Researchers focus on high tunnels, hydroponics
A multi-disciplinary team of researchers led by CABNR's Prof. Stanley Omaye is hoping a new study will show that hydroponics and low-cost high tunnels can produce a sustainable supply of highly nutritious fruits and vegetables for Nevada's communities.
The study by Omaye, Prof. Robert Nowak, a plant physiologist and ecologist, Associate Prof. Mark Walker, a water quality expert, and Cooperative Extension's Statewide Horticulture Specialist Heidi Kratsch will also try to determine if the nutrient and bioactive compounds of hydroponically grown fruits and vegetables is as high as everyone thinks it is.
The project is a joint venture with nonprofit firms, schools, food services and several northern Nevada restaurants, Omaye said.
Because of the state's relatively short growing season, limited water and precipitation, and unpredictable weather, most farmers in northern Nevada grow forage crops or livestock, which are less susceptible to damage from frost. This has resulted in the state importing most of its produce from neighboring states with milder climates, meaning money is leaving the state and that many communities are considered "food deserts," where the supply of fresh, affordable produce is lacking.
Despite the lack of water and abundance of killing frosts, Nevada nevertheless has abundant sunshine; an estimated 90 percent of the days each year are cloudless. This provides plenty of energy for plant growth.
"High tunnels, green houses - these things take advantage of all that sunshine and reduce the risk of plant losses due to damaging frosts," Omaye said. "We want to improve fruit and vegetable production in northern Nevada through research, education and outreach utilizing high tunnels, greenhouses and hydroponics." Hydroponics is a way of growing plants in nutrient solutions - water and fertilizer - rather than soil or some other solid medium.
Hydroponic systems are set up in greenhouses or other enclosures that help maintain the right temperature, reduce diseases or pests, and minimize evaporation of water. Hydroponic crops typically have higher yields, better quality and fewer problems than traditional in-ground crops, but the cost of getting them started and keeping them running is higher.
Hydroponics is still fairly new in the United States. There are an estimated 50,000 acres of hydroponic cultivation throughout the world, but only 3 percent - about 1,200 acres - are in production in the U.S.
While growing plants in water and fertilizer sounds a little like science fiction, the food grown that way tastes good. In one 2011 study, a group of volunteers comparing the taste and texture of lettuce grown hydroponically to lettuce grown in the ground and purchased in the store liked the science fiction lettuce as much or more than the other products.
In addition, hydroponic cultivation will allow the researchers to determine if they can increase the nutritional value of their hothouse-grown hydroponic vegetables when compared to the same plants grown in soil. Studies have shown, for instance, that growing stresses can be manipulated to increase the levels of anthocyanin in tomatoes. Vitamin C, carotenoids, flavonoids and phenols can also be affected the intensity of the light.
Extension Horticulture Specialist Heidi Kratsch.
Increasingly, consumers are interested in purchasing food that is locally grown and of high nutritional value. A key part of this research will be to determine if hydroponically grown foods do indeed have higher nutritional value than traditionally cultivated products.
Kratsch said the research is very practical.
"We'll be looking at and comparing the same species and crops that have been grown hydroponically and in the ground at the same location," she said. "We'll collect samples, taste-test the products, and test for different nutrients, including phytochemicals that are cancer-inhibitive. Flavor and nutrition equal quality, and we'll be able to determine which one - the in-ground or hydroponic plant - produces the highest quality with lowest fiscal inputs."
Although high tunnels have become increasingly popular in northern Nevada in recent years, Kratsch noted that no one has really studied the best way to use them in a high desert setting. She also noted that high tunnels themselves often have "microclimates" - such as areas of lower temperature or consistent pockets of warmth - and that the group will also be studying those effects. "If you want to grow tomatoes, for example, where in the high tunnel is the best place to put them?" she said. "Should the greens go along the outside where it's cooler?"
Omaye said the five-year project will be set up in a couple of high tunnels at the Valley Road Field Lab. Researchers will use a variety of hydroponic systems, from a continuous flow system to a homemade set-up made from old plastic fence posts. The group is developing its own fertilizer concoction for the system. The in-ground plants will go into a series of raised beds also located in the high tunnels. The first round of crops will include lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries.
Along the way, a vital conversation will be ongoing with those already doing hydroponics or high tunnel cultivation, including students at Reno High and Wooster High. The researchers have also had discussions with the university's food services managers about utilizing the produce grown in the high tunnels, and they will work with UNR facilities on setting up alternative energy sources for the high tunnels, waste management, composting and recycling. What Omaye hopes will emerge is a comprehensive list of best management practices that everyone who uses high tunnels and hydroponics can benefit from.