Female leadership in agtech has steadily increased over the last 20 years and that includes a rising presence in the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) category.
One company reflecting that growth is Amplified Ag. The Charleston, South Carolina-based CEA company tells AFN that 50% of its 140 team members and more than half of its leadership team identify as women.
Amplified Ag makes both container farming hardware as well as software to power a variety of indoor farms including greenhouses, container farms and vertical farms. The company was recently selected by the United States Department of Agriculture to be its preferred platform for doing research studies on CEA.
Vertical Roots is Amplified Ag’s container farming brand and currently operates in three US cities, with plans for expansion across the Southeast US in over the next couple years.
Two of the women behind the company’s current growth are director of operations Jackie Jones (JJ) and director of software development Rachel Downing (RD). Read on for AFN’s recent conversation with them about the benefits of container farming, the future of CEA, and the expanding role women play in both.
AFN: How did you wind up working in CEA?
JJ: I always say I grew up at Nestlé — I spent quite a few years there. Nestlé was starting to partner with farmers and improve sustainability and that’s where I really started having visibility into how traditional agriculture is going to become more and more at risk regarding soil, climate, etc. When I discovered Vertical Roots, I saw [it as] an opportunity to be at the forefront of this new agtech industry and really be able to change the way the world feeds itself. I had a really tangible skill when it comes to operations and manufacturing, and it was something I could apply to [the CEA] environment.
RD: I have been in the technology industry for 38 years. I spent 25 years with Piggly Wiggly here in South Carolina. Then I had the pleasure of going to work for our CEO Don Taylor, who at the time was CTO at another company. When he moved into Vertical Roots and AmplifiedAg, I continued to follow his company and the mission they had for our planet. This concept of growing food at the point of distribution and minimizing carbon emissions was inspirational. I felt compelled to move into this particular role here helping [Vertical Roots] to build out the enterprise software, and from my background in retail and being grocery retail, I understood that business.
AFN: Let’s discuss the business. How does Amplified Ag stand out from other CEA companies?
RD: We’re actually using our own technology, so if something isn’t working we can fix it. We’re more efficient with our electricity usage and are more efficient with the way that we use the water and we’re more efficient with the nutrients. Everything that we’re doing is improving the process of growing our products in our container farms. I really think we stand apart because we are users of our own technology. That allows us to evolve it and improve it.
JJ: We’re a one-stop-shop. We have the benefit of being one team under the Amplified Ag umbrella. So we build out the software, we build out the hardware, and then on the Vertical Roots side, we partner within our own business for proof of concept, so we are the ones that are using it. We don’t have to use external software to manage the farm, inventory, or to measure traceability.
RD: To Jackie’s point, that has been also the major differentiator: the connectivity of the farm management and the operational management. Say you’re placing a sales order, the software helps to tell the farmer what to plant when to plant in order to reach a certain sale versus only monitoring, you know, the water and the humidity and so forth. It’s a very interesting challenge to have a perishable product that you need to prepare for weeks in advance of that order being placed.
AFN: Why container farming versus another indoor farming method?
JJ: [We chose] container farming because of the absolute control of the environment. A shipping container is only 320 square feet. You can control every nuance of that environment. The risk mitigation factor is unparalleled compared to large-scale vertical farms if the pathogen were to enter that farm.
There’s also flexibility. Butter lettuce does not grow the same as another type of lettuce. And while you can grow all of these greens in one large space, to grow to the highest nutritional value, quality, and maturity requires the environment to be tailored specifically to that plant.
[Containers are also] incredibly capital efficient. So while we can sign a lease on a piece of land, we can have containers shipped and start the growing process within 30 days and then scale up that operation or move it if we so choose to.
RD: There’s a key factor to that embedded technology that we have inside of that container farm that not only helps to monitor and address issues — dosing pH up or pH down or adding additional nutrients — it also has the ability to alert a farmer that there may be something that’s off like temperature, or CO2 generation.
Being a small farm, you just have so much more control over what’s happening in that environment. And then the risk to the crop is so much smaller. If the temperature gets too high, you’re not going to lose the entire warehouse of product, you’re gonna lose a single farm. Also another aspect of sustainability: these are shipping containers that are going to a landfill. So we’re repurposing them and keeping them out of the landfill and making something useful out of them.
AFN: How can CEA address the need to grow food beyond lettuces or, say, strawberries?
RD: The underlying answer is technology and having an alerting technology that can understand how a particular plant grows. So what we’re doing right now at Amplified AG is understanding every single nuance of how to grow not just lettuce but every variety of lettuce, any type of variety of green, and then having all of those learnings and then apply them to other types of fruits and vegetables.
Amplified Ag actually has a mission to help world hunger and to provide vertical units in climate-impacted areas because we have the modular capacity to do so. Right now we’re testing peppers and tomatoes and all sorts of things but the goal is to be able to grow protein and nutrient-rich food. And also, maybe not even foods that are directly consumed by humans, but are consumed by animals and other species that then become food for human populations.
The truth is that CEA will never replace traditional agriculture. It’s a growing piece of the pie but will never replace local farmers.
AFN: How do you see the role of women in CEA evolving?
JJ: We definitely have a significant number of women who want to be farmers. And so many people join our organization because of our sustainability initiatives or the nurturing part of our mission, which women are naturally drawn to. In a world where agriculture is a male-dominated field, I think women see CEA as an opportunity to break into this industry without having to take the traditional route. And so then within our organization, too, it’s an opportunity for them to learn the agriculture piece but then they also have the opportunity to grow into other roles.
RD: Jackie, and I happen to both be on the board of directors for Charleston women in tech. So we have a mission and a passion to encourage and support women in entering into the technical field. And so not just through that initiative, but through others. I have pretty strong contacts with females that are in technical roles. So we really have a network that allows us the opportunity to equally hire with complete disregard to gender.
It is our firm belief that over the coming years, anyone who has joined this team, regardless of the role that they’re in today, if they have an interest in python programming or Java development, or front-end user experience, those are all roles that will become available, even outside of farming. We have so many people who do this hydroponic farming themselves at home and want to get into to see what we do, but their main passion might be in software development, or sales or something else. There’s a great opportunity here for for growth.