“There is a lack of know-how amongst farmers to apply those techniques in a successful way,” says Joe Swartz, Vice president and Lead horticulturalist at AmHydro. In every situation, according to Joe, from geography to the skill of the grower or climate control, all play into what types of technology should be used. This requires a lot of experience and knowledge. Lack of this might lead to farmers being susceptible to misleading information, using ineffective technologies, which I’ve seen many people suffering from.
Joe adds, “Watching many good growers that have been led down a bad path in the industry, while investing so much into technologies that are not really effective, really breaks my heart. While providers know that they aren’t effective in this particular situation. With many years of industry experience, Joe is well aware of the challenges that the industry faces these days. Within the aquaponics sector there is not one singular technology, just as in conventional farming, rather various unique technologies can be combined for different outcomes.
Lack of know-how
When asked about the kind of growers that Joe educates, he notes that there are two kind of growers contacting him. “We have two types of growers: either growers facing challenges or new growers wanting equipment and knowledge. Both of those approaches are interesting and it’s great to be able to help them become successful. It is great to see our system helping companies to grow and develop and become a worldwide provider. Growers like that keep coming back to us. They are the ones that move the industry”.
Joe Swartz, Vice president
An essential part of being a vertical farmer, in Joe’s opinion, is having experience with working on the ground floor. Only this will teach you what it takes to manage the equipment, crops and technology. “The best growers have started in the greenhouse. Hydro-experts will get nowhere with their college degree alone,” Joe states. For that reason, AmHydro offers grower seminars and even possesses a commercial greenhouse where growers can work in order to gain experience. “Some growers don’t think that they need it as they rely on technology, but my experience is exactly the opposite.”
Joe observes similar trends as in the 1980s when certain technologies were promoted as ‘the farming of the future’. People talked about automatic farming, in which no farmer would be needed, new techniques and new lightings. All things we hear today were said back then. What happened afterward, according to Joe, was that some techniques turned out disappointing. Millions of dollars invested were lost, leading to the industry losing its credibility.
“As a result, investors only valid projects that already have a positive cash flow, as they have become more cautious. Some growers struggled to get funding, even though they had a viable business model. In a certain way, negative events have closed off some appetite for investments in CEA, which is a shame. It is a good investment in general, but every time we see a less than a reputable company or a technology that fails, it holds the industry back.”
Related to that, Joe says that vertical farming still has to overcome a somewhat negative public image. “The traditional consumer, at least in the USA, have an image of farmers working on the land using sustainable methods. Now, being a conventional farmer using hydroponics I know that it is a sustainable and safe way to produce food, but there’s a public perception of automatization, as robotic food. Some people even call it “Frankenfood”. In my opinion, the more we can promote CEA as what it is, sustainable growing techniques, people will be more accepting and investors will invest more easily”.
Joe strongly senses that the vertical farming industry needs more skilled farmers and growers to meet the demand. “A lot of my work is actually training people. We want to help especially young people, new to the industry, by giving them skills, experience and knowledge. I have been blessed to have mentors when I was young and I try my best to pass that knowledge as this will help the industry along. That’s one of the reasons why we now see some consultancy firms who see the economic opportunities. Sharing technology is the only way in which the industry will grow,” says Joe.
“Despite the diversity amongst growers that I meet in over 66 countries, all growers face similar problems. Funny tech flitches, pipes that break and spray water all over the greenhouse, or water pumps that break down. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a technologically advanced greenhouse or a small low-tech one. It kind of goes across the board,” says Joe laughing.