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Vegetables in the Sky; Startup to Bring Year-Round Hydroponic Production to Urban Rooftops

December 10, 2012 |

Although the Swartz family has been farming for three generations, Joe Swartz’s Sky Vegetables in Amherst is very different from the typical farm of his father and grandfather.

When his grandparents, John and Anastasia Swartz immigrated to the United States from Poland, they settled on a 40-acre homestead where they raised dairy cows, tobacco, onions, vegetables, and five children. Their sons, Walter and John Swartz took over the farm and expanded production to 300 acres of rented land in Amherst and surrounding towns.

John’s son Joe grew up helping his dad out on the farm. After studying agriculture at the University of Massachusetts, Joe Swartz returned to the homestead only to find that much of the land that his father rented for crops had been sold in the real estate boom. Swartz says that he knew right away that he was going to have to rethink the family way of farming.

“I knew I had to look at small scale intensive farming and I was interested in year-round production. I didn’t like the usage of pesticides in traditional agriculture, and decided to try using a controlled environment to produce pesticide–free, healthy food.” Swartz said.

In 1985, he built a 5,000 square foot greenhouse and designed his own hydroponic system. The initial venture cost about $15,000, which he was able to secure from private investors. Over the years, he tinkered with the system, incorporating various off-the-shelf components into his own design, eventually working with a couple of hydroponic system companies to design and build his own model.

Today, the home farm contains 15,000 square feet of hydroponically grown crops including, salad greens, lettuce, cut salad mix, culinary herbs, chard, kale, and baby bok choy, which he sells to restaurants and supermarkets. In recent years, Swartz has stepped back from the home farm operation and has been focusing on establishing rooftop hydroponic greenhouses in urban environments. Currently, plans for two separate farms are underway: an 8,000 square foot operation in the Bronx, New York; and a 63,000 square foot facility in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Both farms will grow the same crops found at the home farm using greenhouse hydroponic systems designed to be situated atop existing buildings. The majority of the produce grown on the Bronx farm will be distributed throughout the neighborhood through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. “We will be bringing fresh produce to an area of the Bronx where fresh produce is never heard of,” Swartz said. The considerably larger Brockton facility will be supplying 53 Whole Foods stores across the Northeast.

Sky Vegetables Rooftop Greenhouse Rendering

Swartz’s long-term plan is to turn the national food distribution network on its head. Instead of growing food in concentrated areas to redistribute throughout the country, Sky Vegetables hopes to become a national company that both grows and distributes food locally. Already, he says that he has had interest from Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

While he has been in the hydroponic business for nearly 30 years, Swartz says that only recently has the market become ready for this kind of business model. “Even ten years ago, it was very difficult to compete with a cheaper product grown out of the area. Unless my product matched pricewise with Mexico or California grown product, grocers wouldn’t even look at it,” he said.

Swartz believes that as public awareness of the environmental costs of agriculture has grown, people have become more willing to pay a premium for local, sustainably produced food. He says that he strives to produce food that is “beyond organic,” which he describes as “extremely clean and untouched by common materials used in traditional agriculture including petrochemicals and soil.” Swartz relies on parasites and predator insects for pest control and does not apply any pesticides, even those approved for organic production by the USDA.

Hydroponics by design uses less water than conventional agriculture. While all nutrients must be added to the water for the plants to grow, there is no runoff from leaching and evaporation, meaning that fewer of those nutrients go to waste. Swartz’s focus on localized distribution reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to get food to people who need it. And his rooftop farms can utilize heat escaping through the roof of the building during winter months, and absorb some of the sun’s heat in summer months improving the building’s cooling efficiency.

Swartz hopes to start construction on both sites this spring and slowly add additional sites across the country in years to come. As the company’s motto says, ‘the sky is the limit’.

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