SC Biz News is speaking with small businesses and community leaders about the impact of the new coronavirus on business and industry, and how this is changing how they operate.
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Andrew Hare, general manager of Vertical Roots, said the past couple weeks have shown the importance of having alternative business models.
Vertical Roots grows lettuce in hydroponic farms located in recycled shipping containers. The company has approximately 123 farms across the Charleston and Columbia regions; it harvests between 90,000 and 120,000 plants per week.
Vertical Roots expanded operations to Columbia in April 2019, setting up a facility at the S.C. State Farmers Market.
Hare said growing in shipping containers allows each farm to be compartmentalized. They also ensure that everyone who enters the farm uses wash stations and is wearing the right gear, including hair nets and gloves.
He added that since concerns about the coronavirus began rising, Vertical Roots has begun taking extra steps to sanitize other common areas such as doorknobs, computers and other places in the office.
“This virus, this pandemic, has not changed how we operate,” Hare said. “We abide by the highest level of food safety, and that’s not changing whether or not there’s a … virus spreading.”
Hare said he never wants it to come across that hydroponic farming is better than conventional farming — the two methods are just different. The most basic difference, he said, is that conventional farming is outdoors and susceptible to the effects of livestock and nature, while hydroponic farming at Vertical Roots is within a controlled environment.
“What we’re able to do is help supplement and complement what’s traditionally done,” Hare said. “There’s a huge need and demand to produce food to keep up with population growth over the next 20 years.”
Hare said sales to restaurants and schools have fallen dramatically as establishments shift away from in-person dining, but retail sales have “skyrocketed.”
“We’re very, very lucky and fortunate that our business … right now is on an upward trajectory due to the fact that there’s such an increase in demand in trying to get products in grocery stores,” Hare said.
He added that he believes Vertical Roots has a “social responsibility … to be producing as much as we can into our community. That’s our mission, that’s our goal … to create jobs and provide mobile food for communities.”
Vertical Roots has also been working to employ food service workers who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus, and Hare said he’s been impressed with how hard they’ve worked.
“They’re used to working with our product. The restaurants that we hired from are ones that use our products and now they’re getting to get the other end of it,” he said.
A bonus, Hare said, is that hopefully in the next few weeks when the food and beverage workers return to their jobs, they’ll have a better idea of where some of the food they’re serving comes from.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, this whole situation is proving how important our business model can be,” Hare said.