Growers around the world know him as Joe from AmHydro aka American Hydroponics. As vice president of the Arcata, California-based company since 2015, Joe Swartz has traveled the globe helping controlled environment agriculture (CEA) growers succeed.
But Joe’s hydroponic expertise predates his days with AmHydro: He’s been a commercial hydroponic grower since 1984. In the intervening years, that four-decade, hands-on perspective has informed his work as a consultant and helped mold the CEA industry worldwide. CEA inSight spoke with Joe on October 10, 2023.
- Transition from traditional ag to hydroponics
- Progression into consulting and AmHydro VP
- Growing experience as a differentiator
- Practical technology, solving pain points
- 40 years of change, negative and positive
- CEA’s problem-solving future
- Equally important pieces to the puzzle
Transition from traditional ag to hydroponics
Q: Your AmHydro work is widely known, but your ag roots run much deeper than that. You’re a fourth-generation Massachusetts farmer who took over the family farm and transformed it with year-round hydroponic production. Next year marks your 40th year as a commercial hydroponic grower. What first led you to hydroponics and inspired your move into what we now call CEA?
A: As you said, it’s a fourth-generation family farm here in Western Massachusetts. I grew up in a farming family. As a young guy, I knew that I loved farming and I wanted to pursue a career in farming as my father, uncle and grandfather — and great-grandfather — did.
However, my father and uncle were potato and vegetable farmers. My uncle, who had done all the pesticide spraying for the farm operation, passed away prematurely due to illnesses related to pesticide exposure. And my father had substantial physical injuries. He damaged his back, destroyed his knees and had a lot of injuries.
As a young guy, as much as I loved farming, those were concerns. Exposure to chemicals, exposure to physical risk, was always on my mind. Add to that, here in Massachusetts, we only have about 120 days of growing season. So, the farm operation was only cashflow positive for a very small part of the year. Also, we had a very small farm. It was a 30-acre farm. So, I knew that in terms of size and potential production, I was limited.
Based on all of those factors, I started looking at some form of agriculture that would perhaps allow me to grow either using limited pesticides or even pesticide-free and maybe extend my seasons longer or grow year-round. I started doing a lot of research and I came across hydroponics. Of course, at the time, hydroponics was not well known, especially here in Western Mass. We’re kind of a farming community, so it’s a lot of traditional agriculture.
I did some research and, fortunately, I met a gentleman who was a retired professor. He was formerly a Dutch grower, and he worked for Cornell University for many years in the 1960s developing what is kind of the foundation of commercial leafy greens CEA growing that we use today. He mentored me, gave me some advice and sold me some old equipment. So, in 1984, I built a greenhouse and set up.
At that time, we referred to it as hydroponics and not yet CEA. The term CEA or controlled environment agriculture really hadn’t come into play yet. Hydroponics was growing plants without soil, so the focus was on the growing systems and how to get water and nutrients to the plants. The greenhouse was important obviously because we’re in a cold climate, but it was a little more incidental. You built a greenhouse, you installed heating and cooling equipment, and you set a temperature and let it go. Years later, we would learn about the importance of carefully controlling the physical environment as well.
So, I began growing lettuce commercially and selling to local grocery stores and basically just went from there. Every year, I increased my focus on the hydroponic greenhouse and the controlled environment ag. I still raised a lot of field crops out on the farm, but the CEA portion became a more and more important part of my farming operation.
I grew 100% pesticide-free, so I had to learn a lot by trial and error. We had no internet. We had no real robust CEA industry here in North America. There was very little known about how to exclude pests, how to monitor pests, how to capture pests, how to kill pests — all without using chemical pesticides. I had to learn a lot by trial and error, speaking with growers and studying.
Progression into consulting and AmHydro VP
Q: It seems it didn’t take long for people to start seeking you out to help them with their hydroponic projects. How did your work as a consultant, and your eventual role with AmHydro, come about?
A: I attended conferences and about 15 years into growing, people began coming to me because they knew I was a real grower. The hydroponic greenhouse, the farm, was my only source of income. I had to learn — live or die, really — by my ability to use these technologies to support myself and my family. So, growers started coming to me because they knew I had this very practical, real-life experience.
Most of the information in the industry was related either to academics, who had a great amount of book knowledge while having no idea what it’s like to run a farm and how to incorporate these technologies into economically viable production, or from equipment vendors, who were trying to sell you something.
People were finding out that it was difficult to get realistic information, so they began coming to me and visiting me, and so I started to do some consulting. This was back around 2000. I began consulting in the industry and that’s taken me all over the world.
I had worked for myself my entire life, but in 2015 I had the opportunity to join the team at AmHydro, American Hydroponics. AmHydro was a company that was founded, ironically, the same year I started in CEA, but we didn’t know each other. Over the years, I got to know the founder of the company, and I did some consulting with them. I very much liked their technology and their equipment, but also their approach, which was very grower-centric. It was specifically to make the grower successful, and selling equipment was almost secondary.
Then two members of the AmHydro team got together and purchased the company in late 2014. Unfortunately, one of the members — Scott Kornberg, who was really the horticulturist of the group — passed away unexpectedly after 60-some-odd days of being a partial owner of the company.
After that, the surviving owner, Jenny Harris, who’s the owner and CEO of the company, called me and asked me if I would come out to California, meet her team and see if we could find some ways we could work together. I flew out there and immediately fell in love with the company and the people. The company is made up basically of commercial growers and people dedicated to helping grow this industry.
We worked out an arrangement where I would take a formal position with the company as vice president. I have an office in Arcata at AmHydro, and I also have an office here at my home in Massachusetts. I split my time between both coasts and travel extensively for the company. We are in 105 countries around the world.
We’ve developed and built hydroponic and controlled-environment farms in India, Egypt, Middle East, South America, you name it. We’ve really expanded our technology development, but also our consulting and our grower training. We provide physical technologies, such as growing systems, but also information — even for growers that don’t necessarily use our equipment. I also now speak regularly for the company at events such as Indoor Ag-Con and CEA Summit East. I’m in my eighth year now with AmHydro.
Growing experience as a differentiator
Q: AmHydro’s focus on being “real growers, for real growers” differentiates the company from many competitors. How significant is that emphasis? How has your own growing experience grounded you and added value to your work through the years?
A: I think it’s a substantial differentiator, and it is really the only reason I joined the company. I was not interested in having a job or being a salesperson or anything like that. AmHydro’s philosophy is really to use our experience as growers.
This can devolve into 400 different conversations, but CEA is not a thing. It’s an assortment of technologies that need to be carefully selected and implemented for a very specific result. In other words, there’s not one singular CEA model.
Regardless of what your outcome is, you’re farming. And what are we doing when we’re farming? We’re growing plants that have to be of sufficient quality and quantity to sell to the market and be competitive and to make a reasonable profit.
Farming — even CEA farming — is historically a very competitive marketplace. It is a fairly low-margin business, so it’s very important to select the right technologies as well as the correct methodologies to enable the grower to achieve their outcome.
The approach that most companies take is they develop a specific technology. A lot of it is based upon a certain level of automation or integration of new, more modern technologies that don’t necessarily solve the problems growers have. Growers need equipment or technology that provides very specific results, and those results are usually around the production of crops and the increase in efficiency and use of resources.
When people ask me about what’s the latest and greatest technology, I say, “Well, if you’re a farmer and you’re growing out in the field, what’s the most effective and important piece of equipment? Is it a tractor? Is it certain tools or certain implements? Is it a combine?” The fact of the matter is they’re all very effective and important tools, but they’re tools that are very specific to certain jobs or certain challenges.
At AmHydro, we have access to tremendous levels of technology, as well as many types of growing methods. We have to then help a grower apply the right technologies and methods to achieve their outcome. Again, usually that is to produce crops to make money, to be profitable and to feed their community.All of our team members are growers who understand that very important technology.
It’s not helpful to the industry at large if I create a really cool, advanced technology that doesn’t put money back in the grower’s pocket or help the grower to grow more crops or better crops. So, we have to kind of reel it all back in and take our technological tools and help growers to be more successful.
Practical technology, solving pain points
Q: You’ve said that you’ve been incorrectly accused of being anti-tech when, in fact, AmHydro is very much a tech company. What can you share about new developments in technology at AmHydro?
A: We’re always trying to improve the tools the grower needs. What we’re doing first of all is identifying problems or challenges that growers have. I use the analogy of trying to force a square peg into a round hole — we don’t develop a technology and then try to get growers to implement it. That’s very common in the industry. We’re looking for pain points to solve.
You can look at some of the successes and failures of the indoor farming and the vertical farming industry, and the crux of many of them is that they’re trying to develop a technology, a lot of which sadly is based on a fascinating or a cool or an interesting or an innovative technology. I hear it all the time. People say this new indoor vertical farm system, for example, is very innovative. Well, innovative just means you’re doing something that someone maybe hasn’t done before. That doesn’t make it effective.
What AmHydro does is work with growers. We are growers, we look at growers, and we identify pain points. We identify areas where growers need help, whether it’s technology or information to improve. Improve their production, improve their quality, enhance food safety, lower costs, become more efficient, become more profitable. Those are all things that growers need to know.
So instead of saying, “Here’s our cool shiny-object technology, go buy it,” we say, “Where are you struggling? Where do you most need help?” And we develop technologies or maybe refine existing technologies to improve that.
We have growing systems that have proven to be very effective, both in terms of productivity and positive economics. They make growers money. They make growers more efficient. They help growers grow all year round. What we’ve done is we’ve refined those technologies. We’ve developed some high-level automation, and we’re refining our automation to help lower labor costs or improve efficiencies. Not super high-tech that’s very expensive, that doesn’t provide a return on investment, but what we call “practical technologies.”
The thing we’re most excited about, that we’ll be releasing early next year, is a controlled environment ag grower software. There’s some software out in the industry right now that is, unfortunately, quite ineffective and complicated and costly. What we’ve done is develop a software for growers that specifically enhances the grower’s ability to grow.
We’ve developed a tool that a grower takes in the greenhouse with them, which does everything from track productivity, increase efficiency, combine and collate all food safety data, manage employees, manage crop schedules, predict harvest dates of crops. All of these things growers need.
We didn’t plan on getting into the software business. But we have looked at all the farm management software and talked with hundreds of growers and couldn’t find any growers that were really happy with what was out there in the industry. So, we’re working with several major growers right now on what their needs are and what their pain points are.
We’ve developed a software that is not only effective for the large-scale, technologically advanced grower, but also the very small-scale grower — someone with a single greenhouse, for example. It’s just another tool to help growers be more efficient, save some time, make some more money.
No one in the industry had done it to our satisfaction and to the grower satisfaction, so we took that on. We’ve spent several years working on it, and it’s almost market-ready. We’ve been working with a very high-level software developer, and we’re going to have what we consider to be a very simple and effective and easy-to-use tool that ultimately will increase the productivity of a grower, give them more free time and put more money back in their pocket.
40 years of change, negative and positive
Q: As a commercial grower and as a consultant and industry educator, you’ve been watching CEA evolve for four decades. What do you see as the most significant changes — for better or for worse — in the industry in the U.S. and globally?
A: Things in this industry are cyclical. People see this industry as a very fast-growing industry and everything is new. It isn’t. When I first got involved in the hydroponics industry in the 1980s, there was significant investment here in the United States. Weyerhaeuser Lumber and General Electric and Pepperidge Farms, all these large companies were seeing some of the technology that Dutch growers were using — hydroponic lettuce, for example, in greenhouses — and they brought that technology here and they built large facilities in Pennsylvania and New York and Virginia.
I still have news clippings where they’re talking about how, by 1990, all of our food is going to be grown in these indoor lettuce factories, factory-like farms utilizing new high-tech lighting and indoor growing techniques. As you probably can tell, these are very similar headlines that we’re seeing today.
The technology was fascinating, and the public was interested. As a farmer, I had people saying, “Wow, before you know it, you’re going to get rid of all your farmland and you’re just going to be growing your food in these buildings.” Even back then, I knew that wasn’t effective.
But we saw a lot of that. And, of course, all of these farms failed spectacularly and that damaged the industry. The investment dried up. It colored the public’s perception of hydroponics or CEA as kind of a scam technology or get-rich-quick scheme. And it took many years for the industry to organically grow and develop and get out of that.
Then in 2012 or so, the indoor and vertical farming technologies really kind of came back in vogue. And now we’re seeing a lot of these failures damage the industry. So, on the negative side, what I’ve seen and how I’ve seen the industry evolve is I’ve seen this cycle happen.
Because the technologies we use in CEA are generally higher level than maybe what you see in conventional field farming, it’s easy to get seduced by what I call the shiny-object technology. In general, the public is not that interested in if I have a growing system that’s more productive and produces higher quality food.
That’s not nearly as sexy as if I could build a growing system inside a rocket ship and fly it around the world, growing in a shipping container or some other thing with high levels of technology and robots growing all of our food. That’s much more intriguing to the public. But a lot of that is not realistic, at least at this time. That sets us up for failure.
So, I’ve seen this cycle already play out, and I fear that one of the things that we’re involved in now is kind of that repercussion from the overemphasis on technology without problem-solving or horticulture being the primary driver. That’s kind of on the negative side.
On the positive side, the flip side of that seduction of technology is that it has expanded the industry dramatically. It has created a lot more interest and public awareness of CEA, and the industry has grown exponentially, especially in the last 10 years or so in North America. That’s an increasingly important part of the food production puzzle.
Even though there are a lot of growing pains inevitably with the technology, it does help usher in technologies that fit that need of being effective tools to grow better and to grow more food. To grow better quality food, to grow more safe food, but to do it using less resources and less environmental impact. So that has been tremendous.
Studies have shown repeatedly that consumer demand for food — fresh produce — has focused on locally grown and pesticide-free. People always say people want organic food. Yes, obviously there’s a market niche for organic produce. However, consumer preference in general in the United States and beyond has been very, very strongly dominated by the demand for locally produced food that is pesticide-free or has limited pesticide use.
CEA fits those needs very, very well. CEA allows us to grow closer to the point of consumption. We can grow in climates where we don’t necessarily have advantageous growing conditions. So the development and improvement of all of those models and those technologies really has been tremendous, watching that over the past 40 years.
When I was involved 40 years ago and I would tell people what I did, they would say, “Oh, you just grow plants in water?” Now people understand very clearly how we use the environment and environmental controls. We work with nature and with the natural processes to adjust all of the parameters that plants need, from light and temperature to nutrition, to optimize them.
We’re growing better quality, but we’re also doing it with a lower environmental impact. We’re saving resources like water and energy. CEA allows us — if we choose to grow pesticide-free, as most growers do, or use limited or biological pesticides — to grow much safer foods. Consumers now know what hydroponically grown is. They know what CEA is, and in many cases are increasingly demanding that.
So that is what really has pleased me over the years to watch and to be a part of. It gives me tremendous optimism for our future agricultural production in general because of the important contribution that CEA plays. CEA will never replace farming as we know it, but it will become an increasingly important piece to that food production puzzle that we’re constantly working on.
Q: You mentioned there are many negative perceptions of the industry. Your LinkedIn profile is a constant stream of CEA success stories encouraging people and reminding people that CEA is alive and well — with hashtags like #CEADoneRight. How do you help someone interested in CEA overcome the negativity? What does it take to do CEA right?
A: That’s a great question. We’re not all traditional farmers. We don’t all come from a farming background. However, if you are involved in CEA, at some level you are now a farmer. I always tell people “Welcome to farming.” They say, “Oh, no, no, no, I’m using CEA. I’m a modern farmer. I’m a technologist.” No, you’re a farmer.
The tools to farm effectively using CEA are well established and very effective as long as one looks at their overall objective and needs, and then effectively assesses the right technologies and methods to do that.
I use myself as an example. I started with nothing, and with just a greenhouse that was basically a little more than 4,000 square feet, I put myself through school. I put my wife through school. I raised a family. I took care of my father the last few years of his life. I really feel like I’m kind of the epitome of what CEA can be. I used CEA technologies and mostly grew myself. Yes, we hired employees as we expanded, but I did a lot of this year-round by myself. And I had the ability to make a living as a grower using these technologies.
There’s no one magic bullet that applies to everybody. But there are a lot of technologies out there in CEA that can be effectively used. I can point to growers who have been growing for decades successfully. As long as one approaches their entry into CEA from the standpoint of being a farmer — you can use modern techniques, you can use modern technologies— but look at farming and release yourself from being married to a certain technology or a certain method.
CEA is essentially a collection of tools. When you’re a grower, you’re a farmer, and you need to use the right tools for the right job. If you are raising hay, going out there with a plow to harvest your hay doesn’t make sense because the plow doesn’t harvest hay. But if you go out there with a hay rake and a hay baler, then you’re using the right tools to get the right job done. That’s where #CEADoneRight came from.
If you’re a small-scale family grower, there are CEA techniques and technologies that will allow you to be a better grower and to improve your production and your profitability. If you’re an entrepreneur looking to get into the industry and start a large-scale facility, there are techniques and technologies to enable you to do that. If you’re a researcher developing new seed varieties, for example, or growing certain plants for medicinal or pharmaceutical or nutraceutical outcomes, there are CEA applications for that as well.
There’s no shortage of success stories using the right tools for the right job. That’s CEA done right, in a nutshell.
CEA’s problem-solving future
Q: In September you were on a CEA Summit East panel “The Future of CEA.” When you look ahead five or 10 years or any time frame, what do see for yourself and the CEA industry?
A: I think they mirror each other, so I’ll start with the industry. Fortunately, I think we’re getting beyond the idea that the future of CEA is a fully robotic greenhouse that runs itself or it’s a skyscraper of multiple levels and different floors of growing and flashy technologies. What we are now seeing, and what I believe is the future, is CEA is going to be a problem-solving industry.
What I mean by that is this: Agriculture in general and society, we have certain problems that we need to solve. We have more people that we need to feed. We have dwindling farmland. We have diminishing resources like fresh water. These are real problems facing the world. The environmental impact of farming and, maybe more importantly, distributing our food needs to be reduced. We hear politicians giving lip service. We hear people arguing over what the solution is.
What I’ve seen and what I really truly believe is that we in CEA are a big part of that solution. And I’ll tell you why: The problems that I just mentioned, CEA addresses all of those.
I gave an example at [CEA Summit East] and I’ll give it to you now. There’s lots of applications for CEA. It’s not large-scale farming or just small-scale farming. It’s not high-tech; it’s not low-tech. It’s the application of all of those into models that make the most sense for each application, to address these big problems.
Now I’m not suggesting that this is the only way forward for CEA, but it illustrates the tremendous power that CEA has, just using CEA as a model. Right now in the United States, we’re growing more and more of our lettuce using CEA because most of our lettuce has grown in California and Arizona and has a tremendous environmental impact, a tremendous cost to shipping and logistics, and all that.
Again, I’m not suggesting that this is the direction we have to always take. But if we were to transition all of our lettuce production in the United States from field-grown to CEA, what that would do instantly is it would free up about 350,000 acres of fertile high-quality farmland. So that’s 350,000 acres we now have — that’s about half the size of the state of Rhode Island — of fertile farmland that we can now use for other crops. So, we just infinitely increased our ability to feed ourselves.
Now, recirculating CEA technologies conserve water tremendously. So, while I just gave half of Rhode Island in high-quality farmland to the industry, we’re also saving about 900 million gallons of water, fresh water, every year. That means not only do we now have 350,000 acres of fertile farmland to use, we now have almost 1 billion gallons of fresh water every single year to use. So, we just dramatically lowered our footprint environmentally. We just dramatically increased our ability to grow food and feed ourselves. And we dramatically decreased our environmental impact of shipping food.
Now, if I could invent a machine that would give you 350,000 acres of good farmland and save you a billion gallons of fresh water every year, I’d win the Nobel Prize. But CEA is doing it already, right here, right now.
Again, it’s not my goal or my suggestion that we just work on transitioning field lettuce to CEA. But it illustrates the tremendous power to solve those very specific societal problems as well as environmental problems. CEA also provides what we call real green jobs, entry-level agricultural jobs that are safe, well paying and train growers for careers in this industry as well as other industries like environmental control and food safety.
I don’t know of any other industry that addresses so many of the challenges facing today. So, for me, the future of CEA is going to be an expansion of CEA as an expanded part of the food production puzzle. It’s going to allow us to grow.
We’re going to see over the next five, 10, 20 years, more small-scale local farms. We’re going to see farms like Gotham Greens that are building large production facilities in various areas of the country, so the food distribution or the food miles is lower. So we’re lowering our environmental footprint. We’re preserving precious resources like water and fuel. We’re providing green jobs, food security, local economic development.
I hate to sound like this person who’s saying that this is the magic bullet that will solve all of our problems. But I really have yet to see anything that can solve as many of the big challenges facing us today as CEA.
Equally important pieces to the puzzle
Q: What else would you like to say to this audience of people working in CEA or interested in it?
A: I’m grateful for all of them to be involved in this industry because we do need more good quality people in this industry. I’m pleased to see the interest and involvement of not only farmers but people from other industries. People from all walks of life — non-farmers, if you will — I’m grateful and impressed by that.
I also think that in order to grow the industry though, we need to carefully examine the different technologies and different types of CEA for their effectiveness for what we’re trying to do. So rather than looking at a model that is promoted as the one answer to everything, look at the technologies carefully and look at their track record.
I see a lot of people come to the industry and say, “Oh, I just invented a great new system and it’s much more productive and it’s much better, et cetera, et cetera.” And they have no track record to show. Even on a small modest scale, they can’t say, “Look, here’s what my system is doing.”
One of the things you know if you’ve seen my social media, at AmHydro we post photographs every day of our growers and the great crops they’re growing and the successes they’re having. So, there is ample evidence out there for doing due diligence. We have investors all the time that have come to us saying, “Oh my gosh, how do you navigate all this ridiculous information out there?” Well, if you really dig and you look, you can very clearly see who’s doing well and who’s not, who’s growing great crops and who’s not.
I think that it requires a higher level of scrutiny or intelligent, educated analysis to move this industry forward and to not look at the industry as kind of a one-size-fits-all. Because all of these different models have space in the agricultural picture. I think as we go forward, there’s not going to be any one agricultural model that is going to be the primary or dominant or correct model. I think that there are many different pieces to this very big puzzle, and they’re all equally important.
This interview by Jolene Hansen was edited for length and clarity. Images courtesy of Joe Swartz and AmHydro. Featured image: Joe Swartz advising CEA growers in Egypt.