Interview: Darrin Swank of Swank Specialty Produce in Loxahatchee

Categories: The Verbal Nosh
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courtesy Swank Farms
Based in Loxahatchee Groves, Swank Specialty Produce is a large-scale hydroponic farm that has become regionally famous for the impeccable quality of the veggies grown there. Swank is a family affair: Darrin and Jodi had been married for years when they decided a soilless farm was in their future. She ran a travel agency; he worked as an electrician. Somehow those skill sets collided and -- boom -- Swank Specialty Produce was up and running.

The farm now pumps out more than 200 varieties of vegetables, edible flowers, and micro-greens, remaining on the cutting edge of food technology and trends. Customers are mostly restaurants that order in bulk, but the average Joe can get the goods at the Palm Beach Green market every Saturday from October through May.

The reputation of Swank's produce has already been well-documented on this blog -- it's hard to keep this sort of thing a secret, it seems. Here, our Q&A with Darrin Swank:

New Times: First, a little background: When did you start the farm? 

Darrin Swank: We started researching hydroponics in 1990. Hydroponic farming research began in 1996. Then we purchased 20 acres in 1999 and started the farm in 2001. 

How many employees do you have?

Three full time, one part-time, plus one or two volunteers.

Can you explain why you feel hydroponics is the way to go?
It allows you to grow plants on a higher density with fewer inputs, and you can create crops high in nutritional value. 

What are some of the challenges in keeping the farm up and running -- weather, pests, etc? 

There are challenges every day! Farming is a high-risk endeavor with low margins. The weather in Zone 10 is a challenge, with high heat, humidity, and hurricanes. As for the pest and disease problems, they're extensive. Being highly diversified, crop scouting for pests and disease helps tremendously. If you see a problem, you must attack promptly. Especially in organic cultivation. 

What do you grow, and what are your biggest sellers? 

We grow leaf greens, pepper, eggplant, beans, peas, root veggies, tomatoes, edible flowers, microgreens and herbs, shoots, squash, zucchini, broccoli, etc... etc... etc... We are testing cauliflowers and melon this season. Our leaf greens are our biggest seller. 

Can you grow spinach? I understand that's hard to do in humid climates. 

Yes, I can grow spinach. We start it around the end of October and run it through mid-March.

How do you keep up with industry news -- innovations in hydroponics, restaurant and eating trends, etc?

As far as hydro innovation, I read a lot when I have time. I'm big on the Growing Edge blog. Always have supported the Growing Edge publication. As far as food trends, having a good relationship with our chefs helps us keep up, and we like to search out good-quality food when we travel.

What's your take on/involvement with the "farm to table movement"?

Farm to table and Slow Food go hand and hand. Can't have one without the other. Both Jodi and I and our three kids are involved in the Slow Food Movement. We are on the advisory board of our local chapter, Slow Food Glades to Coast. It's all good!!!

Can you talk a bit about your approach to no-pesticide, all-natural produce? Is it more expensive than conventional farming methods?

My approach was and still is when I first started farming, I didn't use anything at all. As problems started to occur, I just took each one as an individual problem and solved it with a natural approach. The natural approach only works with a diversified variety growing method. This way, if you have a problem with one variety, it will not implode your whole business. For example, the first problem I ever came across was diamondback moths on arugula. I resolved that issue with BT (bacillus Thuringiensis). Another major issue are aphids; I resolve that with a beneficial fungi (beauveria bassiana). If you add up all the costs of conventional farming such as human health and environmental issues, natural/organic farming practices are way cheaper.

Does not growing in soil mean you can't be labeled organic? How do you feel about that?

I get asked this question a lot. We grow two different ways. One is a water culture system (NFT), which is enclosed and recycled, and the other way is a carbon-based system where we utilize Florida peat and pearlite and amend it with organic nutrition: poultry manure and feather meal, plus beneficial bacteria and fungi. To that, the answer is no, because you can utilize fish waste and certify organic as long as your plastics are HDPE (high density polyethylene.)

What is your opinion regarding genetically modified produce, which has been in the news quite a bit lately?

The GMO foods that are being produced are just a way for the huge agri-food corporations to get a stranglehold on the food system. They want you to buy their seeds that are compatible to their chemicals. There's no sustainability there, and it's certainly not natural!
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