Square Roots, a new urban farming accelerator located in Brooklyn, New York, is producing as much food as a 20-acre farm without using any soil. The five-month-old company puts hydroponic growing systems in old, repurposed shipping containers via the Freight Farms Leafy Green Machine. Each container is capable of producing roughly two acres of food, without the use of pesticides or GMOs. Each container only uses eight gallons of water per day. That’s less than your morning shower.
Nabeela Lakhani is a food entrepreneur at Square Roots specializing in Tuscan Kale and Rainbow Chard. She was one of 10 farmers chosen from an application pool of 500 for Square Root’s inaugural launch. Food Tank had a chance to speak with Nabeela about her background, current work, and thoughts on approaching solutions in the food system.
Food Tank (FT): How did you get involved with Square Roots?
Nabeela Lakhani (NL): I’ve always been interested in food and my passion and my purpose has always been around the food industry and the food system. I went to school for public health and nutrition thinking that was going to be the way I made whatever impact I wanted in the food industry, but then as I was going through school I started to realize nutrition was highly clinical and medical. We were looking at treating diseases with medical and nutrition therapy, diseases that could be prevented if we nourished our populations better. We should have been looking at how our food system was prioritizing certain crops over others and how food is distributed in our country. What would happen if we looked at food before it gets to the body, food before it gets to the community? When I discovered that food production and food distribution was what I wanted to pursue I just kind of started telling everyone in my networks that that was what I was now interested in. I used to just tell people, ‘I want to be a farmer I want to be a farmer!’ I was having a hard time getting my foot in the door in urban agriculture because I had no experience; my experience was all health and nutrition related. But I did have a lot of start-up experience so I was really excited about Square Roots. It put the startup experience that I had with the agriculture experience I wanted.
FT: Can you explain how Square Roots works?
NL: We use a standard shipping container, just a regular truck, and it is repurposed to accommodate a hydroponic system. You have these towers lined up inside and the towers are essentially the farm field where everything grows. You control all the elements that a plant needs to grow and you can optimize those elements for that plant’s growing experience, which is then going to reflect heightened taste, heightened freshness, heightened nutritional content. You can even control the nutrient levels that go into the water. And then you’re also controlling the temperature, the climate, the humidity, the CO2 level; you can literally recreate an environment to grow something. For example, if you visited Italy one summer in 2006 and you the best-tasting basil you’ve ever in your life, you could look up the climate and the weather patterns for that time that you were there and recreate that climate inside this container. Another really cool thing is we have a really low water usage, so we use 70 percent less water than conventional farming. This whole container, if you really pack it in, can grow almost two acres worth of food in just that standard shipping container space. It runs on eight gallons of water a day, which is less than your shower.
FT: Are you the first farmers to grow food in a shipping container?
NL: No, actually the containers we use are bought by manufactured by a company called Freight Farms. Their business is to manufacture these containers and then they sell them to customers like us. They have these containers in multiple countries across the world already.
FT: Who is your customer base?
NL: Right now, our customers are mostly adults, although one of my customers is a bunch of NYU students. One of the channels that a lot of farmers are exploring now is farm to local membership, which is basically a weekly delivery to a local community hub. We found that offices are really good for this, because there’s already a community feeling around them. You’re already in a team and you already know the people, so it’s easier to mobilize people and get bigger hubs out of office spaces. That’s one channel that’s really taking off and we’re delivering to places like Adobe and the New York Times building. It’s picking up pretty fast.
FT: What are you guys growing right now?
NL: Mostly just leafy greens. With hydroponics it is possible to grow fruits and vegetables and one of our farmers is actually experimenting with carrots and radishes and things like that, but given the way the Square Roots program is set up, which is we get this container for one year and we get to build a business out of it, it makes sense to grow whatever makes the most economic sense. If leafy greens take four weeks to grow and yield really high then I’m going to grow that.
FT: What plans does Square Roots have for the future?
NL: Right now we’re based in New York City, but the goal is to get to 20 cities by 2020. Square Roots’ mission is to create an army of young food entrepreneurs who are equipped with experience using technology and building a viable business model. Before I started at Square Roots I felt like I never knew what kind of step I could take or what kind of impact I could have. Revolutionizing the food industry seems so colossal. But now it’s like, ‘No, I’m actually taking action and I can create my own solutions in the future.’ I now have the experience of building a sustainable business and running a business responsibly and impact fully.