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Career spotlight: Sam Bartels

Sam Bartels is Business Development Director at start-up, Vertical Harvest, in Wyoming.

Briefly, what does your day-to-day look like?

My day-to-day is pretty varied - it's important to note that we're still a start-up, so this sort of role flexibility is somewhat standard (I love it!). At the moment, in any given week I'll be working on developing new markets (for product distribution), overseeing our sales department, securing investment, public relations, and staff management. I also sit in on the production meetings each week.

Sam Bartels standing in front of vertical harvest system

What led you to this career/job?

I always tell people that the important thing is the goal, a fixed goal. The path to achieving that goal however can be far less rigid. I've wanted to be involved in agriculture for as long as I can remember (despite growing up in the city). When I was 16 I developed my goal: to have a lasting positive impact on the agricultural landscape. This makes it sound like I was some sort of 'super teen' - myself,  teachers and my mother can assure you, I was nothing of the sort!

Despite having a love for all things livestock (I majored in Animal Production Systems), my true passion for agriculture is centred in innovation that progresses the sector as a whole. In 2015 I attended a conference where I saw the 2050 global food demand separated out by commodity. Fresh produce was at the top of the list. Although I didn't know much (anything) about horticulture, I knew that out of everything on the list that it was the hardest to grow; only viable within a narrow range of climatic parameters, water intensive and highly perishable. I was sitting in my chair thinking we have to grow so much more with less land, less water and in a more varied environment — the conditions for rapid innovation were perfect!

I quickly became interested in vertical farming and when I couldn't find anything in Australia I started looking abroad - as soon as I found Vertical Harvest I was determined to get my foot in the door. Vertical Harvest is a community impact driven business - we pair innovation with an underserved need in both food and employment. At our proof of concept facility, located in Jackson Hole, Wyoming we grow tomatoes, lettuce and microgreens across three different microclimates. We do this 365 days a year, 20 000 metres above sea level and when it's -20 degrees Celsius outside. The best part? We employ people with different abilities to run our farm and have developed an inclusive and integrated model called the Grow Well model that will be rolled out across all our future greenhouses. A truly sustainable, for-profit, agricultural business?! I was instantly hooked.

What training do you have for this job?

I have an Agricultural Science degree from the University of New England, in addition to my degree I had previously held business development and sales roles within agribusinesses and before that had worked on livestock and cropping properties. My brother is blind, and this has given me insight into the challenges people with different abilities face in finding meaningful employment.

Despite not having any horticulture or hydroponic experience, the general production knowledge I gained from my degree and farm work, business development experience and personal experience made me a good fit for the team.

If you could change one thing about your industry/job what would it be?

To see more collaboration within the industry. Vertical farming is booming and there's a lot of money and tech development coming into the space. What's most interesting (to me) is that the majority of ventures are being led by people without agricultural backgrounds. This cultural difference combined with the rapidity of growth and investment has led to the industry being fairly siloed. In previous roles I took for granted how openly cattle and grain producers would talk and share with each other, all ultimately working towards the same goal - better food and better returns. I'm confident that as the industry continues to grow that we will get there.

What are the key skills, both technical and non-technical, you need to succeed in your job/industry?

From an industry perspective - we need more hydroponic growers! It was a relatively small pool to begin with and from that pool many growers have been drawn away from food production and into cannabis. Want to grow food and live in the city? Study hydroponics!

For my role, and business development in general, having a good mind for strategy is crucial; being able to align short term actions with the company's long term goals is key. You also need strong communication skills to ensure you can accurately represent the company at each stakeholder level.

If you had once piece of advice for getting young people into your industry, what would it be?

Focus on the company, not the role! Don't worry about what your title is. Find a company where you believe in their mission and take any job you can get. Work hard, be humble and you will rise quickly. I started with Vertical Harvest as an intern!