sale at farmers markets or on a roadside stand, you would naturally want something that comes at a lower price, with a an ROI goal somewhere between 1-1.5 years. The smartest thing to do for both your budget and production level is start small.

It is always best to start by getting your feet wet within the market. Even if you have conducted thorough research beforehand on what crops will sell in your area, getting those crops to sell is never a guarantee. Those that are looking to develop a sole business out of their crop production are especially encouraged to follow this advice. Increasing production can always be done at a later date, after you have found your niche in the market and developed a regular customer base. If demand for your produce begins to outweigh your supply, it is then time to consider expansion. Until then, the smaller the better.

aeroponics 2Keeping your investment goal in mind, do some research to see what similar crops in your area are selling for and what the demand is for those crops. You can then take that research and build a rough business plan, estimating your potential weekly, monthly or yearly revenue and budgeting necessary expenses, such as lighting, nutrients, seeds and so on. The number that results from this formula will give you an estimate of your anticipated income, which you can then compare to your initial investment plan. If you estimate earnings of $1,000/year and planned your ROI goal for 2 years, you could justify a system of up to $2,000, provided that you have the physical space and your market demand requires that amount of produce.

Available Time – Are you looking to make this your full-time occupation or are you interested in doing this as a side job or hobby?

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While the systems handle the actual crop production process with limited assistance required, you will be kept busy with tasks, such as harvesting, pruning, transplanting, cleaning, pest management and more. The most traditional tasks in crop production are still required in hydroponics. In fact, the only traditional care method not required in hydroponics is watering. If you are looking to start this as a side project or as a hobby, starting with a smaller system is recommended, as it will introduce you to the workload required without becoming costly and overwhelming.

You will also want to consider that during the first few weeks of operation, you will be monitoring your crops and system more closely than usual. As growing conditions vary from location to location, you will want to closely monitor nutrition levels and the growth of your crops for the first few months. After a brief learning curve, you will likely have your specific nutritional needs down to a simple routine, but getting to that point requires frequent observation and experimentation during the early stages of production. Keep your time constraints in mind when you plan for a system.

Available Space – Do you have an existing space that you plan on using or will you be adding one?

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Consider what space you will be using for production and how that will factor in to the actual size of your system. Hydroponic systems can be used successfully in warehouses, garages, spare rooms, greenhouses and more. Essentially, any space that you are able to control the environment will prove successful for hydroponic crop production. If you are planning on using an existing space, plan a layout of your growing environment. Keep in mind not only the size of the system itself, but also factors such as walkways, storage areas, refrigeration units, prep areas, water tanks and fertigation systems. These additional considerations are crucial during planning. Without taking these things into consideration first, you run the risk of creating an environment that is too crowded and difficult to work in.

If you do not already have an existing space but plan on adding one, you can build your growing environment around your specific production needs, but consider your long term goals. If you are looking to do this as a hobby or side job, expansion may not be a concern for you. If this is the case, you can add a greenhouse or find a controlled environment that fits your exact sizing requirements with no wasted space. However, if you have plans to take your crop production to the commercial level over time, consider the fact that you may need to expand upon your operation in the future. This means that if you are looking to add a greenhouse to your property for your production needs, be sure that you have enough space remaining to expand upon your operation if needed. It is always a smart option to work in a commercial scale greenhouse or growing facility, but start with only a small section for crop production. Most people find the extra space to be very helpful in the long run, and the additional space prevents any last minute, unaccounted for measurements from causing a major headache.

Properly planning for your hydroponic system is vital to the success of your hydroponic venture. When planned for properly, you can avoid some of the most common mistakes, such as production level miscalculations and space constraints. Now that your consideration check list complete, be sure to stop by the blog next week when we cover the math required to properly size your system.

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