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The Many Roads to CEA

June 20, 2024


We’ve worked with thousands of CEA growers in over 100 countries, and one of our favorite things to learn about is the ways that people came to the industry. There are so many fascinating stories!

Becoming a hydroponic grower doesn’t require you to be a 4th generation generation farmer, like our VP Joe Swartz. All you need is to have a deep interest in growing clean food, sustainably.

We’ve interviewed a lot of our customers and other industry experts over the years. Today we want to share some highlights from those interviews where people talk about the way they came to hydroponics. If you’re thinking about starting a farm, hopefully these stories inspire you.

“I was introduced by my daughter when she was just five. Her elementary school had partnered with Harlem Grown, and one day she came home talking about someone named Mr. Tony and his garden… Before I knew it, he got me to volunteer at the salad bar at the school cafeteria.

One day I came in and Mr. Tony looked concerned. He had a meeting to go to but didn’t have anyone to watch the greenhouse. He said that I should do it, and he said I should work with him, and I said yes. I had no experience. I didn’t know anything. He gave me 2 weeks of training then he was gone.

Still… I don’t know what came over me, but I fell in love with it. I remember I just stood there and said: “I can figure this out.”

Latonya Assanah, Harlem Grown >


“Years ago I was working in conservation right here in Hawaii. I’d get dropped off by a helicopter in the jungle and spend two weeks tracking endangered birds. I felt an enormous frustration that I was working my butt off to save a single species, but the main culprit was human encroachment on the environment. That led to my interest in agriculture. I see sustainable agriculture as a key part of conservation.”

Gantt Charping, Waihe’e Valley Plantation >


“I grew up on a hobby farm. Chickens, cows, meat birds; a pretty big garden. It was a great education, and I loved it, but becoming a full time farmer never seemed like an option. Instead, I got into building houses. I ended up working in Alberta and met my wife Selena. We were both from Vancouver Island, and wanted to move back, but it was so expensive. Even with some savings, the property values were outrageous.

We wanted to get a farm, so we were looking for big acreage, but there was nothing. Land was being used for hay, or sitting vacant. Our goal was to buy property that we could utilize as much as we can, better provide services for the valley. One thing we love about Vancouver Island is the residents. They love local produce, and will support local farmers over everyone else. We wanted to be a part of that.”

Matt and Selena Lawrence, Forest Valley Acres >

“I always hated the question “What do you want to be when you grow up.” I didn’t know. I liked a lot of things, and over the years I’ve learned a lot by doing a lot of different things. I’ve been an undeclared student, and then in finance, and then in marketing. I think there’s a lot of students who are in that situation today too. What’s interesting to me is how many different industries food touches. Everybody eats, and it can involve education, technology, science, the climate, and so much more.

We knew we wanted to do something to bring food production closer to the experience of ordinary students, but we also wanted to figure out ways to make a working CEA farm relevant to the educational and developmental needs of children from kindergarten all the way through high school and beyond. Some students may pursue careers in agriculture, but most won’t. How could we make sure that we were still equipping them for future success? Of course that’s really not so difficult.

By giving students hands-on experience running a farm, they’re learning about business, math, logistics, planning, and so much more, in a really unique and experiential way.”

Sherryl Anderson, Growing Hope >


“I actually grew up on a farm. My family were all Hutterites, a communal organization, and we lived together on a “colony” as we called it. Farming and ranching was our life. In 2004, my wife and I decided to uproot our family and leave to make our own path. Of course, farming was really all I knew, and I loved it, so I wanted to keep doing that.  

I had heard about a greenhouse for sale in this area. I didn’t really know what to think about the technology, but I saw potential. I said, “Let’s do this.” 

Reuben Stahl, Yellowstone Valley Farms >

“This was all new to us when we first started. Food wasn’t new; all three of us were veterans of the restaurant industry. But in 2016, when we started, we had zero experience as farmers. I had been working overseas as a restaurateur for years, and my partners were a chef and winemaker. We all shared a desire to get closer to the production of food, not just its preparation.

It’s kind of a funny story, actually. I like to tell people the reason we have a hydroponic farm in Texas is because there’s no good Mexican food in Taipei, Taiwan. That’s where I lived off and on for 15 years, opening and managing restaurants. My brother in law, Kyle, now a partner on the farm, was a chef. On one of his visits, I told him to come to Taipei and open a Tex Mex restaurant with me. There was not a lot of competition!

The problem was that you couldn’t get the chilis. Jalapenos, serranos, poblanos; they just weren’t available. We started scheming about how we could grow our own, accounting for the different climate and lack of nearby farmland in such a dense city.

Controlled Environment Agriculture presented itself as a solution, and I threw myself into learning how it worked. I fell in love with the idea.”

Billy Trainor, Verdegreens >

“My career has taken me around the world, and into so many unique industries. As I got into my 60’s, I wanted to find something to do close to home. My family had owned some property in Pittsboro for a while, and I just really wanted to do something productive with the land. I looked at all sorts of things, and hydroponics really appealed to me. My wife Amy and I are both very earth friendly, so the idea of growing food in such a sustainable way sounded amazing.

We heard about the AmHydro seminars. I wasn’t ready to commit to hydroponics, but I thought attending a seminar seemed like a sound investment. I’m so glad I did. I came away with a great feeling, pulled the trigger, and here we are.”

Jim Rigney, Lil Rooster Farm >



We love our growers and their stories!
For more inspiration, check out the full list of
Grower’s Highlights in our Learning Center.

Of course, if your story is still waiting to be told, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team.

If you’re interested in being interviewed as a Featured Grower, let us know that too! We’re always looking to tell more stories from the world of CEA.


-Your friends at AmHydro

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