As the hydroponic farming industry grows, opinions divide farmers who grow food from water and those who remain loyal to conventional soil-based agriculture.

Boyden's perspectives on the news and trends that are transforming industries

Hydroponic farming is still a small part of U.S. agriculture. But a number of factors – like pressure to increase food production, demand for locally grown food, pandemic-related supply chain issues, and severe weather linked to climate change – are fueling rapid growth. Leading the way is a new generation of hydroponic farmers, who fine-tune indoor growing conditions with machine learning, data analytics, proprietary software and other technologies. They are captivating investors; investments in indoor farming more than doubled in 2020 from a year earlier.

The ability to farm just about anywhere, including urban areas, is one of the advantages touted by proponents of the soilless farming systems, as it expands the geography of food production. Further, hydroponic farming is not subject to the vagaries of weather or the cycle of seasons. “We’ve perfected mother nature indoors through that perfect combination of science and technology married with farming,” said Daniel Malechuk, CEO of Kalera, which specializes in high-tech urban vertical hydroponics.

At the most basic level, soil is what distinguishes conventional farming and hydroponic, which uses nutrient-rich water instead. It is also what divides proponents and detractors, who maintain that soil and plant growth are inextricable. Executive Director Dave Chapman of the Real Organic Project, who previously served on a USDA hydroponics task force, is leading an effort to stop the agency from allowing hydroponic farmers to certify their produce as organic, The New York Times reports. Chapman and others maintain that the very definition of organic agriculture rests on building healthy soil.

Proponents hold up hydroponic farming as a solution to the vulnerability of the food supply chain, which saw debilitating disruptions during the pandemic. “There is no question we are reinventing farming, but what we are doing is reinventing the fresh food supply chain,” said Irving Fain, founder and CEO of New York-based Bowery Farming. Fain claims that his farms are 100 times as productive as traditional ones. Other companies claim to reap exceptionally high volumes using less water and less land.

Soil and water may not mix, but hydroponic and conventional farming can coexist. Farmers on both sides envision an American agricultural system in which both can flourish. And as the global population continues to swell, “We’re going to need a lot of tools in the toolbox,” said celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, a longtime hydroponic sceptic who now invests in it.

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