A local organization is redefining what a farm looks like – trading fields for shipping containers. Done with safety and sustainability in mind, Vertical Roots’ diverse team is producing local lettuce for the Lowcountry with a firm background in science.

Vertical Roots and its parent company AmplifiedAg started 3 years ago with an idea Stefanie Swackhamer and her father, Don Taylor, had – melding his warehouse management software with horticulture.

A successful trial pod off of Main Street in Summerville has blossomed into a facility now located in Daniel Island and 30 production containers. More of these “container pod farms” are on the way, with groundbreaking for a new site in Columbia with double the output coming soon.

Lettuce grown in these containers, retrofitted and customized by amplified, are distributed to local restaurants, grocery stores, and donated to food organizations in South Carolina.

Vertical Roots gave News 2 a tour of their community farm. Its produce shown in the video above is donated to local animals in order to maintain food safety.

It might not look like it at first, but a modified shipping container can make the perfect environment for lettuce to grow.

The container itself is a controlled environment with everything from oxygen, water, temperature, and light adjusted explicitly with lettuce in mind. Take for example the interesting color choice for the lights- only containing wavelengths that the plants need to grow in order to save energy.

Vertical Roots farms can be placed anywhere and grow produce, namely leafy greens, that normally isn’t grown locally here in South Carolina. An outdoor leafy green harvest here in South Carolina can only yield 1-2 harvests a year due to our climate, compared to 15 from one of these farms.

It might look easy and clean, but it’s still hard and dirty work farming in these containers! It is just without the dirt as seedlings are first planted in coconut fiber and then placed in water channels that water them 24 hours a day.

Despite this, this method saves water! Horticulturist Matt Daniels explains that this process uses 95% less water compared to normal farming as the only water lost is used by the plants themselves. An added benefit is the speed- as plants reach harvest 10-20 days faster- allowing for many more yields a year.  

Despite the alien appearance, this results in lettuce that is as local and safe as can be as the overwhelming majority of lettuce comes from the west coast and is shipped here.

The controlled environment of the container blocks pests, negating the use of any pesticides, and with the smart combination of code – any head of lettuce can be traced right back to where it began if any problems occur with a batch of lettuce.  

This isn’t a showroom for the “farm of the future” that will replace pastoral fields, but a supplement. There are restrictions to what can be grown in these pods- both due to size and quantity.

In other words, you won’t see apple trees or corn stalks in these anytime soon. This will not replace the traditional farmer either, as both will work alongside, not against, in future crisis facing agriculture – solved in part by science.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson