To Grow and Grow Connections

The Hydroponic Connection

Introducing an industry full of growth potential — and SUNY Cobleskill alumni

Feature Photo: The interior of a BrightFarms indoor farm. Acres of microgreens, lettuce, spinach, and other plants grow in a controlled indoor environment.

There are people in the world who lie awake at night thinking about the perfect microgreen. We are not saying Chris Hennessy, Class of 2018, is one of those people. What we can say is that he’s more likely to be doing that sort of thing now than he was before his internship with BrightFarms.

“My vegetable intake was never very high,” says Hennessy. “Growing up it was a struggle for me to be a healthy eater.”

BrightFarms hydroponically farms lettuce, spinach, and other greens. It is a system of growing that allows BrightFarms to source locally-grown produce to its communities and nationwide 12 months of the year. On a most basic level, it requires trained growers, sunlight, oxygen, and water.

It is a place Chris Hennessy almost didn’t wind up – neither hydroponics, nor BrightFarms. When it became time to find an internship in his senior year, he first pursued opportunities in the cannabis industry. When they fell through, he was fortunate to connect with a Plant Science Program alumnus working with BrightFarms.

Chris Hennessy at BrightFarms Selinsgrove. BrightFarms: photo

“They told me they wanted another Cobleskill student in their apprentice program. That was my intro to professional hydroponic farming.”

It was also Hennessy’s introduction to a network of pathways SUNY Cobleskill is forging in the field of controlled environment agriculture.

All Good Things

The rise of hydroponic farming is not so much new as it is new on the radar. The way people think about food systems has a lot to do with that. So does the demand for clean, traceable produce. Hydroponic farming checks those boxes with companies that grow local, sell local, and identify as local.

Growers also control the amount of water they use for their crops. The exact amount depends on the growing system. For leafy greens, farms typically use a raft system – deep water culture raft boards that, literally, raft in a controlled pool of water. Media-based growing is more common for crops like tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers; it relies on the use of a substrate.

A common set-up for hydroponic tomato growth. A media-based system using a substrate is common practice.

No matter the system, hydroponic farming treats water as a carefully managed resource.

Other variables include biological controls, like the introduction of beneficial bugs to combat any harmful bugs. There is also the fact that the amount of fuel used for transporting food is minimal, when you compare it to what is needed to source produce from regions where weather permits year-round outdoor growing.

By setting up in the heart of local communities, hydroponic operations can also dramatically decrease the amount of time plants spend in a refrigerator before they end up on a shelf or table.

Getting There

Developments in all areas of hydroponic farming on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean help explain the boom in North America. European greenhouse complexes have invigorated the field. As their designs continue to inspire similar construction, greenhouse architecture and technology alone have emerged as inroads to the field of hydroponics for many in the workforce.

That fact is not lost on students in Cobleskill.

“We take a diverse course load,” says Jenn Hammer, Class of 2020. She interned at BrightFarms’ Selinsgrove, PA farm under new head grower Chris Hennessy (yes, the same Chris Hennessy).

“I took weed science and soil science courses, but I also took business courses, courses in economics, nutrition… courses that were really important peripheral knowledge.”

“You need to be qualified in your education and your experience,” adds Hennessy. “Your way into this field can be through an interest in greenhouse management, energy, sales, or architecture… It can be an interest in valves and piping, or the most technical part of the operation.”

A tomato nursery in the Netherlands. The country is a leading designer of controlled environment growing facilities and greenhouses, inspiring new architecture around the world.

There is also a need for industry specialists. A major employment avenue, particularly for larger-scale hydroponic operations, is integrated pest management (IPM).

After apprenticing at BrightFarms’ Wilmington, OH farm, the company named Hennessy its head grower in Selinsgrove. His responsibilities range from controlling climate and water systems, to handling inventory management for seeds and media.

He also oversees interns taking the exact same courses he himself completed not three years earlier. That type of connection is common in the College’s Plant Science Department.

Hennessy interned with fellow SUNY Cobleskill Plant Science student Dave Del Pilar, and Del Pilar is now the head grower at BrightFarms Illinois. As interns, he and Hennessy worked under a supervisor who was a SUNY Cobleskill alumnus. Alumna Aimee Swett is currently an apprentice grower at BrightFarms Virginia.

It’s Delicious – That’s It

Jenn Hammer wanted to be a game warden before transferring to SUNY Cobleskill. Her interest in hydroponics stems from a lecture in a general biology class.

“I come from a farming community, and as we are learning about [hydroponics] I am realizing how innovative and future-looking it is. I am thinking about how much potential there is in this industry.”

That is yet another appeal of hydroponics – it is a field that is growing quickly, on a collision course with the future of agriculture. It is an appealing industry for new members of the workforce.

Jenn Hammer, who interned under Head Grower Chris Hennessy at BrightFarms Selinsgrove. Hammer: photo

“Hydroponics attracts a lot of different, innovative minds,” says Hammer. “All these new greenhouses are being built and companies are coming forward to build them. The job demand is going to be there.”

For such a simple formula, Hammer and Hennessy find themselves doing a lot of explaining about their industry.

“I see people every day, and I’ll spend 15 or 20 minutes just explaining what I do,” says Hammer. “They hear the passion, and the interest starts to build. I like to lay it out slowly. I talk about the local jobs angle, the fact that the product tastes incredible, the conservation of resources, the fact that everything is locally grown… You can see it start to click.”

“People are always curious about what I do,” says Hennessy. “I have to ask if they’re ready for it when they start asking questions.”

Peppers may be the next crop to experience a hydroponic surge, says Chris Hennessy. Large-scale hydroponic farming often moves from plant to plant. It takes time to perfect the growing techniques necessary for individual plants, even though many of the growing skills are transferable.

Change has already come, and is coming still. The Selinsgrove farm is not even a year old, and it is BrightFarms’ largest complex. Hennessy says competitors are actively building facilities to grow tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, herbs, peppers, and more.

Different levels of expertise are needed to grow the perfect tomato and the perfect pepper. But chances are it will be the best tomato and pepper you’ll taste.  

“I eat a salad for lunch because it’s delicious – that’s it,” says Hennessy. He and Hammer happen to be greens people right now, though he says many of the skills needed to hydroponically farm greens are the types of skills he could pick up if he ever wanted to move to strawberries or herbs.

“That is where the Cobleskill education really helps. I have the knowledge to grow anything. I still have my notes, I still have my books, and I had a spot in the BrightFarms apprentice program before I graduated.”

The networking helps too.

“We will get a call or a message and it will be (Dr. George) Crosby (from the College) and he’ll ask, ‘Hey, do you have a spot for an intern?’ We are always looking for our fellow alumni.”