Hydroponics and the Future of Farming: An Advanced English Conversation

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Hydroponics is a soil-free agricultural method that uses water and precise nutrition control to grow crops. In this advanced English conversation, we discuss the future of farming and the potential of vertical hydroponics to revolutionize the food supply chain by reducing spoilage and streamlining distribution.

Hello, Advanced English learners. Welcome back to another English conversation. I'm joined by the one and only Greg. 

Hello? Hello.

Welcome, Greg. Welcome to all of you as well. So we do these to help you with your listening comprehension to help you with your conversation skills, your communication skills more broadly.

And I really encourage you to check out the free worksheet that goes along with this so that you can really get the most out of these conversations. You can find them on the newsletter through the website. Okay. So today's topic is all about hydroponics and we'll get into a little bit of the future of farming. 

Cool. Yeah, this is a really cool topic. All right, let's get into it.

Okay. So Greg, I'm gonna have you define hydroponics. 

Okay, so hydroponics hydro typically refers to water, right? Something to do with water. So hydroponics has to do with irrigation, right? And it's a type of agricultural method that allows you to raise crops to grow crops using water, basically without soil.

Now of course, we all know that plants need water. If you have a house plant, you have to water it every day or so. What most people don't realize is that you can actually grow these plants without soil either as long as they have the nutrition, sufficient nutrition in the water, right?

And so what hydroponics allow you to do is to actually grow these plants without soil. And why is that useful? It saves a ton of space and it saves a lot of effort in terms of managing the soil. You don't need these huge fields. Suddenly you can grow crops in a building, in a small space using UV lamps.

And so you can get much more yield per square foot, and you can also manage the quality of the nutrition much more precisely. 

That's just so incredible. So it's this idea of vertical farming where, like Greg said, you can grow these crops essentially in a building. So imagine being in New York City and there's a building that is dedicated to vertical farming. I just find that such a cool, futuristic concept.

Totally. One of the biggest challenges in our food supply chain a supply chain, is you think about it literally like a chain of supplying things, moving things from A to B to C, moving things from the field to the distribution center, to the grocery store, to the end consumer's house. That's the supply chain. All those different parts of getting supplies. Oh, and even before the field, you need the fertilizer coming from somewhere else. You need the seeds coming from somewhere else. The supply chain is actually quite long and complicated.

One of the biggest challenges with produce, with agriculture is that the food is perishable, right? It has a shelf life, a short shelf life. And the shorter the shelf life of an item, the more expensive it typically is because it means you have less time to get it from where it started to where it needs to go.

 And so the less time you can store it, the more expensive it is to transport. You might need refrigerated trucks. You might only be able to keep it on your shelf for a few days, which means you can only stock a smaller amount of it. So you need to get in smaller increments. So for all these reasons, produce can end up being quite expensive unless you can grow that produce much closer to where it's being delivered.


And that's where vertical farming becomes so powerful, because think about cities, right? Cities have so many people, they're so dense. 


And in order to supply all those people with enough agriculture, and with enough produce, it takes tons of trucks, which creates lots of pollution and lots of costs.

You have to pay the truck drivers, you have to pay for the trucks themselves. You have to pay getting anything on the trucks, right? There's a lot of pieces involved. If you could instead just have the, plants growing in the building that is sitting right on top of the grocery store, all you have to do is take those, heads of lettuce or those cucumbers, down the elevator and stock it on the shelf. How cool is that? 

So cool. I also, I've had, we've had lettuce butter lettuce that was grown hydroponically and it was so good. Do you remember? 



It's fresh. And one of the coolest things about it is you're growing it in a very controlled environment, which means you don't have pests and you don't have fungus 

And you don't have the need for pesticides. 


Yeah. So they're organic by nature. 

Exactly. They're organic. Because there are no pests to cause trouble. And not only are they organic, but there's no sort of insects eating the leaves either.

Part of the problem with organic food often is you get much lower yields because the insects eat half of the plant. With hydroponics specifically you can grow these things organically without the pests, so you get higher yields without the pesticides, which is a really cool combination.

So what are some of the things that you can grow using hydroponics and vertical farming? 

Most produce. I'm not an expert in this. So I'm sure there are certain types of produce that grow better than others. My guess is you look at what you see on the shelves. 


You see typically tomatoes, lettuce, greens. My guess is they prioritize the most perishable foods. Which would certainly be the leafy greens, spinach. Bok choy, because those can perish so quickly. And I think their sort of the, their root systems are more simple. Where I don't think you can necessarily get at least to my knowledge, is things like potatoes, right?

Any kind of tuber that is meant to live in the soil and grows in the soil. 

So like carrots.

Maybe carrots. I'm not sure that you can do those hydroponically. But I could be wrong. This is not my expertise. Maybe someone in the audience knows more about this.

But regardless of the actual sort of technicalities of how it's done, it can be done. And because of that, it unlocks huge efficiencies in the production of produce. Those efficiencies ultimately translate into lower prices for us? 

Yes. We were on a farm a couple years ago and there was this system where they had body of water with fish in it.

Do you remember what I'm talking about? 

Yes. You certainly had fish farms. Is that what you're referring to? 

There was, just a pond of fish. It wasn't a pond. There were like bricks around it. And then there was some like water contraption moving. I don't really remember what it was. 

Okay. So that could just be a fish farm? Or what it could be is, oh, I know what you're referring to. 


Yeah. So that's something that's called aquaponics. 

Okay. Aquaponics. So let's maybe differentiate between the two. 

Yes. So aquaponics is equally cool in my mind.

Also has the word water in right. Aqua hydra. These are both water. 

It's funny this is not my area of expertise, but I think of hydro as moving water. Whereas aqua just is water itself. 

Interesting. Yeah.

Think of a hydro dam, hydropower, it has to do with water being forced through a turbine.

Aquaponics is regardless of the semantics, aquaponics has to do with a sustainable agricultural cycle in a small, compact environment. 


And so what that means is a typical aquaponic configuration is as such: you have a patch of soil with plants in it. You water the plants the water goes through the soil, picks up nutrition. And that water then goes into it gets filters, right? And it goes into a tank with fish. And the fish obviously you have to feed the fish , but provided that you feed the fish, they, poop in the water and create more nutrition for the water. And that water, this nutritious water, then gets cycled up and that fertilizes the soil, and so the soil then purifies the water and gives clean water to the fish. And then the fish again pooping it and fertilized that water, which fertilizes the soil. So each part of that process helps the other part, right? 


The fish get clean water. The plants get fertilized water, fertilized soil.

And so you can, in that soil, you're growing your lettuce and your, other crops and maybe some of that you can actually feed to the fish. 


Some of the stuff that you're growing. And then the fish provide the fertilizer to grow more of it. And then of course, you can eat the fish as well.

So these really cool closed loop systems, almost closed loop. Because again, you do need to feed the fish. 


And if you can't feed it from the produce, cause I think fish are really, they're more carnivorous . I think you need to feed 'em like insects. 


Plankton. Maybe. You know, 

Plankton's algae, right?

Not plankton. Yeah. Whales eat plankton. 

Yeah. What am I thinking of? 

Fish do eat algae. 


But they love to eat insects. I think you can, look, fish food is typically. Plant-based. 


So maybe you could feed your, plant, your fish with this, but anyways, 

you could also feed them small fish. 

You could definitely feed them small fish.


But again, if you want this closed loop system where it produces all the inputs and outputs for itself. I think you would have to be able to grow some type of crop that you could also feed to the fish, which would be really cool. 

So interesting. Yeah. 

But the idea is this is closed loop system and so it's self-sustaining. And you can put this in your house, and so you can have the fish and have the produce and basically never need to go to the grocery store if all you eat is fish and whatever you grow in that little patch of soil. 

Yeah. So it's pretty sustainable. 

Especially for pescatarians who are predominantly fish eaters. We go through periods where we're pretty pescatarian. 

Yeah. Fish is a very healthy protein. 

Yeah, it is. 

And what's cool about these really is that you can fit them in a small space. 


Like you can fit them in a small study. 

You can fit them in a New York City apartment. 

Yeah, exactly. That might be going too far, but I bet someone's tried it. And it's great for people who are prepping for doomsday scenarios where 

Oh yeah. 

the grocery stores run out of produce, which, during the pandemic frankly did happen. You have this self-sustaining system that you can live off of for an indefinite amount of time. 

So that you're agnostic to the supply chain disruptions. 


Which we are getting some here and there. Even post pandemic life, like there are times where you wanna check out and something's not available or 

Oh, yeah. Way more shortages nowadays than we used to have.

Yeah. So let's see. I'm really optimistic about vertical farming. I think that it's going to be something that, it's very futuristic and I think it's good for the environment. It's good for our bodies because again, it's more of the nutritious, more wholesome without the pesticides and without the exorbitant prices of organic. Because organic tends to be more expensive, at least in the US and I would probably even surmise that in most of the world it's more expensive. 

I would say it's more expensive elsewhere. The US organic supply chain has become so robust that the prices actually have come down. But with the vertical farming, it may be possible that food produce at the very least, becomes close to free.

Wouldn't that be so great? If you think about, households that are not buying as much produce as fresh produce as they could or should be because of the economics. Like it doesn't make sense for them. So they're resorting to more like fastfood, this would be such a game changer for those specific scenarios because, suddenly a Big Mac is way more expensive than a head of lettuce.


Now granted you're gonna need more than just a head of lettuce to keep you satiated, but you get what I'm going with this. 

Totally. Suddenly, it becomes much more reasonable and attractive to integrate some of these healthy crops into your diet because they cost a lot less now. 

Yeah. And they're also just so great. And then that'll stave off disease and so forth and so on. 


With healthier diets. 

So really cool. I'm excited to maybe even continue this conversation depending on what you think out there, our lovely listeners and viewers in the Advanced English community, so let us know.

Are you gungho as we are about hydroponics and we're over gungho about a lot of things. Yeah. 

Basically we're gung ho about anything technological . Yeah. 

It's so true.


I'm sure people in the audience are, calling us out on that. 

But I think we also do a good job of covering the drawbacks and the potential risks.

For sure. For sure. Of course, with anything there is always, pros and cons. 

Yeah. And we should caveat , this vertical farming concept. 


By saying that it still hasn't really manifested yet, it's still a challenge to make sure that the inputs, which means like the energy, remember, you need UV lights to power these things, you wanna make sure that the energy going in doesn't exceed what it would in a traditional agricultural setting. So right now it's still quite expensive to produce some of this because we haven't figured out the most efficient way to do it in terms of the lighting and the fertilization and so forth.

And also just setting up the real estate. Real estate in cities is very, compared to farmland, which is much cheaper. So there's still some work to be done in terms of making it as cost effective as we're imagining, but because it's leveraging technology to improve-- technology tends to improve at an exponential rate-- and so what was very expensive today becomes much less expensive over a couple years and becomes basically free over the course a decade. 

Whic is incredible. We're really lucky to be living in this time where we can actually experience that, which is super, super cool. So all cool things.

Thanks to keep in mind. Hopefully the future's bright and we'll keep doing lessons like these cuz we know that you also really enjoy the ones on technology as we do. 

 I'd say the future is as bright as we choose to make it. 

That's a good point, it's up to us. So let's go and create bright futures.


All right. Thank you so much for joining us. We're gonna see you in the next conversation and I'll see you for another lesson very soon. Bye. for now.