Superhero farming: The science of aeroponics

Being an Iowa farmer generally means growing a row crop. After all, the vast majority of farmers in our state produce corn and soybeans. But while our grain-growing skills may be the thing Iowa is best known for (and Iowans are most proud of), our farmers conceal additional talents—a hidden power of sorts. Much like a superhero whose power comes from a secret inner strength, today’s farmers wield the power of science.

Whether you consider a farmer a superhero or not is irrelevant. The fact is, modern technology and science give farmers the opportunity to produce much more than corn and soybeans. Since being a farmer means being a producer of food, why not take advantage of this new technology and diversify what you grow? This line of thinking is exactly what drove Scott Henry of Longview Farms in Nevada to make some big changes this growing season.

This spring, Scott and his family began growing plants indoors using high-pressure aeroponics. In partnership with Nebullam, a business based at Iowa State University’s Startup Factory, the Henrys are taking part in research and trials to test their business model of growing sustainable, hyperlocal food using this state-of-the-art system.

Aeroponics is the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil. Though it may sound like a new process, aeroponics has been around since the 1940s. “We want to be diversified and grow different foods all within the same space,” said Scott. “Aeroponics is the art of indoor farming, and it allows us to produce safe, local foods.”

The Henrys were attracted to aeroponics because it uses 95 percent less water and no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. It also requires 50 percent less fertilizer than traditional methods. Possibly the most significant feature, though, is that aeroponics allows for three times the number of harvest cycles. “We’ve managed nitrogen differently on our farm over the years,” said Scott. “These plants are truly fed only when they need it!”

So far, the Henrys have found that a custom-built, 4’ x 4’ unit with 100 grow slots is the most effective growth environment. The plants receive a burst of water every three minutes and every ten minutes data is pulled into a software program; the whole system runs with little to no human interaction. “We promote machine learning,” said Nebullam Co-Founder and CTO Danen Pool. “Our advantage is the fully automated software that stands behind the systems; we even offer an app for monitoring.”

The next phase for the Henrys is to experiment with a drawer method to produce leafy greens. “Long term, our goal is to have a separate business unit after we suc­cessfully prove aeroponics can be done on a large scale,” said Scott. “Someday, we hope to produce enough food to sell directly to distributors.”

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