With the use of agricultural technology, Vertical Roots farm in West Columbia created a packaging system for its leafy greens that cut down the company’s plastic usage by 30% and extends the shelf life of the lettuce.
In 2015, high school friends Andrew Hare and Matt Daniels created the idea for Vertical Roots, now the largest hydroponic container farm in the country. Hare is the general manager of the company and Daniels acts as the chief horticulturist.
The first Vertical Roots opened in Charleston and expanded with its second farm site in West Columbia in 2019. Vertical Roots parent company, AmplifiedAg, manufactures the container farms and farm technology of which Vertical Roots operates.
The farms are part of a growing industry called controlled environmental agriculture (CEA) that uses technology to ramp up nutrient-rich food production year around.
Hydroponics helps the farm use 98% less water than traditional farming, according to Hare. Their technology creates an indoor environment to grow lettuce on the East Coast. Most lettuce in the U.S. comes from California and Arizona, where temperatures do not fluctuate much throughout the year, traveling 2,000 miles from farm to table. Vertical Roots offers a solution for local lettuce.
“Our mission is to revolutionize the way communities grow, distribute and consume food,” said Hare. As populations grow, Hare said the ability to produce enough food is a global concern.
Vertical Roots agricultural innovation
As a company committed to sustainability, Vertical Roots had to address its plastic usage and the consumer demand for environmentally friendly products.
“I think everyone can agree that the amount of plastic that’s consumed and used globally is a bit of a problem,” said Hare.
If Vertical Roots were to completely opt out of using plastics, as much as 40% of the lettuce would be damaged in transportation to the retailers, Hare said. So the company decided to still use plastic containers in order to cut out food waste, but it changed the amount and type of plastic used.
By replacing the conventional “clamshell” plastic lids that you see on a container of lettuce at the grocery store, Vertical Roots cut down more than 30% of plastic usage by creating a resealable film lid. The new packaging comes at no extra cost to the customer and will be cheaper in the long-run for Vertical Roots, according to Hare.
The farm also uses recycled plastic that can also be recycled again after use. Tiny perforations in the film lid of the packaging allows air to leave the lettuce container and extends the product’s freshness, making Vertical Roots lettuce last around 14 days on the shelf.
“We tested respiration and condensation with each lettuce variety, and ultimately found that we could extend the freshness and shelf life of our salad mixes even more,” said Hare.
Growth in the agricultural technology industry
In the first three quarters of 2020, a record $754 million of venture capital was invested in the vertical farming industry, according to PitchBook data. This was a 34% increase from the entire previous year, Bloomberg reported in a January article.
A 2019 report from Global Market Insights showed that the vertical farming market size, or the number of potential customers or unit sales, surpassed $3 billion in 2018 and said it, “will exhibit a massive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 27% from 2019 to 2026.”
In vertical farms, crops are harvested on several vertical layers indoors, where farmers can grow year-round by controlling light, temperature, water and other factors, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Vertical agriculture is also seen as a growing industry because it “could help increase food production and expand agricultural operations as the world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050,” according to the USDA.
However, some are skeptical about the future of vertical farming for several reasons. The farms use LED light bulbs to grow the crops, which require a lot of energy and money to operate.
Also the farms mostly produce greens, which are low in calories because they take less water and light. The new farming technology is marketed as a way to combat world hunger, but in poorer countries, low calorie greens are not as beneficial, according to Bloomberg.
The future of Vertical Roots
Despite a tough year due to COVID-19, Vertical Roots will open two more indoor, container farms in Georgia and Florida in 2021.
The company lost revenue from food service customers like restaurants, schools and universities during the pandemic, said Hare.
Those food service customers accounted for about half of Vertical Roots’ business, Hare said. Grocery store business stayed steady and even grew during the pandemic. As schools and restaurants are slowly reopening, Vertical Roots is gaining business back.
The West Columbia farm location produces about $1.5 million pounds of produce per year, said Hare. Vertical Roots lettuce is in 1,200 different grocery stories in 11 states, including Lowes Foods stores, Publix, Harris Teeter and Whole Foods Market chains.
Hare said the company is constantly working on sustainable initiatives, including figuring out a way to reduce light energy consumption by 20-25%, thinking about compostable packaging systems and finding ways to use less water at the farms.
In the future, Vertical Roots hopes to offer a larger variety of produce. The team is experimenting with growing foods like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs and mushrooms to see if they could be viable products.