Many people get involved in the hydroponics industry because there is a history of farming in their family. Joe Swartz, VP of Commercial Sales and Technical Support at AmHydro, is no different.
Raised on a small, 4th generation family farm in Massachusetts, he grew up with the smell of chlorophyll in his nose and the feel of turned earth in his hands. His father was a potato and mixed vegetable farmer on 40 acres of land, and Joe inherited his initial agricultural skills and work ethic through his family.
A graduate of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of MA during the real estate boom of the late 80s, he realized that traditional methods of farming were no longer going to pay the bills, or keep his family farm in the family. “I knew I had to do some intensive, focused agriculture, so I started looking into hydroponics”, said Joe, “I happened to be introduced to a retired professor who had a small hydroponics flower growing operation, and he took me under his wing.”
This retired professor was Dr. Pieter Schippers, the former lead research associate at Cornell University’s hydroponic research facility, and the man credited with pioneering the variable-spacing NFT hydroponic system, used in many commercial production operations even today. As far as mentors go, Joe hit the jackpot.
Purchasing his family farm from his father, he began to put his degree and passion to good use, researching, experimenting and testing hydroponics system operations by building a 4,390 SQ foot lettuce production based upon Schippers’ design. “ Some people thought I was a genius, some people thought I was a kook,” Joe laughs, “I think it was probably the latter.”
Regardless of opinion, his little hydroponic experiments grew, and the Swartz Family Farm is now an integrated hydroponic vegetable and herb production facility, and the longest continually running hydroponic farm in the Northeastern US.
With a formal education in agriculture, thousands of hours of greenhouse production time, and a background in traditional farming, Joe was in a unique place as the hydroponics industry grew. Growing turned into consulting, as people approached him to get real, honest, practical information for their hydroponic commercial systems.
“There was no source of information [when I started consulting],” shares Joe. “The only sources available were strictly academic, from people who had no practical knowledge of commercial farming, or through a company just trying to sell you their product, regardless if it would work for your business goals. That needed to change.”
The following years saw Joe working on design and set up of many high profile hydroponic operations, including the first rooftop farm to sit atop public housing in the United States with Sky Vegetables, where he served as Director of Farming. This rooftop farm in the Bronx, NYC is still in operation today.
From working with rural and urban farms in the US to developing system technologies for extreme climates such as the deserts of Kuwait, the heat of the Caribbean, and the extreme cold of Northern Canada, Joe’s work has taken him all over the world, and eventually to AmHydro’s door.
Through his consulting and growing ventures, he met Michael Christian, the founder of AmHydro, many years ago. “We talked a lot about the industry, and I really liked the systems and the way AmHydro focused on created good growers, not just selling their product. He ran the business with integrity. I appreciated that.” AmHydro’s systems played a part in many of his subsequent projects, and a long time friendship with the company grew.
In 2015, the current owner of AmHydro, Jenny Harris, reached out to Joe to become a full-time employee with the company and be a part of the ownership transition. He, of course, said yes, and we’re so happy he is part of our team. Between all our employees at AmHydro, we have over 100 years of growing experience, and we are so fortunate that Joe is one of the talented folks that allow us to do what we do – design and build innovative hydroponic systems that make a long-lasting impact on communities all over the world.
Dividing his time between his now 10,000 square foot family farm in Amherst, MA and our offices in California, Joe heads up our growing training, provides consulting services and supports large scale commercial projects using our systems.
He’s logged over 50,000 hours of greenhouse production time, and, despite what his title may lead one to believe, in the greenhouse is where he is most comfortable and where you’re most likely to find him, sharing his hydroponic knowledge and working, hands-on, with growers from all over the world.
Oh, and he’s also a husband, father, former competitive MMA Fighter, Kickboxer, and the 5 time Skillet Throwing Champion at the Conway Festival of the Hills. It can’t be all work, all the time, right?