Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) company Square Roots today unveiled its newest indoor farm. The facility is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan and growing micro-greens to serve grocery stores, e-commerce platforms, and restaurants in the Great Lakes region. Produce will be available “in the coming weeks,” according to a press release sent to The Spoon.
Square Roots broke ground on the farm in December of 2020 and planted the first seeds just three months later, in March of this year. The company’s ability to move this quickly can be largely attributed to the types of farms it builds, which company cofounder and CEO Tobias Peggs calls “prefabricated modular farms.” For Square Roots and others, these are typically built inside of upcycled shipping containers (though Peggs suggested over a call this week that the setup could live in any properly insulated space, not just a container). As the word “modular” suggests, farming units can be added or subtracted based on the needs of the individual farm.
The aim he and company cofounder Kimball Musk share is to be able to build a farm quickly in response to demand for local produce in a given area. The new farm in Michigan, for example, is partly in response to the increase in demand for local produce across the Midwest during the Covid-19 pandemic. And it doesn’t get much more local than placing the farm in the same zip code as its customers, as Peggs said is the case here.
The Michigan farm also shares a location with U.S. food distributor Gordon Food Service, with whom Square Roots has an ongoing partnership. The companies first joined forces in 2019 and plan to build more of these these co-located farms across the country.
One bonus of the prefabricated modular model versus something like a large plant factory (a la Plenty or AeroFarms) is that the size of the farm can be scaled up or down to meet demand relatively quickly by adding or subtracting containers. Each container is its own grow environment, with temperature and lighting adjusted to meet the needs of a specific crop.
All containers are cloud-connected and run by a combination of human growers and Square Roots in-house software called The Square Roots Farmer Toolbelt. The latter guides farmers through day-to-day activities and collects data that can then be analyzed to improve yield, taste, and texture in addition to growing methods.
As far as competition goes, Berlin, Germany-based InFarm is probably the most similar operation to Square Roots right now. However, InFarm’s modular concept was only announced this year, and at last check is only slated for one U.S. location right now.
For now, the new farm is growing microgreens and herbs, as is the case with other Square Roots farms. Peggs said during our talk that growing other produce types, whether it be strawberries or root vegetables, is less a question of capability these days and one that’s more about economics. At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, is costs more money to grow denser vegetables, like a turnip, compared to something like basil.
That said, Square Roots mentioned in today’s press release that it has grown over 200 varieties of produce so far, including some of those denser varieties like root vegetables.