Square Roots is a high-tech indoor farming accelerator in the heart of Brooklyn, New York, working to ensure that city residents can source fresh, sustainable produce twelve months a year. In a major urban center like New York City, where fresh produce can be tough to find even in seasons of peak agricultural output, Square Roots is proving the potential of indoor, climate-controlled agriculture.
The company was co-founded by entrepreneurs Tobias Peggs and Kimbal Musk, who also runs two restaurant chains, with the dual goals of satisfying a demand for produce and training a new generation of entrepreneurial leaders who understand urban agriculture, local food systems, and the transparency and trust that personal relationships bring to food
Over the course of a 13-month program, Square Roots’ ten Resident Entrepreneurs run businesses at the accelerator’s physical home while taking part in a curriculum of skill-based training, professional development, and experiential business learning. They work with hydroponic growing systems housed in old, repurposed shipping containers called Leafy Green Machines, sold by Freight Farms. Depending on crops and conditions, each container can yield up to 50 pounds of leafy greens per week while using only eight gallons of water a day, according to Freight Farms.
The entrepreneurs deliver fresh greens to consumers at 80 office locations in the city, sell specialty items through a number of retail channels, and work in direct partnership with restaurants. Square Roots shares 30 percent of the total revenue with the farmers, amounting to between US$30,000 and US$40,000 annually, according to co-founder and CEO Tobias Peggs.
“The idea is: with the skills they acquire at Square Roots, and the experience they gain running a business, they can graduate confidently with the knowledge to set up all kinds of companies,” says Peggs. “They might create hardware companies designing more efficient lights for urban farmers. Or software companies to better connect local farmers to consumers. Or value-add companies using locally grown basil to make pesto.”
Peggs attributes the company’s recent success to two primary factors: the high efficiency of the production modules and the trust that the company has built with its customer base.
“Because you are growing in three dimensions instead of two, you can get a lot of food from a tiny footprint,” he says. “And it’s always in season indoors! Even if there’s two feet of snow on the ground outside, we can create the perfect growing conditions inside.”
The company’s proximity to customers is an important element in building trust. “At Square Roots, we’re literally in the same neighborhood as our customers,” says Peggs. He also suggests that building trust requires intentional transparency. To that end, Square Roots elected to install big windows on the modules so that passersby could see how the food was being grown and hosts open house community events on the farm once a month for city residents to tour the farms, meet the farmers, taste the food, and engage in a question-and-answer session.
“These notions of trust and transparency are baked into our values and into our product,” says Peggs. “It’s what people expect from modern food companies.”
At the end of one year with the company, trainees pass off their fully-running farming businesses to the next season’s entrepreneurs.
Because the farmer-entrepreneurs are only with the company for a year, the production modules are designed to be easy to understand and use, a significant difference from the knowledge intensity of traditional farming. Peggs doesn’t go so far as to describe the modules as “plug-and-play,” though, explaining that the training program receives substantial support from Square Roots’ head farmer Phil Cuddeback and from farming mentors who have worked at companies like Small Hold, Eden Works, Farm.One, and Gotham Greens
Their first cohort of ten entrepreneurs, which the company refers to as “Season 1,” graduated at the end of October 2017. Four of them are in the process of starting their own businesses, two moved into roles at companies working in the urban agriculture space, two have been rehired by Square Roots to work on research and development efforts, and one is staying on for a second season of production at Square Roots’ facility.