Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

First vertical farm of its kind in the United States coming to Columbia

Ross Norton //October 20, 2023//

First vertical farm of its kind in the United States coming to Columbia

Ross Norton //October 20, 2023//

Listen to this article

The technology of the vertical gardens enable crops to be grown with much less water and without pesticides, year-round. (Photo/amplifiedAgThe S.C. Department of Corrections, joined by the S.C. Department of Agriculture and South Carolina-based AmplifiedAg Inc., received legislative approval this week to build a vertical farming facility and training program at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution, a women's prison in Columbia.

This initiative marks the first vertical farm in the United States to be located onsite at a correctional institution, according to a news release issued jointly by the Department of Corrections and Amplified Ag. This modern agricultural operation will provide incarcerated individuals with real world experience and career training in vertical farming and agricultural technology. In addition, the farm will supply fresh, healthy, pesticide-free lettuce — producing an estimated 48,000 pounds of lettuce per year — to the institution’s cafeteria and food program.

“This partnership is good in so many ways,” SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said in the release. “Inmates learn job skills while providing food for the institution. We see this as a win-win. We appreciate the legislature’s continued support in fostering innovative programs to improve our prison system and keep the public safe by helping reduce recidivism.”

The $1.2 million project received approval for $350,000 in state funds from the State Fiscal Accountability Authority on Oct. 17. The remainder is expected to come from private donations, the release said. The facility will be built by program partner AmplifiedAg, a Charleston-based agricultural technology company. The farm facility will use the same technology and modular growing infrastructure as AmplifiedAg’s commercial, non-profit and government research partners ð‘_x0081_‹ and will be upfitted with enhanced security for the safety of incarcerated persons and employees, the release said. The farm facility will consist of eight farming modules; four modules for growing lettuce, and four support modules for food processing, logistics and food safety checkpoints.

Vertical farming and agricultural technology are rapidly growing industries in modern agriculture and present valuable vocational opportunities for incarcerated persons, the release said. The Corrections Department, Agriculture Department, AmplifiedAg and other reentry organizations are collaborating to develop a full-spectrum vertical farm training program, where incarcerated persons will receive hands-on experience in every aspect of vertical farm production including horticulture, farming (seeding, growing, harvesting), technology, and food processing and packaging.

The objective of the vertical farming program at Camille Graham is to provide access to fresh produce, create a positive environment where incarcerated persons can contribute directly to their community, and ultimately provide STEM skills development and agricultural work experience for individuals to secure meaningful employment after incarceration ð‘_x0081_‹ contributing to South Carolina’s lowest-in-the-nation recidivism rate, while bolstering the state agricultural workforce.

“South Carolina is on the cutting edge of agriculture innovation, and this initiative shows it,” S.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers said in the release. “This partnership between AmplifiedAg and two state agencies will offer meaningful job training and a healthy work environment to incarcerated people, helping them learn the importance of farming.”

AmplifiedAg founder and CEO Don Taylor said in the release: “It is an honor and a privilege to be partnering and supporting the Camille Graham vertical farming initiative. This is an important and innovative program and has the potential to positively impact the daily lives of incarcerated individuals, reduce recidivism, create new jobs in agriculture, and contribute to the facility’s healthy food security program. Camille Graham is a model institution, and our objective is to prove the program’s success and expand the initiative to other institutions across the state of South Carolina and the nation.”

AmplifiedAg modular farms are designed to grow produce year-round, and can operate regardless of climate, weather or land, enabling local food production close to the point of consumption, the release said. A single 320-square-foot module produces 3,400 heads of lettuce every harvest, with an average of 16 harvests per year.

The technology-enabled farms are complete with automated hydroponic growing systems, LED lights, and an advanced software platform that monitors and controls every aspect of the environment (including temperature, water, air, light, humidity) as well as food safety and traceability. The controlled farm environments are built to USDA and FDA world-class food safety standards and therefore do not require the use of pesticides. The modules use up to 95% less water than a traditional lettuce field, the release said.