They don’t sound like farmers. With a team comprised of a former high school Latin teacher, a systems engineer, a mechanical engineer, and two technicians, they sound more like characters on the Big Bang Theory than a group of land-tillers. And while Tiger Corner Farms general manager Stefanie Swackhamer will concede that, “we’re probably the biggest bunch of nerds you’ll ever meet,” she also assures us that looks can be deceiving.
It all started on a whim. Swackhamer’s father, Don Taylor, former chief technology officer at Benefitfocus and owner of software development company Boxcar Central, heard about aeroponic farming from a friend in Pennsylvania. Not to be confused with hyrdoponics, aeroponics is the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil. Hyrdoponics, a subset of hydroculture, also forgoes soil, but instead of mist uses a water solvent and mineral solutions. While many would be averse to tackling one of the ‘ponics sans an agricultural background, Taylor was simply fascinated by the technology, plus he knew that he could use his company’s software as part of the growing process. Starting to sound a little like The Martian? Spoiler: Matt Damon doesn’t appear, but the rest is pretty damn close.
Taylor solicited help from Swackhamer in establishing their Summerville “farm” — picture a handful of shipping containers situated a few hundred yards behind a nondescript rancher (Boxcar Central headquarters) off Summerville’s main drag. Not exactly the halcyon landscape of our farmer forebearers, but a farm nonetheless. The shipping containers are recycled from Carolina Mobile Storage, also located in Summerville; one container serves as an office-like space, another houses tools, and then there are the farms, 320-square-foot contained environments growing upwards of 4,000 plants at a time. The plants receive no direct sunlight, and they are not gently tucked into the Earth’s rich soil, but they’re not subjected to mercurial Mother Nature, either. With the right LED lights, CO2 levels, and proper mix of nutrients, Tiger Corner Farms can grow a full head of lettuce — a beautiful, perfectly formed specimen — in approximately 30 days. For comparison, growing a full head of lettuce in the ground can take any where from 55 to 70 days. Now, try telling them they’re not farmers.
The nitty gritty
Swackhamer, the former Latin teacher, is at the helm of day-to-day operations. Also lacking a traditional ag background, Swackhamer is here, farming, for a lot of reasons; when she was a teacher at Stall High School in North Charleston, she says “those kids didn’t know what a good head of lettuce looks like. To know we’re part of the solution of [food deserts] and not part of the problem, that’s huge.” On our farm visit, Matt Daniels, the team’s systems engineer, is finalizing the lighting in one of the containers. A couple of years ago Daniels and a friend started Vertical Roots, a small-scale hydroponics operation. He connected with Tiger Corner Farms through GrowFood Carolina. GrowFood’s general manager Sara Clow was working with both Daniels and TCF separately when she saw the opportunity for a serendipitous pairing. Clow says that she asked the two companies if they would be OK working together: “It’s been a really neat process to watch. One of the reasons that Stefanie and her dad got into it was for charity, and I love that [the companies] ended up collaborating instead of competing.”
Upon entering the “farm” we are asked to put on special glasses because of the LED lights; the purple haze may transport you to a Jimi Hendrix concert, but the 300 feet of hanging plant panels before you will remind you that you are in fact inside a shipping container turned farm. To the right is a propagation table where the growing process begins; atop the table is a computer, the brains of the entire operation. The software — the code was developed from scratch at Boxcar Central — keeps track of everything from “seed to sale.” The propagation table holds about 2,800 plants per cycle. After 10 days in the table, the plants are transported to the hanging panels. A holding tank, hanging overhead to the left, pumps the nutrients through a chiller to keep the water temperature consistent. The resulting mist is sprayed from hundreds of tiny sprayers onto the plants’ roots three to four seconds every 10 minutes. “At the end of the day,” says Swackhamer, “a lot of what we’re doing is an analytics project. We’re trying to get the best possible produce in the shortest amount of time.” As a former teacher, Swackhamer says she loves this problem-solving, data-driven approach to growing. And the best part? TCF can share this technology with other farmers.
“The end goal,” says Swackhamer, “is that a customer will ask us, ‘OK, how do we grow blank?’ and we can tell them ‘here’s the framework, if you want bok choy you need to use this light integral, for arugula set these CO2 levels.’ We’re taking the automation of an algorithm and breaking it down.” Sound complex? Well, it is, at first, but TCF wants to work out all the kinks and provide customers with a product that is pretty straightforward to use, “my goal is for people to understand that it’s not that complicated,” says Swackhamer. “At the end of the day, it’s still growing, they are plants that need light, water, and nutrients.”
Aeroponics in action
So who is the customer base for these atypical farms? At $85,000 a pop, the containers aren’t cheap, but, says Swackhamer, they really aren’t that pricey when you look at most farm equipment. “This is a turnkey system,” she says, “plus, there are endless grant opportunities, whether it be for STEM, sustainability … so many categories that this could fall under. When we come across someone who we think is the perfect fit, we let them know we can help them figure it out. Money is never the problem. Plan and execution is the only real issue. And it’s not just a piece of equipment, it’s a whole farm.”
The Citadel has already purchased one of the farms; it will be run by cadets as part of a sustainability/environmental studies minor — working in the farm will be an optional Capstone project. The resulting produce will go into the mess hall’s salad bar. Another farm is being shipped to a family in Athens, Ga. who will use it for a roadside stand. “We’ve had all kinds of inquiries,” says Swackhamer, “and we’re just rolling with it.”
Daniels’ has his own Vertical Roots farm onsite, and once he has a consistent framework in place, he plans to start selling boutique plants direct to chef. Should local farmers be worried about competition in the kitchen? No, says Clow: “Chefs are pretty loyal to the farmers they use. I think TCF has the ability to hit other markets that folks aren’t hitting now, and chefs will make room for the TCF products because they will be unique.”
While venturing into this new market may be high-risk (this is, at least according to TCF and GrowFood, one of the few full-scale aeroponic farms in a region populated by pretty successful traditional farms), Swackhamer says there are so many safety nets in place when it comes to potentially interested yet hesitant customers. “While a traditional farmer might struggle attaining GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification — the certification is key, allowing you to sell anywhere, anytime — our environment is so controlled because of what the software collects, we know where the seed came from. So, God forbid there were some sort of outbreak, we’d be able to trace back to the exact seed.” And, while traditional farms inevitably waste water, TCF actually makes water-harvesting condensation from the AC unit.
While the technology TCF is creating and using is both groundbreaking and fascinating by any standards, it’s the charitable bent of the company that’s the linchpin, says Swackhamer: “Our mission is to get really good food into the community. We want to be a more self-sustaining community. Even though we’re techy and some of what we do sounds so complex, at the end of the day we want to grow good food and get it into the hands of as many people as possible.”
TCF has one farm, the community container, that is used solely to grow food for donations to local nonprofits, most recently including about six harvests worth of lettuce, spinach, kale, collard greens, and herbs for the Sea Island Hunger Awareness Foundation; the rest is donated to the South Carolina Aquarium to feed the aquatic residents. “It’s such an important part of what we do,” says Swackhamer, “especially in Charleston with the lack of available land, this is such a good alternative.”
In addition to funneling their product free of charge back into the community, TCF will also be bringing on an apprentice this May through Lowcountry Local First’s Growing New Farmers Program. “With the area farmers getting older, it’s important to get a younger group of people involved with farming,” says Swackhamer. Brian Wheat, who runs the LLF’s New Farmers Program, agrees. Through the grapevine, Wheat heard about this shipping container farm out in Summerville and had to see it for himself. “I did a site visit with Stefanie and we are both former educators so we understand the value of that and how these containers could be applied in a school setting,” says Wheat. Wheat, impressed by the farms and by Swackhamer’s genuine enthusiasm about the company and its educational component, decided to incorporate TCF as a mentor for the New Farmers Program. The program, run through the school of professional studies at College of Charleston, places participants with a farm that matches their interests for six months of hands-on, experiential learning. “The aging farmer population is not being replaced,” says Wheat. This program provides a new generation with the tools to tackle the challenges of farming in a changing world. And Wheat thinks that students will be particularly interested in the “super specialized and streamlined” concept that TCF is working on, especially those who aren’t attracted to the “old vision of farming.” There are people who feel a need to contribute to the food system or their neighborhood in some way, says Wheat, and an apprenticeship with one of these progressive farm models allows us to expand the definition of “farmer,” reaching a wider and more varied group of young minds.
The future is now
So what’s next for the less than a year old company? Swackhamer says Tiger Corner Farms is in the process of building a warehouse off of Clements Ferry Road so that they will have a bigger facility than their current backyard space. Even though the company seems to be evolving at a rapid pace, Swackhamer says they want to continue forward with baby steps. “We want to start with the Lowcountry first and foremost. I think there is plenty of need here,” says Swackhamer. In such a new market, Swackhamer knows that soon there will be competition as other nontraditional farms start to crop up. But she says Tiger Corner Farms isn’t concentrating on how to be the market leader. They just want to show up and grow good food. “Part of the fun when people come out, they don’t know what to expect,” says Swackhamer, “It’s exciting that it’s been such a short period of time and we’re already here. We’re putting a different face on a farmer.”