Interview with Don Taylor at AmplifiedAg

We sat down with Don Taylor, CEO of AmplifiedAg, a speaker at this year’s Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit, to learn more about the company’s evolution over the last five years as a software and engineering trailblazer in the industry. AmplifiedAg’s collaborative relationship with its farming entity, Vertical Roots, has allowed the company to dial into the precise needs of the indoor farmer which can be seen in the company’s holistic solutions.

To set the scene I’m keen to understand the relationship between Vertical Roots and AmplifiedAg, what does differentiating your technology and growing operations enable?

Don Taylor - AmplifiedAg - Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit

AmplifiedAg is a manufacturing and technology company that has been built from the ground up, focused on developing a globally scalable, Saas-based farm management system and set of associated controls to manage and control indoor agriculture. Vertical Roots is the farming operation within AmplifiedAg. The initial intention of Vertical Roots was to prove out AmplifiedAg’s technology and farm methodology: manufacture and put a large enterprise farm into production; operate the farm and business; prove the technology’s impact on growing product in a consistent fashion; and prove the market’s adoption of the product. In less than five years, we’ve grown Vertical Roots to be the largest container farm in the world growing fresh, quality, consistent produce 365-days-a-year, operating at global food safety standards, and available in over 1,600 major retailers and schools, universities and restaurants.

With this success, the overarching strategy of AmplifiedAg is to ultimately sell and deploy our technology, both software + electronics, and indoor farms across the planet. We’re dually operating as an enterprise scale technology company driving the adoption of indoor farming across the planet, and a farm production company driving the adoption of hydroponic leafy greens across the United States.

At this year’s Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit you’ll be speaking about “Bringing the Digital Farmer to Life”, what does that mean and how do you embody that concept at Vertical Roots?

We built a software platform with the farmer in mind, influenced by our proof of concept with Vertical Roots and other controlled environments. From a pure useability perspective, the farmer needs the ability to easily manage all of the operations inside of the farm (from seeding, propagation, transplanting, harvesting, packaging, food traceability) and the complex business operation. Through the software development lifecycle, we used a holistic view to gather all farm and business requirements. This includes the needs of the farmer, the needs of the farm itself, the ability to scale, the visibility requirements of failure inside of the farms, traceability, and all of the business components necessary for an enterprise indoor farm to operate effectively. We used these requirements as the foundation to drive our technology and software development.

What distinguishes AmplifiedAg is our software engineers’ direct access inside enterprise farms, which gives them a unique advantage to be able to better understand processes and workflows required by the farms, and the various failure points that need to be monitored and tracked. While our farm operations are leveraging the software, the software engineers are leveraging the farms. This distinction is what has driven the massive success of Vertical Roots.

As we share our indoor farming platform with other growers, we’re able to provide them with software and technology that has a deep understanding and holistic solution, and in essence, brings their farm production and business to life.

It’s really exciting to see that you’re announcing your third Vertical Roots site! How do you select new farm locations? What considerations come into the decision-making process? What reach will this new facility enable for you?

Our architecture strategy in using shipping containers as indoor farms allows us to deploy farms in a distributed fashion. Our farm design and distributed technology enables us to put X number of farm containers as close to the point of consumption as possible, and scale to fit the market and community demands. With Vertical Roots our model is to put farms at distribution centers, whether retail or wholesale. The environment and food safety were leading factors in this decision-making process. Being at the backdoor of these facilities ultimately eliminates a massive leg of transportation and the risk of production contamination, by minimizing product handling. The ability to put farms at the points of distribution gives us the ability to reach as deep into the supply chain as possible, while eliminating costs and adding a higher degree of product quality and freshness to the consumer.

What have been the key points of differentiation or evolution between your latest farm design and your first?

There are several categories of evolution and differentiation in our technology and farm processes over the past five years.

First, LED Lights. As we know, light duration and intensity is an important component of the recipe to grow a plant. Five years ago, LED lights were not nearly as efficient as they are today in power consumption. With the evolution of the LED itself, today we are now assembling our own LED lights and integrating the controls within our software, so we can better control power consumption and light intensity on the plant. This is a huge differentiator and evolution of our technology. Our second evolutionary distinction over the last several years is our ability to gather environmental data on a large scale and correlate that data against tangible business results. Tracking harvest yields and weights to correlate with farm environmentals has given us a tremendous advantage in being able to grow larger, higher quality plants on a consistent basis. Thirdly, we have learned and now have a deep understanding of the complexities of processing and packaging leafy greens and have made many advancements in process and technology that will continue to evolve over coming years.

In summation, the most major evolution over the last five years is our yield and turns. Our yields are at 90%+. We complete 16-18 turns per year and safely produce a very consistent high-quality plant, which 5 years ago we were not able to do. All of the categorical evolutions mentioned above have directly impacted these results.

As you strive to continuously improve your operations, what will be your next area of focus of innovation and investment?

I view sustainable energy solutions as an extremely important part of the indoor agriculture movement. Whether you’re growing inside of a greenhouse, building or shipping container, auxiliary lights are always a requirement which are a large power drain. Our core innovations are in this area.

We are building our own LED lights, where we can control the power consumption through our software. This reduction of power through managing light cycles is an extremely important innovation we will continue to drive forward.

We are also implementing some small-scale solar solutions and experimenting with our own implementation of solar. We will not be able to operate the entire farm on solar power until new solar advancements but will be able to continuously reduce the power load on the grid with our innovations.

We will continually innovate on the ergonomics and usability of the farms themselves. Adding automation robotics when it makes sense, with the ultimate objective to continue increasing product yields and quality inside of the farms.

How do you ensure your existing operations are able to take advantage of the latest technology developments? How do you transfer learnings and knowledge between different sites of operation?

We have an advantage because our manufacturing, technology and farming operations are all under one roof. Thus, the evolving business requirements for functionality inside of the software (sensors, software process flows, ergonomic changes inside of the farms, and so on) are all being driven by the farmers and the technologists at the same time operating in a large-scale facility. This is how we bring new technology to the market. The farmers participate in this evolution, which influences a natural adoption of the technology that they helped evolve. Over the last three years, we have developed a set of best practices surrounding food safety, farming process, sanitation, packaging and operations. Those best practices are documented and implemented at every new site we bring live.

Meet the AmplifiedAg team at Indoor AgTech and hear a 10-minute presentation from Don on ‘Bringing the Digital Farmer to Life’ at 13.20 EST on Friday 25 June. Plus, he’ll also be hosting a roundtable discussion on ‘Enabling the Digital Farmer’ at 15.40 EST on the same day. 

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