As founder and CEO of South Carolina-based AgTech company AmplifiedAg, Don Taylor leads a team devoted to developing and delivering innovative, successful farm technologies for the CEA industry’s present and future. Along with software and hardware solutions, the company engineers and implements fully enabled, enterprise-scale shipping container farms poised for next-generation scalable, sustainable food supply.
AmplifiedAg also operates Vertical Roots, a commercial farming enterprise that, at its peak, consisted of a combined total of 176 container farms at three Southeast U.S. locations, producing more than 2.7 million pounds of lettuce annually. After proving enterprise production capabilities with Vertical Roots, AmplifiedAg is now refocusing its efforts to serve the market with its technology, scalable container farms and in-depth grower support. CEA inSight talked with Don on August 2, 2023.
- Don’s shift to AgTech and CEA
- Evolution of AmplifiedAg’s mission
- Differentiators vs. other container farm companies
- Both a tech company and a grower
- Customer training and support
- New CEA crop development
- Transparency in sustainability
- Crossing the CEA chasm
- Challenges and opportunities ahead
- The world needs CEA to succeed
Don’s shift to AgTech and CEA
Q: Prior to founding AmplifiedAg in 2016, you spent decades developing software that transformed other industries. What fueled your shift to AgTech and CEA, and your belief that you could make a difference?
A: Prior to 2016, I was the Chief Technology Officer at Benefitfocus for 10 years. We were a SaaS-based benefits management platform. I spent the last four years of my career there traveling back and forth to India. And I got very familiar with the crisis that they were experiencing at that time, and still are, from an agriculture perspective. That really got my brain pointed in that direction.
I also really did not have that much of an understanding of what was going on with the climate and the plight of farmers. As I got more and more knowledgeable on that topic, it just got me centered on that — that that would be a place where I can apply my technology skills and hopefully make a difference.
Evolution of AmplifiedAg’s mission
Q: Listening to you, it’s clear this is deeply personal to you. In one of your articles on LinkedIn, you said you’ve set your “whole purpose and entire focus” on AgTech and CEA. How has your mission for the company — and for yourself — evolved since AmplifiedAg began?
A: That’s an interesting question, and you’ve probably put it into the roller coaster category. Out of the gate, the initial objective of the company was more of an altruistic exercise. We wanted to create some jobs for farmers. I wanted to understand how indoor farming could have a positive impact. As we got further into it, you begin to realize that it’s not easy to grow a plant consistently at scale, indoors. So we spent several years really getting to the point where we could perfect the technology and begin operating it at scale.
The mission all along has been, in my view, I’ve always seen an extreme need in the world, and particularly certain regions of the world, to provide safe food and access to food. Part of that strategy is really understanding that you’ve got to be able to deploy a piece of technology that’s going to work — and work at scale — in order to effectively do that. So we’ve spent several years getting to that point.
I chose to deliver in shipping containers with that vision and mission in sight, that being able to deploy food anywhere in a box that’s already built to get on a ship and go somewhere else seemed to make a whole lot of sense.
The CEA industry at large seven or eight years ago was talking about the issues with food security because of the climate and all the various things that are going on. If you fast forward seven years, all those things are very true and unfortunately, in many cases, are even worse. We continue to see the number of people who live in a food-risk environment continue to increase. So for me — for the company and for me — continuing to figure out how to deploy this technology into regions that really need the food is one of my top priorities.
We’ve also done a partnership with the USDA over the last two years. One of the concerns that I always had with our technology was lettuce is great, but it’s not really an effective food to deploy to regions of the world that need food. The USDA is now doing quite a bit of R&D with our technology, figuring out how to grow other types of products, higher protein products, which I think also really lines up very nicely. I’m very excited about the things that they’re doing, to really be able to prove that food other than leafy greens can effectively come out of these farms in regions that need that food.
Differentiators vs. other container farm companies
Q: You just mentioned two misconceptions about shipping container farms: They’re just for small-scale growers, and they can only grow leafy greens. Some of your AmplifedAg software and hardware solutions apply to any type of growing environment, even outdoors. But you’re enabling shipping container farms to be scalable facilities — enterprise scale. How does your approach differentiate you from other container companies?
A: When we were probably three years into it, we got into operating really large-scale facilities to completely prove out the technology. My belief all along had been that the farmer needs to be able to operate a piece of machinery that’s going to generate a return for them. And it’s going to hopefully reduce some of their risk while increasing the capability that they can deliver a product to the market.
So our containers really were built with two things that would go along with that: One would be the software platforms themselves. Twenty years ago, I started a company called Boxcar Central, which was a SaaS-based, warehouse management system for third-party logistics companies. So our core technology was really a logistics platform, a multi-tenant logistics platform. It was really built for scale, with multiple customers across a very complex set of business requirements.
As I got into the indoor farming piece, I very quickly realized that an indoor farm has a tremendous amount of inventory management and complicated logistics that need to be controlled. So our first competitive advantage really was around the software platform. We’re an enterprise software company first, and a large part of farming is logistics. So we were able to build on top of that model.
Then the next differentiator would really be the ability to grow at scale. We very quickly realized that one container needs to have one function, which is to grow as much product as possible inside of that box at a very consistent and repeatable yield and plant size. So we spent a lot of time building electronics to control all the environmentals. We are very fine-tuned in how we control the temperature, humidity, CO2, VPD. We have all the sensors and alerts in there so if something goes wrong.
All of that technology is embedded into the logistics platform as well. So that the farmer can log into one spot and see all of their pods, both from a business perspective and from an environmental controls perspective. That also really set us apart.
Then I guess the last piece is just our continued focus on horticulture and the process of growing plants at scale and really looking at the farms as a tool for the farmer.
Both a tech company and a grower
Q: AmplifiedAg often mentions anticipating the industry’s evolving needs. We see a lot of CEA companies draw a line, saying they’re either a tech company or they’re farmers. You seem to have erased that line — or at least blurred it — with Vertical Roots. What drove your decision to get into farming firsthand?
A: That’s an interesting question, and I think it’s an evolving answer, particularly in the industry. We initially started the company as a technology company. My intention out of the gate was that we would ultimately be selling software and farms to farmers and, to the point you made earlier, selling software and maybe not even the farms, but just control systems in general, plus the software.
Then as we got further into it, we began to realize that it really is a complicated problem to solve, and we felt like we needed to operate at scale. We formed Vertical Roots really with the intention of operating production-scale farms to understand the complexities that the farmers are facing from an operations perspective. Also, understanding the industry, dealing with retailers and distributors in the supply chain for food, is something that you really need to understand to help a farmer integrate into that model with this technology. So, we spent a few years really focused on the operations of the farms.
We are in a transitional phase as well, over probably the last year and a half, where we’re still keeping a foot in the farming world, but our core focus really is on now delivering the technology. And, for me, it’s really delivering that technology that we figured out how to operate to the places that really need it.
Customer training and support
Q: You mentioned enabling farmers. AmplifiedAg recently published a case study for one of your customers, Pure Farms. The level of training and support that AmplifiedAg invested in that customer was extensive. How important is that kind of training and partnership with your customers? How important is that to fulfilling your mission and vision for your company?
A: I think it’s absolutely essential. I would say outside of this business, through my entire career, I’ve always believed that you have to make sure your customer’s successful. If your customer’s successful, then whatever it is you’re trying to do will ultimately be a success as well.
In this world, it’s such a paradigm shift in many ways. The farms are very usable, they operate well. But being able to support the user from a software perspective, from a horticulture perspective, food safety — all of those pieces have to add up together for them to be successful. So, yeah, I think that any technology company that’s out selling technology should be putting their customer first and then making those investments, because that’s how everybody ultimately wins in the long run.
New CEA crop development
Q: Earlier you mentioned CEA crop development and USDA research. You also have R&D at AmplifiedAg. What are some of the things you’re seeing in new crop development that you’re especially excited about?
A: What I’m most interested in is seeing some of the protein plants really be able to be grown at scale — so like lentils, lima beans, broccoli. There’s experimentation going on with small seedless melons and rice. The USDA is actually doing a pretty hefty study right now on growing rice inside of the containers.
I think that ultimately the interesting piece is going to be which ones of these types of products can you get out at scale or at least at an economic level — where if you’re able to move a farm into a region that needs food, it’s going to be able to operate at least in a non-losing-money sort of way.
Transparency in sustainability
Q: Sustainability in general, but energy consumption in particular, is a critical target for the type of impact and transformation you’re talking about. It’s also a leading criticism of our industry. You published a very detailed Sustainability Impact Report and challenged other CEA companies to be equally transparent. How important is transparent disclosure of real, factual data to the future of the CEA industry?
A: I think it’s very important. The reason that most of us are here is because we’re trying to make a positive difference in the planet. And, yeah, power consumption is a challenge for sure.
I think that the alternative power sources will continue to evolve. My view has been: As an equipment manufacturer, my responsibility is I’ve got to drive down the consumption of the power — which, to your point, is really one of the core risk points in this industry right now. So, building our own lights and controlling the amount of power that those lights use. Looking at alternative methods of cooling, and continuing to drive down the consumption of power while the alternative energy industry continues to mature.
Right now, on one shipping container, if you lined the top of one container with solar panels, you’re going to get about a 15% offset on the power. I think over the next five to 10 to 15 years, if that same footprint can get you to a 75% offset on power, then we’re going to see a significant shift in the dynamics and the deployment of these systems. And while that’s happening, at the same time, we continue to evolve the technologies, the LED technologies and the cooling technologies, to consume less and less power.
Crossing the CEA chasm
Q: Obviously, there have been several high-profile CEA farm closures and bankruptcies in the news, and a lot of people have been quick to say this is proof that vertical farming doesn’t work or CEA as a whole isn’t viable. What’s your response to that?
A: I’ve been in the technology industry for 40 years now. I’ve seen multiple, significant iterations in technology going all the way back to the PC from the mainframe. Then the internet, Windows and all of those massive paradigm shifts. There’s always a trough, where there’s a significant amount of investment that goes into this paradigm shift. There’s a thousand competitors, and 10 years later, you’re down to five. We saw a very similar dynamic with Benefitfocus and online enrollment systems. I believe that that’s what we’re seeing today.
I believe that the world really understands, at least in large part, that we need to figure out how to feed ourselves in a more efficient and effective fashion. The early capital that came into the industry, to me would have been expected. I think that CEA being successful will be one of the most major technological advances in our lifetime, as we see the production of food change in such a significant fashion. So that brings a lot of capital with it — and it brings a lot of learnings. We’ve been at this for seven years and I feel like we’ve learned a lot and still have a lot to learn, being able to work your way through that process.
In the technology industry, we always talked about — I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the book Crossing the Chasm — but there’s a notion that when you introduce some new technology into an industry, you’re going to get a rush of early adopters, innovators who will buy that technology. And then there’s a pretty long period of time where the pragmatists, they’re going to wait and see how it works, and then once they’re sure that it’s a viable solution, then they’ll start buying.
That chasm is where I believe the industry is at right now where, whether it’s capital and/or traditional farmers waiting to see how this is all going to shake out. There’s a period of time where we just need to continue to evolve and be very careful with our capital and continue to improve the technology, and continue to focus on the things that we need to be focusing on.
Challenges and opportunities ahead
Q: What are you most focused on at this point, as you look to the future and being able to deploy farms to different areas of the world? What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities?
A: Right now, our core focus is putting the technology into farmers’ hands. Really keeping our head down, making sure that the technology works, making sure that our customers are having success. We are selling a good amount of technology, and we’re starting to see some traditional farmers now come to us who are interested in deploying the technology. And, for me, that’s how we’re going to benchmark success, to get farmers — local farmers, farmers in the United States — really having successful business experiences with the technology.
From an evolution perspective, alternative power is a significant part of that. So, we will be spending a tremendous amount of our time here over the next couple of years trying to find the right partnerships and building relationships with energy companies so that we can really bring the most cost-effective solution to the farmer.
The world needs CEA to succeed
Q: What else would you like this audience of people interested or involved in CEA to know?
A: There has been a lot of very negative press in the last six months on CEA and a lot of high-profile failures or folks that are teetering on the edge, which is a shame. Because from my perspective, the world really absolutely needs us — as an industry — to be successful. What I most want folks to see is that we get past this and really understand the advantages and challenges within the CEA space.
You made a comment about shipping containers really being able to operate at scale, and one of the challenges that I’ve seen is the optics. We can grow 1,000 pounds every three weeks in 320 square feet, which is significant. But when you walk into a container farm, it doesn’t have the same optical notion that you’re in a scaled environment. If you walk into a 200,000-square-foot greenhouse, it looks like there’s a huge amount of product being produced just because you can see it all at the same time in a spread-out fashion.
So I think it’s taking the time to really understand the capacity and the capabilities of these farms and the advantages of being able to deploy them as close to the point of consumption as possible. We’re plugged into distribution centers where we’ve completely eliminated one leg of transportation, which is an important part of the economics of a farm. And as we continue to evolve, really figuring out what is the exact right size farm for a community. Then that community can absorb everything that comes out of that farm, so that farmer can ultimately be successful.
This interview by Jolene Hansen was edited for length and clarity. Images courtesy of Amplified Ag.