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Joe Swartz, American Hydroponics

"Seduction by technological advancements can blind a grower"

During the past several years, interest in Controlled Environment Ag (CEA) has virtually exploded. Current growers are expanding at a rapid pace and new entrants to the field abound. From greenhouse production to indoor vertical farming (IVF), we hear an unending list of stories of “new and innovative growing systems and techniques,” all promising a countless array of benefits. "Unfortunately, this isn’t new", Joe Swartz , Vice President of American Hydroponics, reacts. "Or maybe better yet, fortunately, this isn’t new." 

On his blog he writes on this. "As we delve deeper into the industry, we see certain patterns emerge: Many growing operations – particularly newer ones – struggle. The failure rate can be high. Even when these businesses survive, many of them do not thrive. The all too common seduction by technological advancements tend to blind one to the realities of a CEA business. This is farming. Period. On a daily basis, we can observe throughout social media the claims of how technologies make farming easier – more productive – or more “hands off.” While this might sound appealing, it takes one farther and farther away from a simple absolute in this business: Your goal is to produce a specific quantity of crop – abiding by specific quality standards – at a price point that provides a positive economic return. That’s it – and the foundation to achieve this is rooted in sound horticultural practices." 

Exacting and complex
"Please pay attention to these words: QUANTITY, QUALITY, AND POSITIVE ECONOMIC RETURNS. That is all a properly run, successful CEA business is supposed to provide. When you can achieve these three goals, anything else you want your business to produce: “green jobs,” local food to the community, lower carbon footprint, less “food miles,” etc, can be achieved. (But not without reaching the “big 3” first!) Whether you can adjust your temperature from your iPhone, stack multiple growing systems on top of one another, or watch your plants grow on your “lettuce-cam” while sipping a latte at Starbucks is completely irrelevant. Horticultural production techniques can be exacting and complex…..and the failure to adhere to those can be devastating. This is all too common, especially as we become more reliant on certain technologies. All too often, we see systems and technologies that are touted as “solutions” to certain problems (real or otherwise), yet violate the very basics of proper growing parameters."

Better growing systems
"That said, there ARE tremendous tools that technology has provided to the grower. These tools come in the form of better growing systems, nutritional and environmental controls, and data collection. These hardware and software tools have given the grower unprecedented levels of control over the growing process, as well as understanding and management of countless points of information. This can help the grower produce better crops, lower costs, streamline their business practices, and manage regulatory issues such as labor management and food safety." 

A tool is a tool
"But, a tool is a tool. A skilled farmer can take a tractor and use it properly to produce better crops with less inputs, while an inexperienced operator might crash through the barn, killing the livestock. Which grower do you want to be? (hopefully you don’t want to be the farmer who eventually gains knowledge and experience by repeatedly killing the cows, running over the landscaping plantings and crashing through the fence!)"

"The successful management of the complex biological systems we see in CEA requires a significant level of experience. The acquisition of such experience can be very time consuming and mistakes can be very costly. So how does one leapfrog this steep CEA learning curve? (and it IS steep!) Failure can be a tremendous teacher……..but a painful one as well." 

AmHydro has been directly involved in commercial hydroponic production for over 33 years. The AmHydro Advantage program is a consulting program open to anyone, and is supported by a full staff of commercial growers. February 22nd & 23rd a 2-day course will be organised focussing on the introduction to hydroponic crop production. Find out more here. 

For more information:
286 South G Street
Arcata, CA 95521-6670

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