Back From Afghanistan, and Straight to the Greenhouse

Mark Benoit, who grows hydroponic produce, talks about his rapid, unexpected transition from being a soldier to being a farmer.

Mark Benoit  (Rebecca Clarke )

Greenhouses supposedly date back to the first century A.D. and for most of the time since then, they were a niche technology used for producing small amounts of produce mostly for the wealthy. It wasn’t until the 1900s that greenhouses were used as a method of growing large quantities of crops. Even more recently, the locavore movement has sparked an interest in and demand for hydroponic vegetables, which can be grown in greenhouses.

Mark Benoit is the head grower at BrightFarms Capitol Greenhouse in Elkwood, Virginia, where he oversees, year-round, 200,000 square feet of greenhouses. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Benoit, who served in Afghanistan, about how he got into agriculture, what he likes about working with greenhouses, and how the transition from the army has changed him. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bourree Lam: What is BrightFarms, and what do you do there?

Mark Benoit: I'm the head grower for BrightFarms here in Elkwood, Virginia. BrightFarms is basically a startup that builds and operates greenhouse farms in partnership with different supermarket chains. We want to create the first national brand of local produce, and we currently specialize in hydroponic tomatoes and cut salad greens.

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.

Lam: What's a typical day of work growing vegetables like?

Benoit: Being part of the startup is very demanding. As the head grower, basically there are really two problems that I solve every day when I come to work: How do I optimize processes and how do I optimize conditions for the plants? The latter of the two is really where I earn my pay, because when you think about greenhouse production, it's easy for anyone to come into a greenhouse, flip the switch, and turn everything on that you need to grow. But that’s really expensive and wasteful.

What we're really doing as growers is conserving inputs, to the best of our ability, so that the plants can grow efficiently and we can reduce all the elements that go into producing a healthy product. The plant can only grow as fast as its most limiting factor, and a lot of your day is spent identifying what the limiting factor is. Then, you make a minor change to one aspect of the climate in the greenhouse and it has these huge ripple effects that influence everything else. For example, if it’s low light out, I don't need to run as high a temperature. And because I don't need to run as high a temperature I will bring the temperature down by venting, but I can’t waste the CO2 because my vents are open. So we inject CO2, and I have to influence my program so there's less CO2 being pumped out. Every day is a balancing act.

Lam: What's the difference between working at a startup versus a traditional farm?

Benoit: Traditional farms are very set in their methods and practices, and innovation tends to be stifled due to things like subsidies in agricultural fields. With us, we're always trying to figure out how to grow healthier and how to outperform conventional agriculture. When you measure it on a square-meter basis, our yields are just phenomenal because outdoors you're at the mercy of the elements. Growing inside a greenhouse is controlled-environmental agriculture—you're controlling every aspect of that plant's environment in order to optimize.

Lam: Has the rise in popularity in salads, and healthy eating in general, affected the greenhouse vegetable-growing industry?

Benoit: It sure has. Before the rise in popularity, nobody ever thought we could grow a tomato hydroponically in a greenhouse that was 30 feet long and our segment proved everybody wrong. In the last four to six years, I've seen a trend towards consumers demanding more local produce. They want produce that has a story—I see that whenever I give tours here. They want to be able to trust it, and they want to know it was grown in their backyard as opposed to across the country or in a different country. On average, the produce we get from the store travels something like 1,500 miles. I've also seen a marked increase in the demand for pesticide- and GMO-free food.

Before I started working for BrightFarms, I got my start in floriculture, growing flowers. Everybody wants a cookie-cutter petunia or Gerbera daisy, and the amount of chemicals that go into making that happen is astonishing—from pesticides, fungicides, and plant hormones. The demand for those sort of things hasn’t changed much in that industry, mainly because people don't eat the flowers that they buy.

Lam: As someone who is on the production side of things, I’m curious what you think of the ugly fruit movement, which encourages people to eat things that don't look the way you think it should look.

Benoit: Apples are a huge example of that. There are so many equally nutritious apples that aren't aesthetically pleasing; they're trashed [because] they don't have a waxed, polished look. They’ve got a few minor bug bites in it, so they don’t even make it to the supermarket. I think the demand and the onus is on the consumer too, to purchase those things because there's nothing wrong with them. I think the retailers also need to understand that this world of 100 percent beautiful fruit is a fiction. There is plenty of healthy, nutritious fruit out there that doesn't look like a work of art. It tastes just as good.

Lam: You were saying you went from a career of destroying things to a career of creating things. How does that transition and having this job now relate to your personal identity?

Benoit: It definitely brought a complete shift in personal values as an individual. For me, most people that I haven't talked to in a while wouldn't recognize this new identity as me. I have this real Hobbit-like passion for all things that grow now. If I'm walking down the street and I see a struggling plant, I get odd looks from people if I have a water bottle and I give it a quick drink. Sometimes, I water the plants at a nursery center or at Lowe's if I notice the employees neglected to. It's weird, but it makes me happy to be doing my part. It has changed who I am as a person. It's definitely made me a lot more patient. Nothing in agriculture happens in a split second; you have to really wait for your results. That just translates to how I deal with people on a day-to-day basis.

I was fortunate enough to get my degree paid for by the military, and then after college find a job that is 100 percent related to my degree. You're not that person that feels like they're at a dead-end job, because they're not doing what they're passionate about. It gives me an immense sense of purpose. Everyday, I come to work and I'm a guy that loves what he does and it makes me feel like a really important part of the division of labor here in the U.S. It's a super important role that's never really talked about too much. I've never felt this way about anything else I've done outside of the service.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a hemp farmer, a park ranger, and a cattle rancher.