We work with local retailers—around here it's Giant, Wegmans, Martin’s, Peapod, Roundy's. We basically just deliver fresh produce to them and cut down on the number of miles food travels. We scale with them [by increasing or decreasing the quantity of crops] as well; we do that year-round.
Lam: How did you get into growing hydroponic plants?
Benoit: My story is rather unique. I got into this industry after my last stint in Afghanistan. I was over there for three years, as both a soldier in the Army and a private contractor. On my last day in Afghanistan, I was on the top of this mountainside with a bunch of my Afghan counterparts and we were digging a machine-gun pit.
I remember it being really hot. I was in full battle rattle: You have all your kit on—your pack, your rifle, everything, and so I was just sweating like there was no tomorrow. I pulled down my binoculars while we were digging, and I saw this guy with a pitchfork digging. I thought, “This is not good,” because normally when you see guys digging over there, they're putting roadside bombs down.
I was watching him, and he was just digging an irrigation ditch. He walked over and moved this clump of clay and water ran down all his fields and I thought, “Wow.” I'm up here digging with a pickaxe, and this guy is down there [with] a nice cool breeze, watering his crops, just having a great day. I thought that was something I could get into. And so I did.
I was at the end of my contract and I told my company, "Listen, I'm burnt out. I'm done with this. I've been here three years." I flew on a helicopter from Kabul to Dubai and then to JFK. I took the train to Rensselaer Station in Albany, New York, where my mother lives, and I drove to SUNY Cobleskill and attended school the next day for agriculture.
It was so time-consuming because I randomly picked agriculture, and I knew nothing about it. I went to a school with kids that were going to go inherit million-dollar dairies, and I didn't know the difference between a sow and a pig, or a steer and a heifer. It was a little embarrassing and intimidating at first, but coming right out of the combat zone, it kept me so engaged. I had to go and relearn so much stuff that I just had forgotten from high school. I came out of there with a degree in agriculture that was just heavily focused in greenhouse production, plant science, and hydroponics. I loved it.
Lam: What do you like about it?
Benoit: I liked the challenge it presented me, because it was something to keep me occupied. A lot of guys have problems coming home from war, and I almost didn't have time to think about any of that stuff because I was trying to figure out all the phases of photosynthesis. I'd say it's the polar opposite of what I devoted my whole life to as a soldier who was deployed overseas. You go from destroying things for a living to creating things, and I thought that seemed really peaceful. I was very comfortable with myself in what I was doing.