Feature

Thinking Inside the Box – Tiger Corner Farms

A Summerville aeroponic farm manufacturer takes the dirty work out of farming while working toward  a greener future locally and beyond.

For longtime Summerville residents and frequent visitors, the drive from the interstate into the charming downtown area is a familiar one: take the off-ramp from I-26, drive past the big box stores, and pass through a stretch of land packed with fast food options.Here, one can find it all: McDonald’s, Arby’s, Cookout, Checkers, Taco Bell, Subway, and Wendy’s are all located within a mile or so of one another: a veritable smorgasbord of often heavily processed fare far removed from the farms where many of their ingredients originated. A quick skip along the journey toward the quaint historic Main Street shops and high-quality restaurants, the area is a place where many drivers enter autopilot mode, the scene outside blurring as they focus on their ultimate destinations. But just beyond the sound of spatulas hitting griddles and the scent of fryer oil on full blast is something entirely unexpected: tucked quietly behind the restaurants is Tiger Corner Farms, a manufacturer of indoor aeroponic farms featuring on-site containers brimming with fresh, verdant produce.

Once you know what to look for, you really can’t miss the shipping containers occupying the parking lot at Tiger Corner Farms. They’re the same as the ones seen on the backs of 18-wheelers or container ships, only these have been decertified for sea and are, effectively, a large hunk of junk metal when the team receives it. But just as a book should not receive judgment based on its cover, so these boxes should not be dismissed too quickly because of their external appearance. Quite literally, they have the potential to change the world.

The idea of making an impact on society was where this whole operation started, when founder Don Taylor, former Chief Technology Officer for over a decade at Benefitfocus, made a bold decision: he wanted to feed the hungry. Together with his daughter, Stefanie Swackhamer, they brainstormed ideas. Initially, they planned to build a large greenhouse facility out on some land Taylor owned in Jamestown on Tiger Corner Road, but after seeing a friend’s aeroponics greenhouse in Pennsylvania, Taylor had an epiphany. As his eyes traveled over the floor-to-ceiling lush, green walls of produce, his mind took note of the lack of bugs and dirt, and the possibility for lending his technology background to a similar operation. A trip to Las Vegas with Swackhamer to attend a conference focusing on indoor agriculture cemented what their hearts already knew: aeroponics was the way to an impactful future.

With two young children at home, Swackhamer had been on a years-long hiatus from her teaching job when her father recruited her to work on his new project. Passionate about the idea, Swackhamer jumped in with both feet, and the duo began to pave new ground within the community. They opted to keep the intended name for their Jamestown greenhouse operation, Tiger Corner Farms, and moved into a shared space in Summerville with Boxcar Central, Taylor’s software company, less than a year ago. Then began the recruiting process.

First, they needed a mechanical engineer—someone who could figure out how to create an entire growing operation and maximize the space in a single container. Taylor mentioned to his daughter that someone with a background in submarines would be perfect for the gig, given the small space, and Swackhamer immediately knew the guy they needed: Evan Aluise, the husband of one of her friends and a former Navy submarine engineer. After he came on board, they began looking for a builder, someone who could make schematics a reality. They landed on Eric Shuler, a friend of Taylor’s from Jamestown. Aluise and Shuler began working closely together creating the physical structure of the container interiors. S soon, they needed someone with extensive knowledge about plants. Enter Matt Daniels, a horticultural expert and co-owner of local company, Vertical Roots. He became their Systems Engineer and go-to guy for any plant-related questions. Finally, they hired Robert Phillips, an electrical engineer with a passion for technology and sustainability. Working together as a seamless unit, each individual passionate about the mission of the company, the small team at Tiger Corner Farms serves as a strong foundation for success, and thus far, they’ve proven to be unstoppable.

After the crew acquires a shipping container, they set to work. It takes only two and a half weeks with all hands on deck: painting, installing electrical, water, and ventilation systems, and fitting the components within the interior. While they build, they start seedlings, and once the container is ready, they transplant them within the wall panels right away. These 320-square-foot containers can grow over 4,500 plants in around 30 days—all on less than 10 gallons of water a day. The plants sit in specially designed wall panels housing atomizing sprayers, which deliver a five-second mist to the air-suspended roots every five minutes containing everything the plants need to flourish. Utilizing software custom created by Boxcar Central, the container farmer can track humidity, air temperature, CO2 levels, nutrient levels, inventories, lighting, and more, enabling them to control even the finest details on-site or remotely. Currently, the panels can play host to leafy greens, herbs, and some edible flowers, and the controlled environment allows for 10-12 harvests a year: a far cry from the two harvests average local conventional growers produce for leafy greens and the like, which don’t grow well outside of the cooler months. The whole operation works as an efficient, finely tuned machine, enabling rapid, controlled growth without the need for sun, soil, harsh chemical pesticides, a large carbon footprint, or reliance on supportive weather.

In these early days as a startup, the Tiger Corner Farms team heavily focuses on creating an impeccable product, and they use their two on-site farms as well as a number of locally placed containers to discover ways they can improve their systems, making adjustments to the software as they learn what is and is not intuitive for a new user. They partner with Lowcountry Local First with their “Growing New Farmers” program, introducing future farmers to the world of high-yield urban farming. They just sent a container farm out to the Citadel, where cadets get hands-on experience with the growing operations. One of the on-site containers at Tiger Corner Farms serves as a source of leafy contributions to the surrounding community for both humans and turtles; the latter can be found gobbling up the donations at the South Carolina Aquarium. Though they already have a strong altruistic presence in the area, especially for a fairly new company, Swackhamer and the team continue to seek out opportunities to expand their reach, in both educating and feeding the public.

Though Tiger Corner Farms and their aeroponic container operations have been well-received by most, some fear that the company is attempting to encroach upon conventional farmers, taking away from their hard-earned profits and edging them out of the marketplace. But the team at Tiger Corner Farms offers consistent reassurance. They maintain that they are supplementary to traditional farming, a small added boost to the amount of produce available to an ever-expanding population, grown in a way that is attractive to the more technologically savvy generations and can bridge gaps between areas abundant in fresh food. In that vein, they are extremely passionate about getting the farms into the hands of people who could affect major change with them, including schools and food banks in food deserts near and far.

With grants and other funding options available depending on what sort of entity is interested, the team is confident that the financial aspect of acquiring a container farm is but a small hurdle to cross for most. In the short-term, local, regional, and national distribution of their container farms is the focus for the crew at Tiger Corner Farms, but their dreams only expand from there. Eventually, they’d love to apply everything they have learned and created in their venture to help eradicate world hunger issues, ultimately seeking to create a container farm that could be sustained in any climate without the need to be connected to water hookups or a power grid. Truly, they are not far off.

This year, Tiger Corner Farms will move to a new location off of Clements Ferry Road. With their move comes the possibility for further growth, which means more fresh produce, more growers, and more people considering a life of farming who would have otherwise been turned off by the laborious hours spent in the sun and dirt. With a solid team of passionate, like-minded individuals, the sky’s the limit for Tiger Corner Farms. Here’s to changing the world from this little corner of the Lowcountry. Godspeed.

by  JANA RILEY