Hydroponics: The latest fad in food or the future of agriculture?

An ancient agricultural method is seeing a 'rebirth' in interest

Hydroponic romaine lettuce
Romaine lettuce grows in a hydroponic greenhouse. Hydroponic farms enable produce to be grown year round without soil.
Nancy Lebens | MPR News File

What if you could grow all of the produce you needed in your own home year-round? That's the future hydroponics advocates are hoping to make a reality — and with fresh urgency as food shortages and the effects of climate change intensify.

Micah Helle, hydroponic farm manager for Pillsbury United Communities, joined host Tom Crann to share more.

Hear the full conversation by using the audio player above or reading the transcript below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Give us the overview here. How is it different from traditional growing methods? There's no soil used, right?

Correct. Hydroponics is a soilless modern farming technique that uses nutrient-enriched water and substrate to mimic soil to grow flavorful, vibrant greens year round.

This is not a new technique, even though it's kind of trendy right now?

Definitely, it traces back to the Gardens of Babylon.

And why has it stuck around so long do you think?

I think hydroponics is having a rebirth right now because of the urgency of our food system and the climate volatility that we have. We're starting to look more critically at the constraints around agriculture. Especially in places like here in Minnesota where our growing season is so constrained certain months, how do we remove those constraints? How do we think more creatively about the future of agriculture?

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You help people learn about hydroponics. Are you focusing your work on any specific communities?

Yes, definitely. Back in 2018 when I graduated college, I was in the Midwest and there really weren't many opportunities to volunteer or even to see these spaces and this emerging field, so I had to go out East.

I came back from the East Coast with this knowledge and I thought, wow, hydroponics can really be used here. So, I'm bringing this knowledge back to Minneapolis, specifically, and to North Minneapolis communities.

I think the pandemic has brought the issue of food insecurity front and center. It was there but it intensified during the pandemic — and it intensified in communities of color, as well. What role do you think hydroponics can actually play in addressing some of these issues here in the state?

Being able to farm hydroponically increases where we're able to grow produce. We're able to put a farm in a parking lot, in a warehouse, on top of a roof — increase access to local produce in a way that doesn't break the bank year-round, and preserve the nutritional value in our produce.

Take me through what you would need to do to start doing this practically at home.

I would recommend that you go to a hydroponic warehouse. They're very helpful with getting people started. What you really need is a type of grow media, a substitute for soil. You need some nutrients and some tubs, finding a reservoir, planting your seed, and monitoring the nutrient levels in the water.

And so you can do this in the basement in trays or do you do it in a greenhouse?

You can do this in the basement, you can do this in a greenhouse, you can do it on your kitchen counter. Really, the plants are very sensitive at first and they'll let you know what they need.

And what is your easiest go to plant to start?

I would say start with lettuce. It germinates pretty fast and it's pretty vocal — it will tell you what's wrong.

Really, vocal? How does it talk to you?

The leaves wilt or they'll discolor. Based on the coloring of the leaves and what the plant looks like, you'll be able to regulate some of the environmental conditions around it.

What's next for you and Pillsbury United when it comes to hydroponics?

The next stage for us is engaging with younger kids: elementary- and middle-school aged [kids] in Minneapolis and St. Paul. [We want to bring] them into the fold, [offer] paid opportunities for them to come in and learn, to touch the grow media, to grow plants and to learn about the business aspect of this emerging industry.