Q&A with AmHydro VP Joe Swartz
Joe Swartz is the VP of AmHydro, a lifelong farmer, an esteemed consultant in the controlled environment agriculture industry, and the co-host of the Polygreens Podcast.
We chatted about future-proof farming, agriculture trends, great advice for new growers, and more!
Where did your interest in hydroponics first come from?
My Dad and uncle were potato farmers. As a young man, I loved farming, but I saw the challenges too. There’s a limited growing season in Massachusetts, and there’s no room for error; for a bad crop. My uncle passed away prematurely. He was always the one who did the pesticide spraying. He died from conditions related to that. I saw my father deal with physical injuries from the work his whole life.
I wanted to run a viable farm year round without destroying my body. I wanted to grow pesticide free, and I learned that hydroponics promised all that and more. In the 1980’s, not a lot was known -especially in the US -about commercial hydroponics. I was fortunate enough to find a mentor, a retired researcher at Cornell’s Long Island research station. He took me under his wing, gave me some guidance, and sold me some equipment. I built my first system in 1984. My farm was still a mixed operation for several years, but we’ve long since gone 100% hydroponic.
How did you come to get more involved with equipment sales and consulting?
In those early days, I started attending a few growers’ conferences and what I found was that some of the hosts would be providing information, selling equipment, and the like, but the information was not always good or useful. So I’d meet people, and when people found out I had a lot of experience, they’d just start coming to me with questions. I realized there was an astounding need in the business for usable and reliable information.
This is beginning to change, but the industry is still fairly small. A lot of people know each other. People would tell others about me, and it built from there.
So you were consulting, but not necessarily selling equipment before joining AmHydro. Is that right?
Exactly. In hindsight it was maybe inevitable that I would join AmHydro one day, but I didn’t come to work with Jenny and the team until I was in my 50’s. I had done plenty of consulting jobs with AmHydro clients, but I never had anything to do with their own equipment sales.
My connection with AmHydro develop organically years before I ever worked for them. I had always built my own farm around techniques and technology that were effective. In an industry with so much experimentation and development, it was difficult to find the right (and reliable) technological tools. A lot of technologies did not provide results. Long before I joined the company, I had seen that AmHydro systems were the best in the industry, the most effective. I got to work with AmHydro directly while consulting on some of their systems. I became a customer myself. Produces the most quality crops, consistent, and economic returns for the grower. The three pillars.
I had never worked for any company before. Like I said, I was in my 50s when I got the opportunity to join. But my admiration for their philosophy, model and products, made the opportunity very attractive.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you like to share with someone who is just starting out?
The biggest challenge for someone outside the industry is the unbelievable volume of misinformation. There are many interesting technologies, but so many systems fall short in one aspect or another. I like to talk about the three pillars: Quality Crops, Consistency, and Economic Return. If you want to get into farming, then the technology that you’re going to build your life’s work on absolutely must have all 3 of these pillars, or the whole thing will collapse.
If you’re just starting out, I recommend immersing yourself in the industry, even getting a job in the industry if you can. Get through the noise and find the techniques and technology that will help them reach their goals. One of my favorite sayings is “success leaves clues.” So ask questions, challenge everybody, and follow the clues.
How realistic is it to think about getting a job in the industry before starting? Are there any other paths to training?
Almost anywhere you go in the country, there is some type of production at least somewhat close by. The industry is growing and jobs are being created.
However, even if you can’t get a job, try volunteering. AmHydro offers hands-on learning seminars a few times a year, and these are amazing opportunities to check things out and get your feet wet, but to be successful, you have to have experience – practical working knowledge. Not just technical or academic.
Are there any common, avoidable mistakes you see farmers make regularly?
Most growers try to start too big or too ambitious. Starting small is the most valuable piece of advice I have.
People tend to believe that if you can get a system that will produce a certain amount, people will beat a path to your door. But that’s not always true. You need to develop your own market. Marketing and sales is one of the least appreciated or prepared for aspects of this business. We can help growers grow, but selling and effectively marketing your products is up to you.
Do you see any big trends developing that farmers should be aware of? How can farmers future proof their operation?
The biggest trends right now are in automation and in advanced technology. Everything from enviro control to AI and machine learning. The challenge is to use that judiciously. We need to see them as what they are — tools. Technology is not the be all, end all. It will always change, and a lot of it will not be effective always.
Do you want to know what growers that are going to succeed moving forward? It’s not necessarily about large farms vs. small farms or about cultivating a certain crop. The growers who are going to succeed are the ones who can manage and utilize tech appropriately. Also those who can be flexible and vary enough to react to changes in the market. Like Bruce Lee said: You need to be like water.
Controlled Environment Agriculture allows us to put food production in areas we never could before, but it also allows us to be flexible once we’re there; to change how we’re growing and what we’re growing very quickly.
Those have always been important concepts, but will continue to be important moving into the future.
What does the future hold for AmHydro? What role do you see yourself continuing to play in an industry that’s growing more and more popular and widespread with each passing year?
AmHydro is working really hard on creating more successful growers by giving them better tools and better equipment so that they can reach their own goals. We’ve seen many startup tech companies come out with shiny object technology. They get huge investments, and then they crash and burn. Amhydro is holistic, sensible and organic. Now, and in the future, we are going to focus first on grower success. We’re not just trying to sell them on our tools to meet short-term profit goals, we’re going to figure out what tools we can create that will give our customers the highest possible chance of building a successful and profitable business. Growers first.
New technologies are coming down the road from AmHydro. The industry is poised for impressive growth, and we’re ready to be a part of that. Keep your eyes on us.
Get involved anyway you can. Start small. Be humble with your approach. Develop with the markets and the rest will fall in place.