Indoor AgCon 2024 Preview: CEA at a Turning Point

This week we’re featuring a post from AmHydro VP Joe Swartz. Widely regarded as one of the industry’s foremost experts on CEA and hydroponic technologies, Joe amassed over 30 years of experience as a farmer prior to joining AmHydro. Now, he’s dedicated to sharing his expertise with our customers and helping farmers succeed both horticulturally and economically.

Indoor AgCon 2023 was as sobering as it was exciting.

It was the most well-attended the event had ever been, signifying the continually rising interest in CEA around the world. But it was also one of the first opportunities for industry leaders to come together and assess the ongoing string of high-profile bankruptcies which began in 2022 and would continue throughout the past year.

Indoor AgCon 2024 finds the industry at an inflection point. The dust has begun to settle around misadventures in indoor vertical. Thousands of farmers and industry leaders will eagerly gather next month in Las Vegas to discuss the state of the industry and our path forward. We’ve all seen what has happened, but how will we respond? Will we recommit to principles of sound horticulture, unit economics, and economic sustainability for farmers? Or will we find ourselves still believing we can find success by tweaking discredited ideas of tech-bubble moonshots?

I, for one, am so excited to join my peers for this conversation. There’s nothing like Indoor AgCon. I have so much appreciation for the dedicated team that makes it happen.

As we look ahead to next month’s event, I want to share a few thoughts about the moment we find ourselves in. What have we learned from the last couple years? And, if we believe a return to fundamentals is necessary, how can we make fundamentals as appealing as tech “disruptions” that have commanded attention for the last several years? 

If you haven’t gotten tickets yet, it’s not too late!
Register with code AMHYDRO24 for 20% off Full Access Conference Passes. 

What have we learned?

There has been retraction in the industry. It’s not great PR to say that, but we need to be honest. And we can afford to be honest, because we know that retraction is not a death sentence. It’s an opportunity to learn.

Prior to Indoor AgCon in March, I’m looking forward to speaking at a forum celebrating the 100th anniversary of the USDA in Washington D.C. I was invited, because the broader agricultural community knows the importance of CEA in feeding a hungry world. Yes, insufficient business plans have been found wanting. Yes, promised tech-breakthroughs have let us down. But at the same time there is no shortage of examples of success. Indoor AgCon is proof of that.

We can’t hide from our high profile failures. The days of investment based on promise – not proof or productivity – are over. We have to get back to a focus on unit economics, not scaling first and managing responsibly later. Products and services need to either put money in farmers pockets or else demonstrably save them time. That’s what AmHydro has always done, and it has served our customers well.

I know that these views are shared by the majority of industry leaders I work with and speak to, but my concern is that they’re not yet universal. I hold this concern because I see some CEA thought-leaders promoting the belief that quick fixes and ultimate tech solutions are still the path forward. They claim that we just haven’t yet found the right fixes or the right tech disruptions.

Innovation is always welcome. This year, AmHydro has partnered with tech company Ryzee to develop a farm management platform that addresses real needs, puts money in farmers pockets, and saves time. We’re not opposed to innovation. But we also need to be disciplined. We can’t afford to get excited by “innovative” ideas that aren’t based on sound fundamentals.

Making Fundamentals Sexy

The damage of the last several years is not just in the jaw dropping number of dollars invested into failed projects. It’s not just in the drying up of available investor funds. The most lasting damage is in the unrealistic expectations that these bankrupted projects set.

For a decade now, we’ve been hearing that certain doomed projects were building the farms of the future – implying existing farms were destined to fade into the past. Millions of marketing dollars were poured into convincing consumers and investors alike that certain products were guaranteed to change farming forever – implying that farms which didn’t embrace the new tech were destined to fall behind.

As it turns out, farming is doing fine, and many so-called innovations were actually just fads. But there’s not as much money to tell that story. There are savvy and innovative farmers around the world who are growing and expanding by building their business on fundamentals. But we are left with a challenge. How do we make horticultural principles and sound economics as appealing as the idea of an agritech unicorn?

Of course plain-ol’ farming can’t live up to that hype. But obviously neither could many of the most over-promising tech trends. Our task is to re-set expectations. To focus on what CEA does great (The quality! The sustainability! Growing local! Pesticide free! And yes, economic returns!) We need to meet proven innovations with more enthusiasm than unproven ones. I know our industry is filled with evangelists who have demonstrable economic success. Many of AmHydro’s customers are among them. These are the people we should be listening to.

I always feel so lucky to be a part of this important and rewarding industry. If you see me at Indoor AgCon, please come say hello. There’s so much to look forward to, and in the coming weeks, I’ll share a list of the panels and speakers that I’m excited to hear from.

I also want to make sure you saw our recent press release, where we announced some information about our upcoming new product collaboration with Ryzee. We’re developing an all-in-one farm management platform to help farmers maximize revenue and save time. You can learn more on the expo floor.

By the way, don’t forget to secure your tickets if you haven’t already! Register with code AMHYDRO24 for 20% off Full Access Conference Passes.

See you in Las Vegas!

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