5@5 - Matt Liotta
January 24th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Gardening: 'tis not an activity for the freshly manicured nor those who prefer to remain smudge-free. It's dirty work, you dig?

But, what if you could take the soil out of the gardening? In the case of hydroponics, you can do just that. You don't have to worry about getting your hands dirty because there is no dirt; mineral-rich water supplies all the essential nutrients that the plant would have typically absorbed from the soil.

From rooftops to parking lots, hydroponic systems are taking root - particularly in urban areas strapped for green pastures. "It's the farming of the future," according to PodPonics founder and CEO Matt Liotta, whose hydroponic growing systems utilize used shipping containers to grow produce.

Five Reasons to Eat Hydroponic Produce: Matt Liotta

1. Available year-round, always fresh
"Our lettuce is grown in used shipping containers that we have re-purposed as 'pods' for hydroponic growing. With our crops protected from seasonal and inclement weather conditions, we are able to continuously plant and supply new product.

For example, PodPonics was the only lettuce available at Atlanta retail partners such as Savi Urban Market, Candler Park Market and Market Across the Street during last week’s winter weather. We had fresh produce harvested and ready to deliver the short distance from our pods’ in-town location."

2. Reduces energy waste in production
"Each pod contains an innovative, computer-controlled environmental system I created to regulate the pod’s temperature, humidity, pH and nutrient levels and CO2 throughout a crop’s life cycle, in addition to a patent-pending lighting system designed to emit precise light spectrums at controlled intensities, durations and times of day to maximize efficiency. By only using the amounts of water, nutrients and light that a crop needs, we are able to reduce energy consumption, and decrease expenses on a large scale."

3. Minimal environmental impact
"Most of the produce we buy in supermarkets - particularly during down seasons - are shipped at a high cost to our environment. By the time they reach us, they’ve traveled thousands of miles and have been washed with chemicals. Our products are delivered in-town, reducing the carbon footprint left by long-distance deliveries.

In addition, we use recyclable containers for our pods that can be stacked for urban use - making empty parking lots into progressive farms. This reduces land use and allows us to produce pretty much anywhere, including idle land in urban areas. Our closed-cycle irrigation system requires far less water than traditional agriculture and results in no fertilizer runoff, which contaminates groundwater and harms aquatic life.

Finally, our integrated pest control approach uses no pesticides, resulting not only in pesticide-free, clean produce but also eliminated runoff of harmful pesticides into groundwater and streams."

4. Sold and served within hours of picking
"Everyone knows that local, fresh produce is the best option in terms of flavor and nutritional value. Our lettuce is harvested several times a week and delivered straight to our restaurant and retail clients within hours of harvest. Not only is our produce available within hours of harvest, but the lettuce is not exposed to arduous three-to-five-day cross-country transport, needlessly consuming energy, polluting the environment and clogging the roadways.

By distributing production and placing it at or near the point of consumption, we also offer economic stimulus by creating local jobs and significant investment, while keeping food dollars within the community, instead of sending them outside the United States."

5. Grown at or near the point of consumption
"When selecting a 'pod' that would function the way we wanted, used shipping containers made the most sense. Our idea is to bring PodPonics hydroponic produce into metropolitan areas, and each 320-square-foot pod can produce one acre’s worth of produce. Since the pods can be stacked, they are perfect for supplying fresh produce to urban areas that have little square footage on the ground but could accommodate vertical growth with demand."

Is there a place for hydroponics? Plant your position in the comments section.

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Think

soundoff (64 Responses)
  1. Evil Grin

    Yes, but how does it taste?

    January 25, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • AGeek

      Excellent, actually. The herbs are full of essential oils and everything has clean, bright, accurate flavors. As long as you don't get bogged down in the marketing fluff and slew of nutrient concoctions available, stick with basics, things work out very well, are inexpensive to set up & operate, and end up highly flavorful.

      January 25, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  2. atlantacares

    Nice story, trying to recover from a bad image of you crushing one of your employee's with a shipping container from their own stupidity and lack of care? Hope the gentleman survived! Take more care in using shipping containers, is it even safe to visit your site? Or do I need to bring a hard hat? Love how the story was brushed under the rug and not even a mention on your facebook to wish him well and a speedy recovery. Hope you got your but sued for neglagence.


    January 25, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • AGeek

      oooooo... wow! Teh Internets are sharp this morning! +1000 internets to atlantacares -INF internets to Mr Liotta for lack of full disclosure.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:35 am |
      • atlantacares

        Actually I remember this story when it came out. I was not shocked that they did not cover it more, as local media typically does not follow up on most of their stories. But when I saw this on CNN I decided to rehash this story to remind the public of this guys lack of safety precautions at his site. Lets hope he is using a little common sense in the future.

        January 25, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
      • atlantacares

        Also, I give props to his Lawyers and PR reps to keeping this story under raps. Nothing like a bad image to run you out of town quickly. And here in Atlanta, it can happen quickly!

        January 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
      • $howme714

        @ atlantacares: I follow this guy on Facebook and found your comments interesting. Somehow I missed that story on WSB and followed you link to check it out. I posted the link and your quote on his Facebook page for Podponics. I asked him in my post what he had to say about it. Needless to say not only did he NOT respond to the post, as soon as it was discovered there he deleted it. So. draw any conclusion that you will from that but I think I would have addressed it while I had the chance because he can't delete it if I post it on my own Facebook page.

        January 27, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
      • atlantacares

        @$howme714 Very interesting. It does not shock me that it would be deleted. I hope the gentleman fully recovered and is getting back to his life. The accident causes concern for having these large containers in an urban setting if not handled carefully and responsibly. Personally it would cause concern for me to want to bring my family around.

        January 28, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
      • intheknow

        That guy actually died, and i think he was more than a employee, he had a vested interested, if not one of the partners in the project. If these guys aren't smart enough to know how to keep themselves out of harm's way, and try to move a multi ton container hillbilly style, I'm not sure I would put my trust in them to grow something that I am supposed to eat . . . .

        September 7, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  3. Mel

    Well, I guess I have a game plan if the horrible Water World movie becomes reality. Good to know.

    January 25, 2011 at 4:45 am |
  4. Too Expensive

    Love it, but it's very expensive for small items. I'm probably the only person I know that has $3,000 tomatoes.

    January 25, 2011 at 1:39 am |
    • just saying

      wow. you must be an idiot start growing cannabis.

      January 25, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • AGeek

      That was my first impression until I realized I could substitute most of the expensive brand-name stuff with far more cost effective options. The HPS fancy lighting is less efficient than super-cheap fluorescent shop lamps. (do the math for light intensity, realizing you can keep the fluorescent bulbs 4" above the plants, a height that would fry plants using HPS).

      A lot of what is sold for hydroponic use is just plain hooey. I raise lettuce, herbs and other greens from September to May indoors. We grow more than our family of four can eat and end up giving away to friends. Monthly utility bills are about $10 for all the lights & water. Total setup cost was < $500 and the ROI was < 6 months.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  5. Dino

    And I thought this article was going to be about health benefits. It sounds like super-efficient gardening. If it's as healthy as your average organic fruits and veggies then it's a step in the right direction for the general population to grow their own gardens and put down the McFood.

    January 24, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  6. Dale

    Hydroponics have their place if there truly is no soil available, but the vitality and taste of the produce can't compare to that produced in the soil. Don't be hoodwinked that an 18 element rich water can replace nature. I grow 60 varieties of heirloom tomatoes as part of our 500 member CSA and believe me there is a difference. When soil is available hydroponics is a cop out. Easy compared to dealing with the soil. But, maximum nutritional value and taste of produce comes with a harmonious balanced plant – soil – water relationship. There are no shortcuts. Natural just can not be replicated entirely. Optimal produce is local and natural.

    January 24, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  7. Agro1981

    Another article about food by someone who is totally cluess about what it takes to feed the world's population.

    January 24, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  8. james

    What a waste of energy! Put up a greenhouse and spare us the coal generated electricity poisoning. It seems like a great idea if you can coat the Pod with solar cells and power the lights, but i doubt that is possible with current technology. Much more efficient (energy wise) to grow the lettuce in Arizona in the winter,load up big trucks and ship it east. A sad reality but until the cost of gas goes up that is what we are stuck with. High tech solutions seem to rarely work in simple situations, use a simple low tech method, greenhouse, and use the lights to illuminate homes etc..

    January 24, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
  9. Christopher

    I was the first to bring worldwide attention to the concept of Vertical Farming (Controlled Environment Agriculture in multilevel buildings) http://www.farmvertical.com – developed by a class at Columbia University in NYC...headed by Dr. Dickson Despommier. My designs just got 2 pages in Newsweek Poland (as well as Newsweek US years ago)...it's a huge concept and this article points to all the great benefits of Hydroponic growing.

    January 24, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  10. just saying

    hydroponics is were it's at and vertical growing is also something I like to incorporate into my life.

    January 24, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • Chris

      Check out my vertical farm site at http://www.farmvertical.com

      January 24, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • JLM

      I was like you a year ago ... I was interested and wanted to try it.
      I was able to start with some 3 gal pots, rubbermaid bins, and air stone and air pump, a small $10 water pump and a grow light.
      Worked great and I have been expanding since then.
      WebSites and Youtube help a lot to get started

      January 25, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  11. Nick

    Go Packers!

    January 24, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  12. robert feingold

    Hydroponics definately has a place, just as wind turbines and solar farms will be part of the long range energy construct. It wont replace gardens and small farms for the natural satisfaction it gives some of us. I love to get my hands dirty. And I really dont like the computer controlled organization that this article describes. Great for making money. Not so great for the spiritual side of things. I do like the fact that you can protect your produce from harsh weather, but greenhouses do the same. Some of my friends grow tomatoes hydroponically, but I am told that high end chefs dont like the chefs. I think it is hard to duplicate nature with hydroponics, but I am willing to concede that every year there are great variations in the results out doors, too. The soil changes for a lot of reasons each year and it is hard to bring them back to the baseline. So if you want to make money and are out for mass producing year round, sounds fine. For me, I take great satisfaction that I have been eating lots of veggies from my greenhouse all winter using Elliot Colemans method which combines modern intelligence with back to basic techniques, without fuel being used.

    January 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  13. Sharon

    lettuce is so easy to grow on your on hydroponically see http://botanyspeaking.wordpress.com/. Easy to make do it your own system. Just need a shop light and stand.

    January 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  14. Matt

    Hydroponics is a great idea. However, it takes a lot of energy to maintain the "pod" the article mentions. The fertilizers that are used to feed the plants are manufactured. Plants are made to live in soil and have stresses. All those "anti-cancer" agents in various plants are a response to sunlight. While local hydroponics in a nice idea, why not try to eat local and seasonally. Save the environment and have some diversity.

    January 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • coolguy

      The only thing really saving this environment is nitrogen enriched soil!

      January 24, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
  15. Nick

    No root crops or sweet corn. As an agronomist I can say that it is incredibly effecient in terms of per acre yield. It also requires less pesticide use. The main issue is that when you scale up it becomes very expensive. You may be talking about a several million dollar capital investment that may take decades to pay off.

    January 24, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • RobertW


      It will be expensive. One company is already trying it in Rhode Island. http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Converted-Organics-to-Build-pz-898479221.html?x=0&amp;.v=1

      Should know something definte in 18 to 24 months.

      January 24, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  16. Rosemary

    I did a TV story on hydroponics in 1987 for a national show. It's about time I heard it in the media again!

    January 24, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  17. Tim Needham

    I saw a documentary a while back about the Japanese using a system they called aeroponics since it just misted the plant roots from time to time. It was supposed to be much less energy intensive than conventional hydroponics.
    That might be worth looking into.

    January 24, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • coolguy

      is that a note to self??? Go look it up and tell us all about it!

      January 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • AGeek

      Aeroponics isn't that much more energy efficient. Nutrient flow is exchanged for higher pressure. Light & heat requirements are the same. In some ways, aeroponics is worse, due to the smaller spray orifices, they'll readily clog with any contaminants, so more effective/expensive filtration is required. Drip feeding has this same Achilles heel.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  18. beaver

    Old stuff,I grew hydro pot in 92

    January 24, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  19. NobleToad

    I operate a small aquaponics facility in Florida. I raise Tilapia and crayfish, and from the waste they produce I grow tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, brussel sprouts, collard, bell peppers, hot peppers, chives, citrus, olives, squash, okra (ludicrous amounts of okra), beans and when possible, strawberries. After years of independent research, I can attest to hydro not being possible with ALL veggies, but I tell ya what, I can feed my family a complete meal every day without going to the supermarket. The up front investment was significant, but it runs largely on autopilot and is mechanically extremely simple. Anyone with basic plans and knowledge of hand tools can pull it off. It WILL be the future, if for no other reason, the cost of land and the government pressure for farming to shift to biofuels instead of food. Its only a matter of time.

    January 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  20. Colin

    Reason #6

    that rampant plant pathogen epidemics that can ensue from contaminated water or lack of biodiversity keeps us plant pathologists in business =D

    want a fun example? local hydroponic farmer growing peppers somehow contaminated his water source with phytophthera capsaci, nearly decimating his entire crop. Nightmare for a farmer, dream of a plant pathologist.

    i do love me some fresh otherwise out of season vegetables though

    January 24, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  21. RabiaDiluvio

    I have tasted hydroponic greens and tomatoes and so far I am underwhelmed because of the difference in the flavor. I am keeping an open mind (maybe another facility, different methods, different varieties) but so far I just can't see myself cooking with hydroponic produce.

    January 24, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • coolguy

      A lot of hydroponic growers use genetically modified seeds. This can also be a cause of a "grown too fast" taste

      January 24, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
      • snailspace

        If, by "genetically modified" you mean "improved by plant breeding" then pretty much all seeds are "genetically modified." If you mean "genetically engineered," i.e., produced via gene splicing, then you are incorrect. Only field corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, and papaya seeds are available commercially.

        January 25, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  22. Oveta

    Right, you can grow almost anything with hydroponics.

    The only flaws I see in the interview was the same flaw brought up by any locavore argument about the environmental costs of shipping. I promise it is a lot more energy efficient for a huge producer to ship tons of produce cross state than it is for one pickup truck to take 30 lbs of food locally times however many individual buyers there are.

    January 24, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  23. JLM

    I live in MN where everything freezes so you can't garden year round with conventional methods.
    I started hydroponics a year ago and you can grow alot more than lettuce.
    I ususally grow many different types of lettuce, fresh herbs (basil. oregeno, thyme, parsely), green beans, cucumbers, squash, bell peppers, radhishes, red cabbage, peas, and tomatoes.
    It does take some electricity to run the lights but not much and the water pumps only run for 15 min every 3-4 hours so the power involved is minimal.
    Growing with hydoponics lets me enjoy fresh vegetables and herbs straight off the vine year round at a very reasonable price (after the initial set up cost that is).

    January 24, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Cole

      A nice diverse garden you've got going. Sounds like a great thing for those in your situation. Curious where you keep the thing – Basement?

      January 24, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
      • JLM

        I have a big house, so I grabbed one of the empty rooms and turned it into a grow room. Lets me grow year round and I get fresh produce with no herbacides or pestacide.
        Only real problem I have is my dog developed a taste for Neon Rainbow Chard and ate some of the plants. I now keep the basil, which she hates, on the border of the grow beds.

        January 25, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • sat

      What is the initial cost... approximation?

      January 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • sat

      what is the initial cost/

      January 26, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  24. Cole

    Random thoughts:

    1. I'm betting it's more expensive than the dirt variety.

    2. No way this works with all vegetables. I saw lettuce being brought up, but nothing else.

    3. In his #2 he mentioned reducing energy waste and he was careful with his words. So, my thought was, "This uses up a lot more energy than conventional methods."

    4. He's reaching with #3. Most of the energy used by food is in growing it. Outside of special products, transportation is going to be less than 10% of the energy that went into growing the food. Also, I get the feeling that even if transportation energy was added that conventional farming still takes less total energy.

    5. Overall, it seems like the best option during the frozen months. So, good for winter, but I'll pass otherwise.

    6. It's like a guarantee that this system will be used to grow marijuana.

    January 24, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • LaRofromNorthAL

      #6 – Already is. Humboldt County CA is the epicenter of garden innovation. They've been doing this stuff for years. Indoors, too, for the most part.

      January 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
      • jj

        so true, you wanna see innovative gardening techniques go to norcal, Ive never seen so many botanists and geneticists in one place.

        January 24, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • Will

      Of course, it uses much more energy than conventional growing because you are supplying the light/heat source in the form of lamps, rather than using the sun. I don't see this as a viable replacement for traditional agriculture until we have limitless cheap energy (fusion?). It's a worthwhile experiment nevertheless.

      January 24, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
      • Emily

        #2–I grew plants this way in a biology class I took. I grew tomatoes and they turned out pretty well. You have to stake them up just like you do in a regular garden...I'm betting it would work really well with peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.

        January 24, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Billy

      Actually you can grow any plant with hydroponics, it's a simple tenant of biology. Light, nutrients, water, and air is all you need to grow anything. What varies is the amounts, type, and so on. Hydroponics is actually far more efficient. Plants have a thing called photosystems in their grana (little pancake like disks that make up the thylakoid membrane and play a major role in photosynthesis). These photosystems best absorb light on the blue and red ends of the electromagnetic spectrum (that's why most plants are green). By moderating what kind of light hits the plants, we actually make photosynthesis much more efficient. In fact normal farming methods are around 30% efficient in energy use. But then again that's taking energy from the sun, chemical bond energy from nutrients in the soil, and so on. Moderating photosynthesis requires some energy of our own to put in (electrical systems). The main benefit here in hydroponics is that we don't take nutrients from the soil like we have been doing for thousands of years (even in the last few centuries we have started to introduce more conservative farming techniques on significant scales). You can make a hydroponic garden too, you do not need some fancy company and entrepreneur to sell it to you. With this fact in mind, yes someone probably has already been making pot with it. In fact many cannabis drug busts take place in hidden basements that grow pot through hydroponics, it's just an easy and compact way to hide a drug farm (hard to hide from the nose of well trained dogs though).

      January 24, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  25. T3chsupport

    Remove the chemical fertilizer, and add fish, and you've got aquaponics.
    Then you're producing fish to eat (like tilapia), which feed the plants, the plants filter the water for the fish, and you usually feed the fish something you're growing in another tank.

    I did some small experiments with it last year (very small!). Had my container been bigger, and my plants hadn't gotten so root bound, I would have had better yields. I got a couple of tupperware containers, cut holes in the bottom of one, and cut matching holes in the lid of the other. Through the holes, threaded through some shoe string. In the bottom tub, I added dirty water from my little beta fish bowl. The top tub had the seed, vermiculite, and the shoe strings running up into the medium. The shoe strings wicked the water (along with nutritious fish poo!), up into the vermiculite on top, and kept the plant moist as long as there was water in the bottom tub.

    I grew some beans in my kitchen window, and they got reeeally root bound. So much so that they sought out the holes for the shoe string and grew down into the bottom tub. The plants didn't get huge, but I got to eat some tiny, tasty beans that were grown on nothing but dirty fish water, and about less than a square foot of rocks!

    January 24, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • JLM

      I am starting a test for auquponics .... I have a 3' x 3' grow bed and a 55 gallon fish tank ....Any advice?

      January 24, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
      • diglet

        Leafy greens will do great, but P is hard to get.

        January 24, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  26. Truth

    Kind of like bagging your own game, growing your own produce simplifies the production chain a lot. Nothing like knowing all of the hands that have touched your meal...

    January 24, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • HoiHa

      Err no – it does not involving killing a living being

      January 24, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
      • Come On

        HoiHa - your misunderstanding of Truth's comment doesn't give you the latitude to plug your own vegetarianism.

        January 24, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
      • SensibleAmerican

        [From Merriam-Webster dictionary] Living (adj.) – having life. Being (n.) – the quality or state of having existence.

        Plants are both alive and exist. Plants are living beings. You fail, try again.

        January 24, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
      • Mark

        You think those plants that you eat everyday were never alive?

        January 24, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
      • Tomato

        Look up 'The Secret Life of Plants' on youtube, it will blow your mind, man.

        January 24, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
      • Freeman

        IQ test. When you clear a forest to make a farm to grow your vegetables, the animals that were living there are:
        A) Killed and displaced.
        B) Ecosystem permanently destroyed.
        C) Lovingly captured and relocated to underpopulated forests.
        D) A & D

        When the fields are plowed every year:
        A) The animals living there are slaughtered
        B) The animals living there are lovingly captured and relocated.

        Organic farmers respond to the animals eating their crops by
        A) Lovingly capturing them and relocating them.
        B) Killing them.

        Save your moronic sanctimonious comments for people as dumb as you are.

        January 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
      • teach

        plants are living...

        January 25, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  27. Truth


    January 24, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      I think of weed anytime I hear hydroponics.

      January 25, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
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