Square Roots’ Shipping Container Gardens Transforms City Dwellers Into Urban Farming Entrepreneurs

In the United States, food travels an average of 1,500 miles from the farm to your local grocery store. This process separates us from the source of our nutrition, adds to a higher consumer cost, and contributes to unnecessary environmental impact.

Small, community-driven farming is the future of our food, according to Square Roots founders Tobias Peggs and Kimball Musk. Musk has also expressed his disdain for the industrial food system as being “not good for America, or the world.”

Thus, their mission to upend the industrial food system by transforming urban dwellers into urban farmers, who can grow and sell local food in their own neighborhoods. Under the Next-Gen Farmer Training Program, virtually anyone with a desire can become a farmer for Square Roots. In a one year program, these farmers grow, harvest and distribute fresh herbs and produce to local groceries and supermarkets throughout New York City, and recently opened in Michigan.

“WHAT WE’VE PROVEN IN THE FIRST PHASE IS WE CAN TAKE YOUNG PEOPLE WITH NO EXPERIENCE IN FARMING AND GET THEM VERY, VERY QUICKLY TO GROW REALLY HIGH-QUALITY FOOD THAT PEOPLE WANT TO BUY.”

From its vertical farms at an Urban Farming Campus on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn, Square Roots produces non-GMO and completely pesticide-free foods like basil, tomatoes, mint, and chives. Musk and Peggs’ seed-to-sale approach to growing food is founded upon sustainable technology, total transparency, and the comfort of knowing that your food was grown under your neighbor’s care. Their packaging system allows you to track when and where your produce was grown, and exactly who grew it.

The farm developed human-centered technology that teaches farmers to use the least resources possible while the farms themselves use a water-efficient hydroponic growing system that is constructed inside refurbished shipping containers. Each herb is packaged by hand and then delivered via trike to dozens of local stores all within 24 hours of harvesting. The locator tool on their website helps you find the closest market where Square Roots herbs are sold.

Q&A WITH SQUARE ROOTS

Square Roots’ Digital Marketing Manager Christa Montanto breaks it down and tells us more about the future of the company:

How much food is typically produced from one campus, and how often is it delivered to local groceries/markets?

Our new Michigan campus will produce over 50,000 lbs of premium product each year to start with, and can expand from there to meet local market demand. But, as a tech-enabled farming company, we’re always innovating and improving. For example, we’ve quadrupled yield per square foot to growing space in the past year and we’ve reduced our crop cycles from 60+ days to around 30. We accomplished this optimizing certain factors like the lighting and by focusing on the microclimate to give the plants exactly what they need to thrive. From our NYC campus, we support 70+ local retail stores, delivering fresh product three times per week. And, because we manage everything from seed-to-sales, we’re typically able to do so within 24 hours of harvest. 

Why does Square Roots promote transparency regarding the history of each product of produce?

Consumers across the world are demanding greater transparency into where and how their food is grown. That’s why we launched our Transparency Timeline which allows customers to scan the QR code on the back of any Square Roots packaging to trace the journey from seed-to-shelf. It’s a super-simple way for consumers to see exactly where, when, and how their food was grown, and also who grew it — bringing a totally new level of transparency into the food supply chain, and getting retail consumers connected to their local farm and farmer. 

Can anyone become a farmer? What kinds of individuals have shown up for the job so far?

Yes – farming experience is not necessary to apply to our Next-Gen Farmer Training Program – just the passion and spirit to jump in and start learning. Individuals from all different backgrounds have applied and joined our Next-Gen Farmer Training Program. We’ve had investment bankers who were tired of making financial models and wanted to make an impact on the world, so they quit their job to become a farmer with us. We’ve had seasoned outdoor farmers who were curious about new indoor growing systems. And, we’ve had people join us who are right at the beginning of their adult life, who grew up in the same neighborhood as the farm and want to see better availability of fresh, healthy food in their community. It’s a very diverse pool, but everyone shares the same focus and passion to want to build a better food system. 

How does the carbon footprint of Square Roots compare to other more traditional methods of farming?

With any type of farming, there are trade-offs. Square Roots’ farms use about 10 gallons of water per day. That’s 95% less water than conventional soil. Also, because we’re located so close to the end consumer,  we’re able to deliver using e-trikes that are carbon-neutral, which is a stark difference from traditional agriculture that ships in food from thousands of miles away.  

On the other hand though, our farms use about 100 to 150 kWh per day, depending on the time of year. The majority of this energy is used to power high intensity LED lighting that mimics the sun, and because of the heat that produces, we have to use energy to then remove that heat from the growing environment.

However, we’re always looking for efficiencies and ways to lower our carbon footprint. We’re researching ways to implement solar, and our new Grand Rapids, Michigan farms will be partly powered by wind energy. We’re in Brooklyn now, serving customers all across New York City. And our Grand Rapids, Michigan farm campus opened in fall 2019.

GET INVOLVED

BRING SQUARE ROOTS TO YOUR CITY

Because of the viability of the shipping containers, Square Roots is possible in many different cities all over the world. They encourage ideas of expansion:

“Talk with us on social. Come to a farm tour and meet the team—we’re very approachable! We want to make the biggest impact as fast as possible—and our mission to bring to real food to people in cities around the world, so we’re always open to new ideas on how to make that happen.”

They also encourage those interested to get started by generally being an advocate for local, real food in their own areas.

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