Skip to main content

Seth Mathews is the head grower of Soilless Systems, LCC, a DC-area hydroponic consulting and installation company. Primarily working with schools, they build CEA farms designed to meet regional needs and bring clean food into local communities.

Hi Seth, it’s great to be speaking with you today. Can you start by telling me how you first got involved with CEA farming?

Absolutely. Some twelve or thirteen years ago, I was working for the stagehand union in DC when a friend asked me if I wanted to make some extra money by retrofitting a greenhouse at a local college. I had very little farming experience since the late 90’s, but I thought it sounded fun.

This school had an old teaching greenhouse, but they wanted to bring in a new system to streamline their growing process and cut costs while increasing productivity. I found I really loved it. Bill McGrath, the engineer in charge of installing the new system, started bringing me in steadily to help with more projects.


This has been pretty core to your business model, right? Helping schools and colleges build out CEA farms?

That’s right. Bill has been in CEA for decades. We’ve done hydroponics, aquaponics, aquaculture, you name it. In all sorts of settings. But we found there’s a lot of schools in the DC area that have or want to have CEA farms for their students to learn on. Eventually, Bill brought me in to form a new business primarily to focus on these types of installations. Sometimes we’re just upgrading and fixing existing systems, and sometimes we’re putting in brand new ones. Educators want their students to be on the cutting edge, so lately we’ve been helping to add a lot of automation.


These schools aren’t necessarily trying to grow crops for profit. What do the students do with everything they grow?

Oh, all sorts of things. A percentage goes into local food banks and homeless shelters, some goes to the school’s cafeteria, and some does get sold to local restaurants or markets. That way students can also learn more about the business side of farming.

How has your role grown over the years?

I used to be the lowest guy on the totem pole. Shoving sprinkler heads into tubing, that kind of thing. During COVID, I really leaned into growing, because there was just no work for me as a stagehand whatsoever. All the experience I acquired then led to some conversations with Bill about starting this new venture together: Soilless Systems, LLC. Now, as a co-owner, I’m building complex automated systems. I think my gift is problem solving, and it’s taken me pretty far. Really, every day I’m wondering how I got here. Years ago I just said yes to an opportunity to earn some cash, now I’m being interviewed by one of the biggest companies in the industry. I love it!


Well, speaking of AmHydro, how did you all come to start working with us?

Well, we had been using equipment from two different vendors for awhile. AmHydro being one of them. Over time, we came to realize, not only was AmHydro cheaper, but everything was just more durable too. The height of the tables, the thickness of the frames, it’s all just really optimal, so AmHydro has become our go-to for both frames and nutrients.


It’s been an interesting time for the indoor agriculture industry. Many companies have faced a lot of economic challenges. How have you all fared through the last few years?

It’s hard not to feel bad for the farms that have floundered, but it really seems like part of the reason that’s been happening is because of how many people have jumped in without really knowing what they’re doing. The value we offer is that we’ve done the research, we have the years of experience. If someone wants to grow, we know how to make sure they start growing as productively as possible given their space and budget. Not to mention, with all the automation, these systems are really hands-off.

That’s interesting though, because even though you have loads of experience, the people you’re building farms for are usually quite new, right? What sort of support do you offer after installation?

Oh sure, yeah if something goes wrong, we can help. I can access automated systems remotely; even solve problems from my couch without the client needing to touch anything, in a matter of minutes. We are expanding our library of educational materials, and I should add – even when we’re installing automated systems, it’s still important for people to understand the underlying principles. When schools bring in students to learn how the systems work, the kids spend an entire semester working the farm manually. That means reservoir fills, daily EC and Ph readings, managing numbers to account for weekends/holidays, and more. It’s not until the second semester that they dive into the automations, so that they can first build a solid foundation of why they’re doing what they’re doing.


What sorts of plans do you have for the future?

We’ve continued to expand and take on projects outside of the DC school systems. For instance, we just did an installation at the oldest Black-owned co-op in Mississippi. We’re also currently working on getting access to USDA grant funding for new farmers. The idea being, say you want to run a farm but you don’t have the funding. We can help you get access to federal grants, use that funding to help you install a system, and set you up for success. It’s just another way to get more clean food out in the community.


Do you have any other advice for people interested in growing for the first time?

First and foremost, do your research. Education is crucial. Even after you’ve built a farm, never stop learning and keeping up with the latest science and new techniques. Secondly, don’t forget to have fun. At the end of the day, you’re just growing plants. Don’t get frustrated, because if you can identify a problem, you can work to develop a solution.

Sign up for our newsletter to get more growing tips,
industry insights, and special promos sent
straight to your inbox each week!

Sign me Up!

Leave a Reply