The Future of Agriculture: Hydroponics & Aquaponics in New Mexico 

If I told you that 70% of our freshwater usage – as a globe – goes towards agriculture, would you believe me? In New Mexico alone, 76% of water is used for irrigated agriculture while livestock accounts for 1.05% of total water withdrawals. Obviously, the number of resources that go into traditional agriculture is taxing to our environment. Current research shows that by 2050, we need to increase food production by about 70% to meet the needs of a global population of 9.8 billion people. To meet these growing demands, we must find sustainable alternatives to implement into our current agricultural practices to ensure that we are able to grow all year round and use our water resources efficiently. Both hydroponics and aquaponics offer a viable solution to the many challenges of our current agricultural system that can be implemented across New Mexico.

Global water scarcity.
Image credit: Indy100

If you aren’t familiar, hydroponics is a method of growing plants without the use of soil. This growing method enhances plant yields, uses 80% less water, uses fewer pesticides, and grows at a faster rate than traditional agriculture. Hydroponics has become a popular growing method because this system takes the desired amount of food directly to the root. Whether you are growing on a personal or commercial scale, there are many benefits to this growing method that will allow us to keep up with the increasing demand for food in the future without sacrificing a large amount of water. 

Silver Leaf Farms in Corrales, New Mexico is a great example of a hydroponic system. Brothers Aaron and Elan work together to run a sustainable farm operation that produces quality crops that have a low carbon footprint. In a 10,000 square foot greenhouse, they grow tomatoes, lettuce, kale, basil, and cucumbers hydroponically in coconut husks. At this farm, it is vitally important to control temperatures so they can utilize the sun but avoid extreme heat. Although a huge challenge is finding the most efficient system for producing quality products, they use only one gallon of water to grow a single head of lettuce whereas it traditionally takes 60-80 gallons in a field!

While hydroponics is a more efficient growing method than traditional agriculture, we are seeing New Mexicans embrace a different style of growing as well. One example is the students at Santa Fe Community College who are using aquaponics to grow their food. Aquaponics is the combination of traditional fish farming and hydroponics in which the goal is to grow plants and fish at the same time. The main advantage of this method is that it allows the nutrients produced by fish waste to be used by the plants, which in turn help filter the water making it suitable for fish. In comparison to hydroponics, this requires less water quality monitoring and is less prone to disease.  

Infographic: Bēhance

Another great example is Desert Verde Farm located in Santa Fe which is New Mexico’s only indoor aquaponic farm that produces leafy greens, fruiting plants, and microgreens for the local community. When discussing the difference between hydroponics and aquaponics with owner Andrew Neighbour, he emphasized how hydroponics has some shortcomings. One is that with a hydroponic system, it is necessary to add chemical nutrients, and thus plants grown in this way are not certifiably “organic”. The main difference being that aquaponics is a closed-loop system where fish are fed a high protein diet. When they produce soluble waste, it breaks down into fertilizer for plants and in return, the plants clean these compounds from the water, and the cycle continues. From city permitting, to financing, and finding a trained workforce, Desert Verde Farm is facing a few challenges getting started but is nevertheless succeeding in creating a system that is suitable for the future of New Mexico agriculture.

Still, because growing food in a desert can be difficult due to extreme temperatures, low natural precipitation, and limited arable soil, hydroponics and aquaponics offer a viable solution to growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs regardless of climate, soil availability, or space. While there is adequate sunlight and heat that would be beneficial to the growth of plants, in a desert environment, there is always the risk of significant problems in adapting hydroponic and aquaponic systems to harsher climates.  Despite the challenges, farming with hydroponics and aquaponics offers a unique solution to our current agricultural system that will allow us to stabilize our food system for the future. Farming with hydroponics and especially aquaponics would be useful in New Mexico as it would preserve our precious water resources and allow room for different infrastructure developments.

-Posted by Feleecia

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