Commercial Hydroponics vs. Backyard and Hobby System

When you search online for information about hydroponics, you’ll find both commercial and hobby resources often mixed together. It’s not always clear exactly how hydroponics systems vary between small and large scale designs if you’re unfamiliar with these techniques altogether. Small scale hydroponics are much easier than commercial units, especially if you don’t have high expectations for your yields. Just because it’s possible to grow a few heads of lettuce or some cherry tomatoes in a system doesn’t mean it can be scaled into a profitable business. Before you assume your backyard success means you should start a new business, consider these important differences between commercial and backyard hydroponics.

Size and Scale

Of course, the biggest difference between the two types of hydroponics is the size and scale. A backyard unit might produce only a few snacks each year or a family’s entire vegetable consumption, which is still a limited amount. In contrast, profitable hydroponic businesses usually need to sell tens of thousands of heads of lettuce or bundles of herbs to stay afloat. Even if you’re in an area where organic or specialty crops demand a high price, don’t underestimate the sheer volume you’ll need to make money. Large hydroponic systems require plenty of work. You don’t want to end up with a full-time second job that barely covers its own costs by trying to build a business too small to profit.

Cost

With some creativity and patient searching, you can often replace most of the equipment needed for hobby hydroponics with salvaged materials. IBC totes in particular are very popular as growing and reservoir tanks since they’re usually food safe. Don’t expect to use these kinds of swaps on any scale for commercial growing. Not only does this repurposing add too much extra labor to setup and installation, it’s also not allowed for commercial food production in most states. You’ll need new materials with proper NSF certification instead. Make sure you can afford the cost of new plumbing, pumps, and liners when drawing up a business plan for a commercial hydroponics project.

Energy Efficiency

You’ll need to know exactly how much energy you’re spending on water and air pumps, water quality sensors, timers, lights, and other parts before going commercial. Energy costs can make or break any agricultural business, but hydroponics feature particularly tight margins. If the system or design you choose isn’t energy efficient, you won’t be able to expand it into a proper commercial program. Don’t settle for quotes from marketing teams trying to sell kits. Work out the energy usage per day and month yourself based on the various components. Energy costs also vary greatly even from county to county. Check the costs of any locations you’re considering for the business since the exact rate per kilowatt/hour will greatly affect your chances of success.

Marketing and Management

Being good at growing crops in a water-based system isn’t the only skill you need to succeed. For backyard and hobby growing, you’re free to just focus on maintaining a thriving crop. When you add in the need to cover your costs and make a profit, you’ll need marketing and team management skills as well. Business training is valuable in addition to any hydroponic specific classes you take. If you want to focus just on producing the crops and don’t want to run the rest of the business, consider hiring a skilled manager and marketing team to take on these challenges. You may also be able to find a business partner who doesn’t have the agricultural experience you bring to the table to create a balanced team.

Passive Options

Passive hydroponics may sound like the perfect way to make commercial systems less expensive and easier to run. However, passive wicks or gravity drips aren’t reliable enough for profitable growth. Small mistakes in water supply or nutrient mix can result in total losses that the business can’t withstand. Wicks are fine for hobby growers that don’t mind losing some plants here and there, but you’ll need electricity and pumps for any realistic commercial project. There are plenty of ways to add more passive action to a professional system. Cutting down on some electrical use is worth making some minor changes since energy spending often accounts for the majority of operating costs.

Expanding from Hobby to Commercial

If you’re doing well with a backyard barrel or tote system, you’re likely interested in seeing how much you can produce with some simple expansions. Don’t expect to grow more than enough to share with the neighbors when working out of your backyard. Invest in a rental space for setting up an efficient indoor or outdoor system away from the home. You’ll get the power and water connections you need without the risk of violating your home insurance policy. Look for small farmer and agricultural incubators in the area for low cost rental space to get your business off the ground.

Making a business plan may be boring and time consuming, but it’s the only way to know if your interest in hydroponics should trigger a career change. It’s smart to experiment with various techniques in your own backyard first to see how various failures are avoided before you invest a lot of money. You’ll also get a feel for which system will work best for you. If you’re looking for more tips on going commercial with your hydroponics program, you can always share your questions with the team here at BTL Liners.


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