Interview with Andrew, Hydroponic Technician at Planted Detroit
Hello Andrew, thank you for this interview. Please tell our readers about you, how did you become a Hydroponic Systems Technician? What motivated you to get into this line of work? How did you come to work for Planted Detroit?
I think my experience is relatable to a lot of people. Prior to the pandemic I had been working as a Digital Marketing Strategist and did not like my work or my company. I spent the duration of the first lockdown reevaluating my career choice and decided that I wanted to do something that I felt was important.
When the time came to apply for work, I started looking at agriculture jobs in Detroit’s growing urban farming sector. I hadn’t heard of Planted Detroit before looking for work but when I looked into the company, I was very excited about the work they were doing.
After reading about the company, I knew I had to work for Planted Detroit, they were actually doing something to help humans combat the climate crisis. I applied as a Farm Technician, but my landscaping and HVAC experience got me moved onto the Hydroponics Team after my first 30 days.
So you come in the morning to your workplace at Planted Detroit, what is your typical day like as a Hydroponic Systems Technician?
We have a morning checklist that we have to go through every morning, most of which involves checking on our water. We document our water level first thing in the morning and at the end of the day so that we can accurately track our water usage, a metric that helps set us apart from other methods of growing. We use a recirculating irrigation system, which translates into significantly less water usage than traditional agriculture or deep water agriculture.
After we’ve documented our water level, we clear our sump, and finally we check our PH, EC, ORP, DO and temperature. We have an automatic doser but it’s critical to make sure that our water is in our desired ranges for each metric before we irrigate. Identifying discrepancies in the morning gives us time to balance our levels so that our water is suitable for irrigation.
Once the morning checklist is complete, how we spend the rest of our day varies; once a week probes need to be calibrated, twice a week trays need to be cleaned, once every three weeks our water reservoir needs to be cleaned. There is a lot of cleaning and maintenance, but on days that we don’t have cleaning tasks I work with other teams to help them get their jobs done so we can irrigate, or I take time to work on personal projects .
As for personal projects, Planted Detroit gives me room to get involved in whatever I find interesting. I have worked with the horticulture team to troubleshoot plant issues, I have designed and implemented plumbing improvements to our irrigation drainage system, and recently I started getting involved in the development of one of our new automated NFT vertical growing systems.
If I said I want to work as a Hydroponic Systems Technician, what skills and qualifications would I need to get this job?
I am sure there is some variance from farm to farm and company to company, but at Planted Detroit the most important thing you can bring to the job is a willingness to learn on the job and an appreciation for the company’s values.
I have also found that being familiar with power tools, and embracing opportunities to solve problems has been useful. I have done more napkin chemistry at this job than I have since high school, and I wasn’t even very good at it then.
So with all the skills and qualifications, what are the requirements of the job? Is a Study of agriculture a mandatory?
As a technician, no I wouldn’t say that a study of agriculture is necessary. Most of what we are required to do is maintenance work and we have pretty well refined SOP’s in our department. The cannabis industry is booming in Michigan right now, and the market is really competitive for hydroponics technicians. We have struggled to find additional technicians to fill open roles in our department and mostly we are looking for someone who can work autonomously, has a basic understanding of plumbing systems and power tools, and lives in the Detroit community.
How many hours do you usually work, and on what days?
Our department schedules separately from the rest of the farm but I work a standard 40 hour, 5 day work week. We have a rotating schedule so no one gets stuck working every weekend and no one gets stuck working both Saturday AND Sunday. Usually once a month we get a 3 day weekend, and each week we always have at least two consecutive days off.
Do you have interns who you give boring tasks, like cleaning the systems?
Nope, as a technician, cleaning the system is half of the job. It’s a good time to get to know your coworkers and hear new music or podcasts.
So after studying, learning the skills, making practice work, what salary can you expect for this position? Without telling us your salary, in which range people who work in this science can get a salary? What is your company average?
In Detroit the average salary for a hydroponics system technician is $41k – $48k. Our company average for hydroponics systems technicians is about $36k. That being said, Planted Detroit provides its employees with a lot of room to grow and invests in employees that want to move up within the company. We focus a lot on internal promotions and preparing our workers for roles higher up in the company.
Are there any other benefits to the job that you would like to mention?
Like I mentioned before, Planted Detroit is a small company, doing something different, in a competitive and niche agricultural economy. Detroit has an established urban agriculture sector and an ever-growing cannabis sector. I have expressed interest in moving up within the department and our leadership team has been really good about providing me the tools and training I need to do so. I haven’t ever had a company invest in me the way that Planted Detroit has.
Another benefit that is less tangible, and pretty much impossible to list on a job posting, is the intrinsic value I get from knowing that we are developing technology that will one day be the cornerstone of the agriculture industry. It will become exceedingly difficult to grow outdoors in areas where weather systems are destabilized and we as a species will need a way to feed ourselves, controlled environment agriculture is the solution to that so far unaddressed problem.
The final benefit is that I have great co-workers. We have a great sense of comradery in our department, I look forward to seeing my co-workers every day.
What is the most challenging if you want to set up a new hydroponic system?
Well the list is quite long for a large scale operation like our own. The obvious challenges are getting the initial capital, finding access to comprehensive renewable energy solutions, and finding a suitable building and retrofitting it for expanded utility capacity. The challenges are ongoing and remain present even past the initial development. Three years later and we are still refining and perfecting our system to optimize the outcomes it produces, but that is inevitable when you are working in an industry that is in its infancy.
Are you using a specific tech stack for the work? Which systems are you using frequently in your work?
We are increasingly automating our system. We currently use GrowWise for our lights and Tracer Synchrony for our environmental controls, and in the next year or so we should have a fully automated irrigation system run by Argus. We are also developing some proprietary HMI software and farm task tracking softwares but, for obvious reasons, I cannot go into too much detail about that. Over the next year we are planning on creating databases for tracking and mapping information in our department as well.
The more tactile tech stuff we use is an Agrowtech doser, a lot of different Google Sheets, and a variety of different hand probes for double checking anomalies.
What was the most interesting task you’ve done as a Hydroponic Systems Technician?
If you asked me this question a month ago, my answer would have been totally different. I may have said, troubleshooting and correcting anomalous overflows occurring in our return gutters. However, I am gradually becoming more immersed in the farm with each passing month, and every month presents something new and interesting to work on.
Thank you very much for your time!
You want to contact Andrew? Feel free to contact him by mail
About Planted Detroit
Planted Detroit is a controlled environment agriculture farm (CEA) growing baby greens, microgreens, and herbs in the Islandview neighborhood of Detroit. Using biosecure hydroponic technology, we safely grow our greens 365 days a year as an indoor vertical farm.
Rooted in Detroit, our focus is solely on getting fresh greens to Detroiters and Metro Detroiters alike. We deliver our products directly to our customers and retail partners 7 days a week, ensuring we maintain control of the greens’ environment from seed to plate. With a supply chain that is as short as possible, it’s our goal to deliver the freshest and tastiest greens we can to the communities we serve.
If anyone has any further questions about Planted Detroit, they can direct them to [email protected]