Indoor Farming Exec Sees Industry Growth in Urban, Small-scale Localized Production
April 3, 2017 | Nicola Kerslake
Joe Swartz is Vice President at American Hydroponics (AmHydro), a longstanding indoor agriculture consultant and supplier. Based in California, the company services clients across the world. Joe has a lengthy career as a grower, and lives with his family on his East coast family farm. Ahead of his presentation at Indoor Ag-Con in May, we posed five questions to him on the hydroponic greenhouse industry and growing on Mars.
1. AmHydro has been in the greenhouse business for more than 30 years. What’s the biggest tech change you’ve seen in your time in the industry?
We have seen tremendous growth in all forms of controlled-environment agriculture – particularly in urban agriculture production. We are especially excited about the growth we’ve seen in small-scale, localized production.
There are many new and exciting technological advancements driving this industry forward. Among the most powerful are environmental control technologies, various automation software (record keeping, production, food safety), as well as energy and resource conservation techniques, such as closed-loop irrigation systems and heat/electricity conservation.
2. We often speak with folks looking to become growers who haven’t farmed before. How would you recommend that they learn about the industry?
There is definitely no shortage of information floating around out there! Unfortunately, much of it is based more on “theory” than practice. AmHydro offers regular hydroponic crop production seminars that are taught by experienced growers. We feel that “hands on” experience is absolutely essential to a grower’s education. Any prospective farmers willing to volunteer or work for an existing grower will gain incredible insight and useful experience that you can’t find online. We also offer onsite and remote consulting, as well as professional growers training at our training center or at the client’s location. When hands-on learning isn’t within reach, we offer books, provide instructional webinars and regularly offer live discussions on social media.
3. We’ve heard a lot this year about indoor farms being unprofitable. What would you suggest that growers concentrate on to avoid that fate?
It’s unfortunate to hear that. Those situations often arise from either inappropriate technology or lack of growing experience. We understand these issues can be seen as “growing pains” of our industry, but there is adequate technology and enough information to avoid these problems, which is why the situation is frustrating to witness. Growers (or potential growers) need to choose the appropriate technologies to maximize crop yield and quality while keeping both capital and operational expenses at acceptable levels. This is one of the services that AmHydro performs. High cost technologies that do not provide these parameters might look “cool” or interesting, but are not sustainable. As “sustainability” is one of the most overused words in our industry, we need to remember that social sustainability, environmental sustainability, as well as economic sustainability must all coincide to produce a successful operation. Like the proverbial 3-legged stool, when one of these pillars is weak or missing, the entire stool topples over.
4. Which crops would you like to see move indoors next? How close is that to happening?
We are happy to see nearly all crops produced indoors or in greenhouses whenever possible and feasible. It is all about real estate and economics. If there is sufficient market viability for high level or year-round crops in specific areas, there is a good chance that crop will move to indoor production. In many areas of North America, ethnic specialties – particularly greens – are becoming increasingly more important indoor crops. We are also seeing a significant increase in supply and demand of specialty crops for the pharmaceutical, essential oil, and cosmetics industries.
5. Would your farm on Mars look better than Matt Damon’s did? Why?
Of course it would! Matt Damon did not have AmHydro’s FDA-food grade approved HDPE growing channels to maximize his quality and yields! Our systems provide high quality production, ease of use, simplicity, and ergonomics that Matt’s farm did not have.