What’s the best place to grow basil? In 41-degree weather in a Brooklyn parking lot, across the street from Jay-Z’s birthplace.
Such is the setting for the farms at Square Roots, a Brooklyn-based startup that uses steel shipping containers to operate climate-controlled farms year-round, whether it’s 41 degrees outside or 91 degrees.
With offices in the old Pfizer factory in Brooklyn, Square Roots is operating a truly local business. Not only are the farms right out back in the parking lot, they’re also manned by 10 “real food entrepreneurs” who are part of a 13-month program for learning both growing techniques and the ins and outs of running a business. And they’re not just experimenting; whatever is grown gets distributed to offices and restaurants around NYC.
Within each container, these farmers/entrepreneurs grow GMO-free, pesticide-free crops like spinach, spearmint, the aforementioned basil, arugula, and other greens. One team is even growing strawberries. When I spoke with cofounder Tobias Peggs, he assured me you can cultivate virtually anything inside these farms, so long as you know how to operate one properly.
Indoor, climate-controlled farms like the ones at Square Roots need three different elements to work: land, water, and energy.
Land is the container itself, where plants grow vertically on panels, utilizing the entire space instead of just the horizontal plane. Each container holds the equivalent of a two-acre outdoor field, and over 50 pounds of produce.
Meanwhile, each container uses only about eight gallons of water per day, which is about 70 percent less than it takes to power a traditional farm. Keeping things truly local, the water is pumped in via a nearby fire hydrant (obviously after being filtered). And because farmers are able to control every aspect of the containers, nutrient levels in the water itself can be adjusted for each crop.
Finally, plants absorb the red and blue LED lights in each container, allowing them to grow in the dead of winter. Energy from these LEDs is by far the highest cost for the farms, and while there are no firm details yet, there’s talk of Square Roots eventually looking into solar as an option for powering those LEDs.
If all this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because we’re seeing more and more companies offering some version of a controlled indoor farm. Collectively, these companies have a current market value of $14.8 billion annually.
And they’re not all doing the same thing. Bowery, based in New Jersey, runs a 70,000-square-foot facility already and is set to open another one it claims will be the most technologically advanced in the world. Agrylist, rather than running a farm, sells its platform to farms of various sizes, allowing the farmers to manage the entire lifecycle of a crop with the software. Meanwhile, Growtainer customizes shipping containers for universities, pharmaceutical companies, and other large organizations to grow their own produce.
And while it share certain traits with these companies, Square Roots keeps its mission focused squarely on individual people rather than technology.
“Of course, we harness a lot of technology at Square Roots,” says Peggs, who has a Ph.D in Machine Learning. “For example, we spend a lot of time on data science and AI, studying how changes in growing environment can impact the taste, texture and yield of a crop.” The newer farms are also voice controlled—a farmer can ask the system about current environmental conditions or tell it to turn the lights on, for example.
But in general, the company’s approach is what they call “Farmer-First”: “It’s all about helping the farmer grow more tastier food in better ways for people, the planet and profits.”
Which means that, for both the startup and its customers, “real food” isn’t just the produce itself—it’s also about knowing the people and processes behind the food.
“People want a connection not just to their food, but to the people that grow it,” says Peggs. “There’s nothing better than knowing your farmer, and knowing the love they’ve put into growing your food. You can taste that love! So we’ve made the farmer the central and most important part of our system – and the result is really super tasty food.”
Peggs and cofounder Kimball Musk plan to take that love on the road in the near future by expanding to other U.S. cities (locations are currently undisclosed). Musk, of course, has restaurants in places you wouldn’t expect to find demand for fresh, local food. (Indianapolis, I’m lookin’ at you.) But with 75 percent of consumers (PDF) saying they don’t trust big food brands anymore, according to recent numbers, it’s safe to say the demand for an operation like Square Roots is high even in major urban cities where growing produce would have seemed unthinkable 20 years ago.
“People have had enough,” says Peggs. “They want change – towards better-for-you, healthier, most sustainable food options. Our challenge is less about education – it’s more about meeting demand.”
Featured image © Nabeela Lakhani