By Sarah Marshall
Over the past several centuries, farmers in the Pioneer Valley have adopted new technologies to make farms more productive and the work safer. The local Swartz Family Farm is no exception and has been an early adopter and promoter of “controlled environment agriculture,” namely hydroponics.
I had the pleasure of listening to third-generation Amherst farmer Joe Swartz describe the history of his farm and his work in the hydroponics industry to an audience at Applewood recently.
The Swartz family, hailing from Poland, purchased their property on Meadow St. in 1919 and raised potatoes, onions, and tobacco by conventional means – that is, growing crops in the soil – and ran a small dairy. Over time, use of horses gave way to tractors and the like, maximizing productivity during our short 120-day growing period. Joe relates that the intense work, including crop dusting, was injurious to the health of his father and uncle, and that the short growing season left the farm unproductive for much of the year.
When he took over the farm in 1984, Joe Swartz quickly built a greenhouse and began using hydroponic techniques to increase the farm’s production. Hydroponics is the science of growing food crops and flowers inside, in a soil-free system that supports the plants while letting roots develop in water containing carefully regulated nutrients and beneficial microbes. The farm shifted to growing greens and herbs year-round in 12,000 sq-ft of greenhouse space while leasing land to another farmer for conventionally grown crops.
One benefit of hydroponics is the dramatic decrease in water use because the system is closed. Joe noted that one head of lettuce grown conventionally in a field might require application of 10 gallons of water, whereas a head grown hydroponically needs less than 1 gallon.
A second benefit is that the ability to control temperature, humidity, and light enables a dramatic increase in productivity because crops can be grown virtually year-round. A greenhouse will use natural light when it is available and will augment with artificial lighting when necessary.
A third benefit is reduction in pesticide use. Joe says because of careful greenhouse management, monitoring, and introduction of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings, it has been 37 years since the Swartz farm used pesticides inside. (Other beneficial insects, namely bumblebees, are employed as pollinators.) Reduction of pesticide use is both safer for workers and desired by consumers.
A fourth benefit is that costs (including greenhouse gas emissions) of transporting produce long distance can be eliminated by growing hydroponically near markets and distribution centers. This advantage has become more significant during the pandemic when supply chains have been so disrupted.
Overall, hydroponics can increase productivity 10-fold on an area basis. Virtually any plant, from bananas to wheat, can be grown hydroponically. Whether hydroponic agriculture makes financial sense for a farmer depends on local factors such as natural conditions, land and energy costs, water availability, and the cost of conventionally grown produce.
Through his work training and educating area farmers based on his own experience in Amherst, Joe learned of a California firm, AmHydro, then (and now) a supplier of systems and equipment for hydroponics. In 2015 he joined AmHydro and began the firm’s consulting practice and his wife, Sarah, took over running the family farm. (Currently, the Swartz Family Farm is closed while it installs the latest technology.)
The company has now consulted on hydroponics projects in more than 60 countries, from Japan to Nigeria, and many U.S. states. The variety of projects demonstrates how significant this technology can be, on scales large and small.
For example, hydroponics can bring fresh produce year-round to food deserts in urban areas. An early project was designing and building a facility on top of an 8-story apartment building in the Bronx. The farm at Arbor House now produces more than 300,000 lbs of food for residents and the local community, and trains young people to do this work. A greenhouse on top of an industrial building in Montreal produces 600,000 lbs of produce annually for its CSA.
The technology can be used to reduce water usage and increase effective farm acreage in Egypt, or to reduce long-distance transportation of produce in Hawaii or the Bahamas, or enable fresh food to be grown during Alaska’s long, dark, and cold months. Indian farmers can use hydroponics where soil quality is poor, perhaps from pollution. Urban farms have sprung up from Paris to Singapore.
The 2022 Climate Summit (COP27) will be held in Egypt, home to the world’s largest hydroponic operation, covering 6,000 acres. Joe is working with farms that will be featured during the summit and expects to meet with President Al-Sisi this spring.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., government at all levels is adjusting regulatory and tax schemes to allow hydroponics in areas – cities, for example – where no areas are zoned for agriculture. The early project in the Bronx required extensive discussions with authorities to permit such seemingly sensible but bureaucratically unknown actions such as capturing rainfall and directing it to the greenhouse rather than into the sewer. The US Department of Agriculture only recently has begun making grants and financing available to growers outside of rural areas. Incentive programs hope to expand urban farming.