In recent years, a number of farming businesses in the resort town of Da Lat and its neighboring areas have turned to hydroponics, or cultivation of plants in a nutrient liquid with or without a supporting medium, in a bid to produce safe, quality greens.
Under the hydroponic model, vegetables, mostly leafy ones, are grown in nutrient-filled water pipes.
During harvests, all farmers have to do is gently pull the vegetable stems from the pipes and chop off their roots before consuming the entire stems and leaves right away, without rinsing or preliminarily processing them.
This is going on at several major farms in Da Lat City, the heart of Lam Dong Province, in the Central Highlands.
The city, which boasts temperate climate all year round, is currently home to ten large farms which have successfully adopted hydroponic models and are planning to import equipment and expand production.
The model requires well-equipped green houses, a circulation water processing system and pipes with pores which fit small trays containing saplings.
Nutrient-filled water runs through the pipes to the trays at a moderate volume that is enough to wet the roots and provide sufficient nutrition for the plants to thrive.
Most of the hydroponic phases are automated.
The absence of soil means there is no fertilizer residue, which allows growers to stay in full control of the nutrients intended for their veggies by making sure the nutrition suffices, rather than exceeds, what is dictated in formulas provided by sapling suppliers.
Unlike conventionally cultivated vegetables, the leaves of which are typically stained with soil, hydroponically grown greens boast a fresh, immaculate look and texture.
The farmers and business owners who are engaged in the hydroponic model are all seasoned growers with over ten years of experience.
They said that their hopes in building a new segment in the safe produce market are based on criteria that the greens are readily edible without being preliminarily processed, and fertilizer and pesticide residues are kept at a minimal level.
However, after several years of trial and error, their dreams remain out of reach due to the declining quality of agricultural soil.
These farmers then decided to switch to the hydroponic model, despite costly investment.
Their calculations indicated that on the same growing area, using pipes costs over 40 percent more compared to using mixtures of such ingredients as coconut fibers, perlite or the like due to the exorbitant expenses for equipment and sapling import.
At a farm run by Kim Bang Co., located in Ward 7, thousands of lush vegetable beds can be seen at a distance from the ground.
The farm has around 80 varieties of greens.
Nguyen Thi Hue, the farm’s overseer, said she began growing vegetables some 20 years ago.
Two years ago, realizing that her clean greens grown in soil were plummeting in quality, she spent large sums enriching the soil and even replacing its surface with another taken from elsewhere.
However, her efforts were futile.
“Analyses conducted on samples of mature vegetables revealed that all the parameters were in the permitted range, but we somehow still failed to produce safe greens with almost no fertilizer residue,” Hue said.
She later switched to the hydroponic model.
Meanwhile, Pham Thi Cuc, owner of the Bach Cuc flower farm, situated in the province’s Lac Duong District, divulged that after a visit to European-standard hydroponic farms in Malaysia late last year, she embarked on her plan to launch a hydroponically operated farm.
She found the technology and the hydroponic system the most daunting challenges.
It took her over a month to place orders for and receive equipment from Thailand, as those locally produced lack synchronization.
Growers’ failure to adequately grasp the hydroponic technology and lack of local materials at hand have left them continually seeking help from specialists sent by sapling suppliers, Cuc added.
That has also increased growers’ dependence on sapling suppliers, Cuc noted.
Cuc, however, is happy with the considerably low chance of disease contraction among hydroponically grown veggies.
“It’s quite easy to put infected plants in quarantine. Water is disinfected on a continual basis, thus reducing the spread of diseases,” she explained.
Park Nam Hong, a South Korean national and CEO of Kbil Vina Co. based in Lac Duong District, now hydroponically grows strawberries, after many years of producing daisies.
Unlike major farms in Da Lat, Park chose to import used equipment from South Korea and seek technological assistance from agricultural agencies in his home country.
He said that has cut his initial equipment investment.
“The key to a fruitful hydroponics model lies in formulas of diluting nutrients which are provided by major sapling suppliers into water. For instance, some formulas allow me to easily adjust my strawberries’ sweetness,” Park noted.
Thanks to the assistance from the companies in his home country, Park reaped instant success with his first batch of produce.
Cuc and Hue were not that lucky. The two women, who are among the pioneers in hydroponically growing veggies in the area, struggled with water and saplings during their first batches.
Hue underscored the growers’ high sense of discipline in strictly abiding by all production phases.
“If growers fail to do so, the produce will not meet the expectations regarding both their looks and quality, and most importantly, their fertilizer residues will not drop as desired,” she elaborated.
Meant for export
Nguyen Van Son, vice director of the Lam Dong Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said that quality inspections have confirmed the low pesticide residues in hydroponic produce.
“The dregs are within the allowed range stipulated by Japan and Singapore and are markedly lower than that of produce created with other approaches,” he stressed.
The hydroponic model has also relieved the burden on agricultural soil, cut agricultural waste by up to 50 percent and saved water by 60 percent.
Da Lat is currently home to approximately five hectares of greenhouses dedicated to hydroponically grown veggies.
Growers say their hydroponic products have been surpassed by local demand, though they cost twice as much as their counterparts available at markets and supermarkets.
Such veggies are mostly displayed for sale at safe produce shops in large cities and provinces, particularly Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
A large amount has also been consumed by luxury hotels and restaurants, as well as cruise ships or yachts with long itineraries.
The owners of hydroponic vegetables farms all stressed that the local market is their first step in drawing consumers’ attention and acquainting them with their export partners.
“Hydroponically produced leafy veggies are in great demand in Singapore and Japan. However, export requires good post-harvest processing technology. Meanwhile, the technology remains inadequate in Da Lat, as leafy veggies produced under the hydroponic model typically stay good for only four days after having their roots chopped off,” Hue pointed out.