(Left to right) Andrew Hare, Don Taylor, and Matt Daniels have combined software smarts, engineering know-how, and agricultural passion in order to grow Vertical Roots, and parent company AmplifiedAg, into one of the leading container farms in the nation.
Written by Stephanie Hunt
Photographs by Mira Adwell & courtesy of Vertical Roots
Cultivating a farming revolution
Till the soil, plant a seed, nurture it, see what grows. Farming is the original start-up—a monumental, paradigm-shifting innovation. Long before Silicon Valley, there was the Nile Valley, where our ancient ancestors began a dramatic shift from a nomadic hunter-gatherer economy to an agricultural one. Season by season since then, farmers have invested sweat equity in growing new foods, always tinkering with more efficient practices, more resilient business plans. It’s Entrepreneurship 101 at its best—where there’s no planting, there’s no harvest.
Vertical Roots, a Charleston-based agricultural start-up, is working to shift the paradigm yet again. “We want to revolutionize how communities grow and consume food,” says Andrew Hare, a founder along with his friend Matt Daniels. The two high school buddies reconnected in 2016, discovering a shared interest in farming. “Matt, a mechanical engineer by training, was experimenting with peppers and tomatoes. I grew up growing orchids,” says Hare. Curious about the potential for indoor farming, they began scribbling notes on the backs of napkins.
“We want to revolutionize how communities grow and consume food.” —Andrew Hare, Vertical Roots co-founder
“We started with a small 10- by 12-foot space in a friend’s warehouse, where Matt soldered LED lights, and we built a little retention pond. We took downspouts from Lowes to make our first nutrient filter technologies, or NFTs, which is still how we grow today, only it’s a lot more sophisticated,” says Hare. They grew a few hundred heads of lettuce in their DIY system, and licensed the name Vertical Roots. Soon, they began selling lettuces at farmers markets and eventually to GrowFood Carolina.
A year later, Hare and Daniels met Don Taylor, the former chief technology officer for Benefitfocus, who was using his tech prowess to develop proprietary farm technology, creating indoor aeroponic pods out of recycled shipping containers. “Don’s team wanted to create sustainable job opportunities for farmers, and we wanted to operate farms, so it was a perfect synergy,” says Hare. Vertical Roots now operates under the parent company, AmplifiedAg, Inc., run by Taylor, which engineers fully automated, controlled environment agriculture (CEA) vertical container farms.
The start-up initially launched with growing containers next to Dorchester District 2 schools, providing fresh greens for school lunches.
By 2018, Vertical Roots was growing in six containers in Summerville that provided fresh lettuce to Dorchester County schools and two containers on Daniel Island to service area restaurants. Meanwhile, AmplifiedAg secured a location in a large warehouse on Clements Ferry Road for manufacturing and software development, where Vertical Roots relocated its Charleston farm. Now the company headquarters, it has an R&D farm for experimenting with “the next generation of products, such as tomatoes and strawberries, to offer our customers and retailers,” says Hare.
After three and a half years of “massive growth,” according to Hare, Vertical Roots is now the largest indoor container farm in the world, with 120 containers in Columbia, 24 in Charleston, and a recent expansion to Atlanta, with plans to grow in Florida and North Carolina. Their seven types of fresh leafy greens (“Beautiful Butter” remains the best-seller) are available in more than 1,850 grocery stores, food service outlets, schools, and universities in 13 states. You’ll find them tossed in salads at Charleston’s finest restaurants and in school cafeteria lines.
The benefits of CEA farming are numerous—good for the earth, good for the gut, and pleasing to the palate. “Most people don’t realize that 95 percent of ‘fresh’ lettuce sold in stores is grown 1,000 miles away and is usually three weeks old,” says Hare. “Our mission is to be as close to the point of consumption as possible.” This proximity to the plate means lettuce is tastier and more nutritious, as well as safer. Because produce is grown without soil, risk of E. coli and contaminants is dramatically reduced. Vertical Roots’ fine-tuned technologies also mitigate weather risks and challenges that conventional farmers face, and result in 95 percent less water use, reduced labor costs, and higher yield. Plus, the growing season is extended year-round.
The pesticide-free greens are grown locally year-round. The technology requires a much smaller land footprint and significantly less water than traditionally grown lettuce.
While their growth has been fast and furious, Vertical Roots and AmplifiedAg remain privately capitalized. “We still feel like we’re playing in our own backyard,” says Hare, which suits him just fine. Though the company plans for continued expansion across the US and internationally, he adds, “that growth will come from right here in Charleston.”
Tour the container farm at Vertical Roots:
Vertical Roots At a Glance
Start-up investment: Vertical Roots, $6,000;
AmplifiedAg $40 million, investment to date
Growth: In 2019, Vertical Roots had produce in 31 stores; at the end of 2021 the number had skyrocketed to 1,850.
Fun Fact: One two-acre Vertical Roots farm site can grow five million heads of lettuce.
Learn More: verticalroots.com & amplifiedaginc.com