indoor hydroponics operation

aw76October 22, 2008

I have been interested in food production for some time, and have been researching greenhouse operations, market gardening, and other possibilities. Recently, I became aware of a possible space available to me that is about 5000 square feet. It is in the basement of a restaurant in my city. It has a concrete floor and no windows. It is clean and partially developed, not dirty and dingy.

Now that this space has come onto my radar, I am looking at possibilities to use it profitably while still accomplishing my goal of producing quality food. I am wondering if a space that size could be properly utilised with a hydroponics operation and be financially feasible?

I am aware that the main expense is going to be power for the lights and ventilation etc. However, could a system be designed that would be profitable enough to make the expense worthwhile?

Crops I am considering are herbs and greens for the restaurant market. Another avenue I have been considering is the processing of basil into pesto to get some value-added profit from the herb. Would a system of the size I would be limited to provide enough basil to make that a worthwhile venture?

Any thoughts or advice you may have in regards to a profitable setup that could be created in that space would be greatly appreciated.



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freemangreens(Zone 10 CA)

There are lots of folks doing just what you're suggesting, but to make it "profitable" they grow something else!!!

Your two biggest problems will be light and cops. You're going to have to use artificial lighting, which will cost $ and draw the attention of the locals, since you are "underground" literally.

If I were you, I'd do some intense Internet research and go to sites that already grow the stuff you're interested in. Try for starters. They are right around the corner from me in Encinitas, CA and they grow basil and make it into pesto, just like you mentioned. Basil likes a LOT of raw sunshine, by the way.

Do the math first. Pencils and erasers are cheap. Unless you're swimming in cash, I'd be very careful. No, I'd look for the same thing outside, where there is free sunlight!

    Bookmark   October 23, 2008 at 12:45PM
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If it were really profitable, there would be lots of you see a lot of hydro greenhouses around?

A business plan is your first step.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2008 at 11:52AM
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Not sure I agree with Willard there. The number of players out there isn't indicative of profitability. The way new types of business get off the ground is by finding a market that may not have existed before. The increasingly devastating droughts are certainly putting aspiring hydro growers in good positions. The rising cost of pesticides isn't helping either. Not to mention the rising awareness of E-Coli so common in manure fed plants. I think you would be surprised at how much of your grocer's produce is hydro. Look how many tomatoes are from canada if you live in the northern parts of the states. Guess what, they don't grow outside in November in Canada. I even saw basil plants for sale at Marsh (a grocery chain). They were hydroponic. They had the roots still attached and were in a bag with a little water in the bottom. The bag lets the customer know that you can't get any fresher than still living. I read somewhere that the only way to make a profit on roses is to grow them hydroponically, something done on a widespread basis in Brazil. Lettuce is grown in hydro on raft systems very profitably. Peppers are commonly grown in outdoor hydro systems for profit all over the place. Spinach is commonly grown hydroponically. I think the reason you don't see so many hydro greenhouses is because there aren't huge numbers of people that a) know how to maintain such a thing and b) have the drive to start a business and commit in such a large way a commercial greenhouse would require.

    Bookmark   October 26, 2008 at 9:31AM
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Let me you see a lot of hydro greenhouses around? I know I don't and it's because it's not profitable in contemporary markets. The price of energy's increase will only make this worse in the near term.

Cornell grows lettuce in hydro and Wegman's buys it all, but I know the operators well and it's not profitable. I am designing a greenhouse for a farmer's market seller who gets the price he asks for and he won't use hydro because it's not profitable.

Hydroponics is not rocket science.....

    Bookmark   October 27, 2008 at 10:34AM
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Nothing legal will be proffitable to grow in that space.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2008 at 12:08PM
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Let me repeat. . . just because they aren't around doesn't mean it's not profitable. Again, go to the store in December and feel free to eat your words with your hydro tomatoes Willard. As you say, it's not rocket science. In fact, one just has to be able to read the little sticker that says "Hydroponic".

I don't suppose you see lot's of motor manufacturers around? I do suppose this poor logic leads you to believe that means it's not a profitable business. Feel free to believe it all you want but it doesn't change the fact that it's an unbelievably profitable business with relatively few players. Only two in the US that really play in the big leagues. Each has only a few plants in the country. Yet they still manage to turn a profit even though there are cut throat foreign companies underpricing us by turning out lower quality product. And the motor industry doesn't have the luxury of out of season growing. So, just because YOU can't figure out how to make a business successful doesn't mean someone else like Freeman or S (the original poster) can't. In fact, the best markets are those that don't have as much competition. Economics isn't rocket science either. Nor is it constant. Just because something wasn't profitable a few years ago doesn't mean it isn't today or won't be tomorrow as conditions of the market change.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2008 at 6:49PM
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Both sides are right and wrong.

Just because no one's doing it doesn't mean it can't be done profitably. On the other hand, if no one's doing it there's a good chance there's a reason.

Neither proves anything. It simply poses questions and suggestions that need investigation before a conclusion can be drawn.

It's true that hydroponics isn't rocket science, but you don't see a lot of rocket science buildings around either, right? (unless you're just in the right neighborhood)

Here's the thing with this particular situation: Sunlight is (currently) free. Electricity from the city grid is (currently) not free. Sunlight is more powerful than electrical lighting for growing plants, but also subject to nature for availability while electricity is - outages notwithstanding - always available.

It doesn't make sense from a business standpoint to discard a free resource in favor of a costly one. If I can make a toothbrush out of titanium or plastic and they both work equally well and there isn't a big consumer preference for one type or the other, the plastic one is where the profit is going to be. Even if I could make the titanium one cheap enough to turn a profit while pricing it competitively with the plastic competition, the plastic ones will see a larger profit margin. They'll make more money per unit.

The same is true of hydroponic crops. With current technology, growing methods, and business models the only viable reason to grow a crop underground without sunlight is to keep it hidden (or because you live in a cave and can't go outside). Basically this means things you can't grow legally.

If you really want to get the best of both worlds, get a greenhouse and install supplemental electric lighting so you can have the electric lights on before and after the sun rises and sets to extend the growing day in the winter.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2008 at 7:10PM
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I know this is an old post, but just in case someone comes across it later I'd like to add my 2 cents. Currently not many pl do hydro gardening- at least not for vegetables. I think you could make it profitable- but remember growing is only half the equation selling it is the other half. It doesn't matter if you 10 tons of tomatoes but no one buys them, so before you even begin make sure you have a market for it. Now getting back to hydro vs soil. Doing hydro indoors I doubt would be profitable bc you have to pay for the electricity, but if you do it outside the sunlight is free and your only cost is the nutrients, and initial set up cost (trays, pumps, reservoirs, "plumbing", ect). the cost of nutrients will be your main cost vs soil, but many farmers use a lot of fertilizers in their soil, so the price bt fertilizers and nutrients may be comparable. I personally grew vegetables, herbs, strawberries, peppers, carrots, ect on a 4X8 table outside with min care and had good results. At the same time I grew a soil garden with the same care and had ok results. Hydro took a little more time bc I was always mixing nutrients, adjusting the ph, cleaning the table/reservoir, but it was manageable, were as with soil I just turned the hose on to the sprinkler. Both soil and hydro will require some type of pesticide, so no cost saving there. All in all I think some of the biggest reasons pl aren't growing hydro commercially is 1) farmers don't know how- why learn a new way when the old tried n true method is still working. 2) hydro is mainly associated with growing weed- thus has a negative connection with it. Most pl just think it is good for illegal activity so they don't learn it. 3) It does take a little more time/effort and is less forgiving than soil, but easier to fix/make corrections too than soil- your always checking ph/tds, drip lines get clogged, keeping the trays/tables clean, ect. The biggest advantage of hydro that I found was speed of growth. Compared to soil my hydro garden blew it away- it was like a donkey racing a sports car. However, when it came time for "fruits" I didn't see much diff. Soil and hydro produce relatively the same amt. Hydro may have done a little better as the plants were much bigger, but to be honest I didn't see the huge difference I was looking for. It could be the min care I gave them or using a "generic"/standard nutrient formula with a target ph of 5.8. I was growing several types of plants on the same table just to see what would work, so maybe if I worked with just 1 plant and tailored the ph/nutrientss for that specific plant rather than a avg/broad approach they may have produced more. As far as taste goes I didn't notice much diff. I will say (maybe it was just in my head) that I thought the hydro tastes juicer, I got compliments on taste from both hydro and soil. Maybe next time I'll do a blind taste test. Anyway if you have the market for it hydro can make money I think, but it will have to be outside with free sunlight, and lots of space- squash & zucchini did amazing before V.S.B. killed them but they did take up a ton of space, strawberries grew great but I couldn't get them to taste good (thinking it had to do with ph or nutrient strength) if you tuned it in right I think strawberries could make money, and of course tomatoes- the problem with them is they grow so big that every storm or hard wind would knock the over and brake branches- I'd recommend setting up a trellis if you do tomatoes. Any way to end this post I absolutely believe hydro is profitable if you know what your doing, do it outside, AND have a market to sell it- plants rot after picking them, so it's not like you can grow them and then sit on them till they sell like you could with the illegal stuff.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2010 at 10:26AM
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Karen Pease

I think the key is finding things that have a high cost per unit calories therein. Namely, because storing energy (starches, fats, etc) takes a lot of energy input (i.e., light; i.e., electricity; i.e., money). This will generally be herbs.

And I think pesto is just the wrong way to go; you'll never undercut bulk outdoor grows. You need to be selling the fresh stuff locally, which is much more expensive per unit basil. If you were able to sell it retail rather than wholesale, you could probably take in $0.50/in^2 of well-lit growing area every couple months -- about a dollar per day per square foot. With 24/7 lighting, 40W/ft^2, and industrial power rates of $0.07/kWh, you'll be paying about $0.067 per square foot per day on lighting power. So it certainly seems to me that the potential for profit is there, even if you have to sell it wholesale.

BUT, you sure as heck better have practice with an identical small scale setup before you invest in something that big! A crop failure could devastate you.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2010 at 1:01PM
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One word: EuroFresh.


I've been studying this for at least a year and it is entirely feasible and can be profitable. Tomatoes are an ideal crop - always a market, no processing other than perhaps a chlorine bath needed, high demand - especially in winter, low labor costs. $100 worth of electricity is enough to raise 18 plants to maturity over a 4-month period. It's easy to sell vine-ripened, real-tasting tomatoes to restaurants for $1.25-$1.50/lb. from late fall to early summer. At 20 pounds of fruit per plant, that's $350-440 profit (less the amortization of the light and cost of nuits) for 18 plants. Not a great amount, granted. But if one grows 180 plants, that's $3,500-$4,400 profit. And one can grow at least two crops per year.


    Bookmark   August 10, 2010 at 5:38PM
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Karen Pease

$1.38 in electricity per plant per month? I don't know, I find that a bit hard to believe. Even at industrial rates of $0.07/kWh, that's 19.8kWh/mo, or 27 watts average per tomato plant. Pretty dim... and 20 pounds per plant, that's no meager harvest you're counting on.

Have you actually tried this?

    Bookmark   August 10, 2010 at 7:58PM
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Trying it now. I have 18 plants under 600 watts. Running the lights for 14 hours a day is 8400 watts per day or 252K watts per month. At 10/kW hour that is $252 per month or $1.40 per plant!
Yes, getting 20 pounds per plant is not a walk in the park, but it's doable.


    Bookmark   August 11, 2010 at 2:16PM
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Tending 180 plants is almost a full time job (if you want 20lbs per plant). If you only spend 20 hours a week on them, then its a decent opportunity (4400/4mo/4wk/mo/20hr/wk=13.75/hr). but if you spend 40 hours per week, you might as well get a better paying job (4400/4mo/4wk/mo/40hr/wk=6.88/hr).

    Bookmark   August 11, 2010 at 2:39PM
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This is another area I've looked at (I'm dead serious about seeing if this is doable!). On average, it takes 300 hours of labor to tend an acre of plants in a field - that's about 5,000 plants. I admit, this figure sounds extremely low but that what the "experts" say and when I looked at the time I spend per plant, it comes out about right.

I admit, it is fun and very necessary to do the research, read what others have accomplished and plan but the bottom line is, if I raise 180 tomato plants can I get 3600 pounds of fruit within 120 days doing so spending no more than $1000 on electricity?


    Bookmark   August 11, 2010 at 6:43PM
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So you're doing this on a small scale right now (18 plants) so you can extrapolate to a larger scale?
sounds like a good idea.
Let me know how your results turn out.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 7:31AM
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Exactly! Just like riding a bicycle. Start with training wheels, take them off, move up to a 26" bike, learn to control it so I can ride without using my hands, advance to riding 50 miles a day.

I'm trying to find which varieties are the most productive yet ones buyers want, learning which nuits and hydro methods work best, studying different types of lights.

By 2012, I should be ready to go big time!


    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 11:28AM
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Karen Pease

600W for 18 plants for 14 hours a day? Sounds pretty meager for an anticipated 20lb harvest. Is there sunlight also?

    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 6:38PM
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