You can lead corn to water…

My popcorn crop is in — picked, shucked and drying — all five tiny ears of it. The mouthful of peas I harvested has already been plucked, eaten — and enjoyed. This draws to a close my first foray into hydroponic gardening.

And while it was an interesting experiment, a look at the numbers raises some fundamental questions about the practicality of this form of agriculture, at least on a small scale.

In terms of operating costs, the light and pump used a few cents less than $100 worth of electricity between Dec. 14 and April 16. Ninety-five percent of that juice powered the light. Feeding the plants consumed a little more than $50 worth of liquid fertilizer.

An accurate accounting must also factor in capital costs, and although this equipment was on loan, it was worth about $660. Amortized over the six-year warranty period (for want of a better measure), that comes to $110 per year, or about $37 for the 124 days I used it.

So what you see pictured above is about $187 worth of corn and peas (assuming, of course, that the labor was free — a threadbare premise, given that there’s always a profitable alternative way to spend one’s time, whether the payment comes in dollars or in joie de vivre).

Other factors are less quantifiable. The noise of the pump unit and the unrelenting glare ranged from mildly annoying to grindingly invasive, depending on my mood and whatever other activities I was trying to pursue in the living room of my third-floor condo. (For someone with a heated garage, on the other hand, that needn’t be a problem.) Changing the nutrient solution every few weeks proved to be a tedious if necessary chore — I was happy to do it as part of the experiment, but it was nowhere near as satsifying as putzing with my many houseplants. It had an industrial feel.

In the end, however, what troubled me the most was the persistent feeling that there was something fundamentally wrong with leaving a 400-watt light on for 12 hours a day. Having lived in a solar-powered, off-the-grid home for two decades, I may be more sensitive than most to the implications of using electricity produced by a coal-powered generating plant. But each time I left the room, I would reach for the switch, only to remember that the light was on a timer. And to this committed environmentalist, it felt uncomfortable. To be brought up short at the switch every day, remembering that I was adding to Asheville’s already-foul air to keep a sodium bulb burning in pursuit of what amounted to a First World hobby, is how it seemed to me.

In fairness, however, it should be noted that at least a few crops (such as tomatoes and lettuce) are successfully grown commercially this way in the United States, though primarily in greenhouses (which eliminates the need for artificial light). It’s also true that this was a beginner’s first attempt, and corn and peas may not have been the best candidate crops.

But for me, the cost and effort involved far exceeded any discernible benefits — and that’s without even considering the aggravation.

Then again, if you’re intrigued by the notion of removing soil from the horticultural equation, or if the crop you’re thinking of growing is worth more to you than popcorn, in terms of either satisfaction (lilies?) or dollars (hmmm?), then by all means give it a go.


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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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