Hydroponics is an expensive, but intensive and highly controlled way of growing crops. It allows more produce to be grown per acre per year; and can make farms viable on much smaller properties.
Scope of Work
Hydroponics involves growing crops not in soil, but in sterile media like gravel or perlite – or by growing plants with their roots supported in PVC channels. Nutrients normally found in soil must be provided to the plants and this is done by diluting them in water. It is a sophisticated way of growing crops because things like the amount and type of nutrients fed to the plants, the pH of the nutrient solution and growing media, light and temperature have to be carefully monitored and adjusted where necessary.
Routine manual work such as planting, harvesting, pruning and cleaning may be undertaken by farm assistants; but the owner or manager of a hydroponic installation needs to know and apply a certain level of higher expertise to monitor and maintain such things as nutrient solutions, plant growth and health, equipment, and post-harvest handling.
Most hydroponic installations are in greenhouses, so work can involve routine greenhouse operations such as monitoring and if needed adjusting temperature, air quality, humidity, light and other growing conditions. In larger farms inspection and harvesting may be undertaken using cherry pickers or by standing on similar automated machinery because crops may be grown on trellis or other frameworks many metres high.
What You Need to Learn
Hydroponic systems - Knowledge of hydroponic systems, design and maintenance, growing media, monitoring equipment
Plant nutrition - Nutritional science, solutions, identifying deficiencies
Crop knowledge - Knowledge of different types of hydroponic crops, their names, and uses
Harvest & post-harvest - Knowledge of harvesting methods & equipment, processing (if relevant e.g. canning tomatoes), storage
Cultural techniques - Pruning plants, feeding, watering frequency and duration, planting, transplanting, supporting plants (e.g. using trellis).
Research skills - Many fail due to inadequate research. Proper research skills make a difference.
Health management - Plant pests, diseases and environmental disorders
Environmental control - Ventilation, irrigation & misting, heating & cooling, lighting, carbon dioxide injection
Sales skills - How to interact with customers, sell produce, earn repeat business, network with suppliers, marketing, advertising
Health & safety - Assessment of risks & hazards, use of personal protective equipment, fire alarms & drills, location of first aid kits, basic first aid procedures
Starting a Career
Hydroponics is a specialised type of growing plants. To succeed, it is essential to gain experience in this area and develop strong networks.
Entry pathways include:
Taking a beginner's hydroponics course
Working in a nursery
Looking for a hydroponics shop or local farm
Joining clubs and associations
It is quite possible to gain an entry level job in a farm working as a general assistant. You can then learn the more technical aspects of hydroponic growing form other staff and build knowledge. You can also start by working in a related area to learn key skills. Such areas include:
Cut flower growing
Open field crops
General gardening/garden maintenance
Much of what you will learn about how plants grow and how to cultivate them will be transferable to hydroponics. You may then be able to seek role in hydroponic farms and add the hydroponics knowledge and skills once you have secured a position.
Progressing a Career
In order to progress a career in hydroponics, it is important to build sound technical knowledge and to keep informed of any changes in the industry. Being such a sophisticated industry, there are always advancements and new innovations which can influence how crops are grown to enhance quality and quantity. There are also many different types of hydroponics systems, some of which suit particular crops better than others. So, to make yourself more flexible within the industry building knowledge and awareness of alternative systems is very helpful.
For those who are prepared to continually strive to update their knowledge there are great opportunities for advancement. There can be quite clear career paths in larger enterprises working form technical assistant type positions into chief technical officer or managerial roles. Given that there is much to know, you can acquit yourself favourably by going to workshops and seminars whenever they present themselves.
Another way to advance is through further study. Any courses taken should be ones which help to reinforce what you learn rather than quick fix courses. They can be evening courses or courses provided by distance education, so long as the course providers have suitably qualified tutors who can provide adequate feedback.