The Rutgers EcoComplex and The School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Department of Plant Biology and Pathology are pleased to introduce Rutgers student Adam Butrico as the 2017 Entrepreneurial Agriculture Intern. Adam works under the direction and guidance of Entrepreneurial Ag Program Director Dr. Albert Ayeni and EcoComplex Director, Dr. Serpil Guran, and Assistant Director David Specca. Adam’s ten-week project has focused on amaranth, a leafy green similar to spinach in both composition and appearance. His goals are to produce marketable Amaranth, research biodegradable packaging options, and compare the cost effectiveness between indoor hydroponic and field produced amaranth.
The state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse located at the EcoComplex will serve as the location for cultivating approximately 300 marketable bunches of amaranth utilizing ebb and flood hydroponics. This style of hydroponics entails tanks, pumps, and benches. Every few hours, the programmed pumps will transfer nutrient rich water from the 350-gallon holding tank to the benches and for an average of 30 minutes; the crop roots will have access to the necessary nutrients and water. This water will then drain back into the tank for use on the next cycle.
Amaranth is a plant of many different applications and backgrounds. Used in cuisines as diverse as Indian, African, Latin American, Caribbean and even dishes dating as far back to the ancient Aztecs! It’s not surprising that a plant that has been cultivated for such a long time has a list of benefits almost as long. Consuming amaranth leaves has been associated with a host of nutritional benefits including; reducing bad cholesterol, improving digestion, blood pressure and eyesight as well as promoting energy within the body due to its high levels of carbohydrates, protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins K, A, C and B6. In addition to these ancillary benefits, the presence of lysine (an essential amino acid) and high levels of iron, magnesium and potassium help your body fight the formation of malignant cells that lead to cancer. With such an impressive list of benefits, it’s no wonder that, in addition to being used as a food crop, amaranth has historically been used in many herbal remedies and medications in both African and Chinese cultures.
The two varieties that are being grown are the Caribbean, which is known for its striking red and purple (and occasionally green!) colors as well as its beautiful and large broad-head arrow shaped leaves. It is also the taller of the two varieties, after 5 weeks of growth; some were measured at 41" tall (104 cm) or over a meter tall! The other type hails from Africa; which is slightly shorter and produces a much higher yield of leaves than the Caribbean type. The leaves are long, narrow, and spear shaped, they have a milder taste than the Caribbean crop as well. They also tend to flower much faster, with some plants budding at as early as 4 weeks, whereas the Caribbean was never observed to bud in its six week growing period.
Indoor hydroponic systems are extremely efficient due to their high output to space ratio as well as their ability to produce year round produce with artificial lighting. Increased popularity in hydroponics has led to many cost effective systems available for sale online. These include the previously discussed ebb and flood, deep-water culture (DWC) and drip systems.
All forms of hydroponics do away with soil as a growth medium and instead utilize a water and nutrient solution in which crop roots can draw from directly. Initially, seeds are placed and germinated within small blocks of porous rockwool or oasis material. To ensure optimum germination of the seeds and that all seeds begin their life cycles at similar times, a high humidity environment is often created using a small humidity tent or dome. The fragile block of rockwool serves as a foundation for the young roots since they can easily make their way through the material. Half strength nutrient solution is fed to the young plant for a short time to avoid shocking or burning the new roots, stems, and leaves. Once the seedling has reached an appropriate age with a decent root structure, the block can now be placed into a hydroponic system with normal strength nutrients.
There are a few challenges when it comes to hydroponics. Luckily many of these can be minimized with a diligent eye. A major issue is loss of electricity to the system. A tripped breaker can spell ruin to a hydroponic system if it is left unchecked. If power loss occurs in drip or ebb- and-flow systems, the roots will quickly dry out leading to extreme wilting and stunted growth. Power loss to the air stone in DWC systems will choke roots and cause serious root rot. Pests can also be a challenge to control if the issue is dismissed. Decaying matter such as old leaves and rotten roots can attract a wide variety of insects including the fungus gnat. Therefore it is extremely important to keep the system clean at all times to minimize pests. Lastly, algae growth can imped crop growth through root coverage and competition of resources. This is why it’s important to cover and block light from reaching the holding tanks or any area of the system where there is standing water between pump cycles.
Despite the associated challenges, a hydroponically grown plant is able to absorb nutrients and water very efficiently and at a faster rate due direct contact with nutrients and water. In fact, hydroponically grow crops show 20-30% faster vegetative growth rate while requiring half to a third of the space of soil grown crops. Additionally, hydroponics allows crops to reach their full potential and consistently higher yield. Another major plus is the conservation of water within the system. Many hydroponic growing systems are designed as a closed loop when it comes to the nutrient water solution. The unused water drains back into the holding tank to be used for another pump cycle.