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Feature: Fast-Growing Vertical Roots Expands to Midlands

Arugula. Photo courtesy Vertical Roots

Arugula. Photo courtesy Vertical Roots

Onward and Upward

Fast-Growing Vertical Roots Expands to Midlands

By Eva Moore

On a recent Wednesday, Vertical Roots’ new West Columbia facility was a hive of activity. And “hive” is no idle metaphor: The facility is modular, built from retired refrigerated shipping containers joined together around a central spine, with some containers dedicated to growing, some to processing, and some to storage. It feels like being inside a very clean organism — or a beehive.

In each container, something is happening. A pair of team members are cleaning out and sanitizing a container after harvest to make it ready for new transplants. Another is up on a ladder applying expanding foam to seal the new suite. A crew is packing living lettuces, roots and all, into clamshell containers for wholesale to Publix. Outside, a farmer from Ridgeway’s Crazy Chic Heritage Farm is picking up bags of discarded lettuces, a donation for her hogs.

Vertical Roots grows lettuces — six varieties plus arugula — and it’s actually one of three vertically integrated companies: Tiger Corner Farms, which builds the hydroponic shipping container farms; Boxcar Central, a tech company that designs cloud-based software and control systems that automate the farms; and Vertical Roots, all of which roll up under parent company AmplifiedAg, which handles business development and marketing for all three.

Started in Charleston, the company recently expanded to a second location, leasing three acres at the South Carolina State Farmers Market from wholesaler Senn Brothers.

Brian Wheat, the company’s director of community engagement, says the company’s lettuces not only grow quickly under tightly controlled conditions, they reach shelves within 24 hours of harvest, aided by their location.

Each shipping container operates on its own five-ton HVAC unit, with an automated system controlling everything from lighting to temperature to hydroponic dosing. Each tray of lettuce seedlings is labeled and logged into the system, with lettuces tracked through their lifespan. Keeping each pod autonomous is important to food safety, allowing for quick containment of any problems should they arise.

The new site also offers opportunities for agritourism: Eventually, the Columbia facility will offer tours like at the company’s Charleston facility, with a small tour fee donated to local charities.

“This is an opportunity to bring another element of agriculture to the Farmers Market site,” Wheat says.

The company now has more than 100 employees between its two sites, and many of them don’t come from an agriculture background — they’re young people new to the industry who are drawn the company’s values, Wheat says.

“We’re able to get people into and interested in farming,” Wheat says.

Visit verticalroots.com for more information.

Chris Reyna examines lettuces at Vertical Roots’ West Columbia facility. Photo by Eva Moore

Chris Reyna examines lettuces at Vertical Roots’ West Columbia facility. Photo by Eva Moore


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