The Farmer Diaries

Texas farmer faces down climate change with water-saving program

Texas farmer faces down climate change with water-saving program

Photo of heirloom tomatoes
A sampling of Costoluto Genovese heirloom tomatoes grown hydroponically in Marshall Hinsley's trials. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Photo of Marshall Hinsley with Dutch bucket
Marshall Hinsley preps a new squash plant to add to a row of Dutch buckets. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
starter plants
Seedlings started in small containers will be transplanted to Dutch buckets for a winter crop indoors. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Photo of Dutch buckets in a row
Drip irrigation tubing feeds water and nutrients to a cucumber plant. The PVC pipe underneath collects the runoff and channels it back to a reservoir in a continuous, closed loop of water recycling. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Photo of heirloom tomatoes
Photo of Marshall Hinsley with Dutch bucket
starter plants
Photo of Dutch buckets in a row

In a new study to be published in next month's issue of the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate, scientists report that our current drought is likely a taste of longer, more arid dry spells to come in Texas.

The lead author in the study is Toby Ault with the department of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Ault says Texas' probability for experiencing a decade-long drought is 50 percent if we look at the most optimistic data, but perhaps more realistically it's 80 to 90 percent. The driving force behind this likelihood of such a persistent drought in the years to come is climate change, says Ault.

"The more warming we see from climate change during this century, the more we expect the risk to increase," Ault says. "And by drought, we don't mean that there will be no rainfall, or a complete lack of water. It means that we'll be looking at water shortages. What that means on the ground, for anyone growing crops, is that farming may become very challenging, and it emphasizes just how precious water will become in the region."

 The hydroponics system only needed about 140 gallons of water per week, and the plants stayed in a state of near perfection,

The study's findings are a little disheartening for me as I hope one day to transition my endeavor to opt out of industrial agriculture into a full-time, sustainable farming career. Already this year, my farming venture has been a huge challenge.

As I review this year's successes and failures at the end of the major growing season, I see that okra grew well, I had plenty of squash and zucchini for my own table, and I never lacked for a variety of fruits and vegetables at dinnertime. Altogether, I never bought anything but avocados and lemons from the grocery store.

But the melon crop that I planned for commercial-scale income was a huge failure, garnering only a few hundred dollars in sales rather than the thousands I had expected. Likewise, pumpkins I planted earlier in the summer so that I'd have something to harvest and sell at the farmers market in October are turning out to be a no-show. 

I blame the lack of rainfall. Tanks of rainwater I collected to keep my crops thriving through the fall ran out by August. It turns out that 20,000 gallons of water isn't all that much, especially when my soil is so parched that cracks open up in the ground — cracks so large that they can swallow a foot up to the ankle. No amount of mulch can stop them.

Adding more storage capacity to the rainwater collection system is becoming cost-prohibitive. Resorting to tap water is also costly, and the water in my area is full of excessive minerals that stress plants. The predictions of worse droughts to come are pushing me to pin my hopes on hydroponics more than ever.

I first experimented with a few hydroponically grown heads of lettuce, tomatoes, basil and cucumbers last winter. So promising were the results that I decided to try a setup outdoors this summer.

My outdoor experiment was composed of 20 containers known as Dutch buckets, filled with coconut coir and coarse perlite. Each $5 bucket holds about eight quarts of growing medium and drains at the bottom through a half-inch hole.

 The water efficiency of my hydroponics system gives me hope that I may indeed face whatever drought this changing climate may produce.

Following the standard practice for Dutch buckets, I set the buckets in a row along a PVC pipe, situated so that each bucket's drain hole was over a hole drilled into the pipe, which allows for excess water and nutrients to be collected and returned back to a reservoir tank via the pipe. 

The reservoir I used was a 20-gallon preformed koi pool I purchased at the store, set at the end of the row and placed below ground level so the pipe from the row of buckets could drain into it.

I placed an immersible pump into the reservoir, attached it to drip irrigation tubing and routed the tubing to feed each bucket in the row. I then filled the pool with rainwater and fortified with plant nutrients. The water full of nutrients drips into each bucket via the drip irrigation tubing and drains out the bottom and into the pipe, where it is then channeled back to the reservoir for a continuous flow to and from the buckets.

I planted a variety of test plants in the Dutch buckets: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squash and melons. Then I neglected the system miserably and failed to follow the mandatory practices I've read regarding hydroponics.

I never checked the nutrient ratio with a special meter, because I lost mine. I exposed the reservoir to sunlight and let algae flourish, which was wrong. I never flushed the system like I was supposed to. I only filled the reservoir each day and added nutrients, guessing how much I needed to add. 

Despite my lack of experience and outright abuse of the system, the results were impressive as I watched my plants thrive, bloom and set fruit. My first melons, squash and cucumbers came from the Dutch buckets, not my soil-based plants. They were delicious. I had more eggplants from two plants than I needed.

I've never been able to grow the plump but fragile varieties of heirloom tomatoes before I grew them hydroponically, but the Costoluto Genovese tomatoes from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds were robust and plentiful.

In years past, sweet peppers from my raised beds tasted horrible. They looked nice, but the flesh was thin, and their flavor would put me off food for a while. Hydroponics cured this, producing fruit fit for the market.

The harvest from my neglected hydroponics system was reason enough to persuade me to move from soil-based farming to hydroponic farming, but the water efficiency of my system is the result that gives me hope that I may indeed face whatever drought this changing climate may produce.

The 20 Dutch buckets accommodated the crops that would have otherwise been planted in 10 raised beds. Altogether, the beds would have needed at least 300 gallons of water per week during the worst of the summer heat. The hydroponics system only needed about 140 gallons per week, and the plants stayed in a state of near perfection, never as much as wilting on a 100-degree day.

So for my crops, water usage was cut in half in the hydroponics system, yet the harvest was several times greater than what the soil-based counterparts produced.

Despite living in a state with a high probability of drought becoming the new normal, I have found hope for farming and gardening in face of looming water shortages and restrictions. I won't abandon my raised bed garden, but I will rely more on hydroponic crop production, especially for anything I intend to grow in quantities large enough to take to the market.