Rep. Joe Cunningham gives local farmers ‘a seat at the table’
Just off of Clements Ferry Road, there’s a locally grown organization with a big mission: to revolutionize how communities grow, distribute, and consume food. AmplifiedAg is the parent company of Vertical Roots, Tiger Corner Farms, and Boxcar Central.
“All four companies work together to create a more powerful and efficient way of farming through state-of-the-art technologies,” explained Stefanie Swackhamer, vice president of mission, marketing and business development. “In doing this, we are engaging a new generation of farmers and providing them with sustainable jobs.”
AmplifiedAg’s innovative combination of horticulture, manufacturing, software integration, and food safety caught the attention of U.S. Congressman Joe Cunningham, who represents the First District of South Carolina. He reached out to the firm with a request to host a listening session: an opportunity for a roundtable discussion with members of the sustainable agriculture community to learn more about their work and their challenges. The Congressman serves on the House Committee of Natural Resources.
On Aug. 27, community leaders gathered with Rep. Cunningham at AmplifiedAg’s headquarters to discuss the future of farming while showcasing efforts currently being made in the Lowcountry to build a locally established food system. Attendees included Stefanie Swackhamer, Jessica Brewer, and Brian Wheat of AmplifiedAg, Inc.; Olivia Myers from Lowcountry Street Grocery; Jesse Blom, The Green Heart Project; Tami Enright from The Bee Cause Project; Jamee Haley, Lowcountry Local First; Anthony Mirisciotta from Growfood Carolina; Amy MacKown, SC Aquarium/Good Catch Program; and Brian Ward, representing Clemson Extension.
The collaborative group first toured the AmplifiedAg facility, which houses Tiger Corner Farms, the firm’s manufacturing company that builds hydroponic farm pods from shipping containers, and Boxcar Central, the software and control systems design company. They also saw a Vertical Roots farm, which grows hydroponic lettuce for the retailers and restaurants.
“Representative Cunningham got a chance to preview a unique model for agriculture that offers opportunities for new jobs in agriculture, a resource-conscious method of food production, and year-round access to locally grown produce, right here on Daniel Island,” according to Swackhamer.
Cunningham was impressed with the company’s vision, commenting, “It’s remarkable how innovative Lowcountry companies and organizations are! We know that demand for local produce by consumers, restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets is at an all-time high. But it’s pretty clear that ‘farm to table’ is more than a hip trend here in the Lowcountry. It is an important business opportunity. The sustainable agricultural movement here in the Lowcountry is doing a great job of giving us an appreciation of where our food comes from. Groups like the Green Heart Project and the Bee Cause Project are in Lowcountry schools showing our children how food is grown, how honey is harvested, and teaching them important STEM skills while at it.”
Agriculture is South Carolina’s second largest industry; therefore, a productive roundtable discussion and “listening session” on Cunningham’s part was critical to understanding and supporting the farmers as they face ever-evolving challenges and gravitate toward futuristic farming techniques. In the state, explained Swackhamer, “There is work being done to support niche industries such as mariculture (a specialized branch of aquaculture) and specialty crop production and new and beginning farmer development by organizations like the Farm Bureau and SC Department of Agriculture that will help to propel Ag in South Carolina.”
Hemp is another crop being supported by the state. Brian Ward, a research scientist with Clemson University and Clemson Extension, attended the session and spoke about his work behind the scenes. He’s conducting trials across the state and around the world to test ways to improve production and resiliency of crops.
Swackhamer asked that the government put an effort toward giving more support to new farmers, to strengthen and unify market opportunities, provide assistance for disaster relief, and protect land designated for agriculture.
“Representative Cunningham’s visit provides an opportunity to tell the story of those who do benefit from Federal assistance and show the impact that is felt through that work, within, and between organizations that are integral to the health of our communities,” she said. “Many of those organizations present at the listening session are supported through funds allocated by various federal programs. Continued support for those will ensure that the good work we all are doing is allowed to flourish.”
Cunningham concurred, “I think America needs to do a better job supporting our farmers. These folks are the first to get up and the last to get paid. There is a disconnect between rural America and the country at large. When you can just walk into a grocery store or order something from your phone, it’s easy to forget where your food comes from and the work that was involved. My biggest priority is making sure that local farmers have a seat at the table.”
The success of Tuesday’s agricultural alliance was summarized by Jamee Haley, executive director of Lowcountry Local First.
“I believe it’s always productive when a group of organizations or businesses can come together to share their work and their challenges with our representatives,” noted Haley. “Having a small group at AmplifiedAg that could not only talk about the work we each do at our own organizations but also how we work together collaboratively rather than in silos increases the value of the sector. It speaks volumes when our elected officials actually sit down with their constituents to learn about their work, how they are bettering our community and the challenge they face. I know everyone who participated was grateful for that opportunity with Representative Cunningham.”