Square Roots- an Urban Farm’s Tech Fueled Approach to Local Food

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By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on Earth, and 70% of them will live in cities.  As the demand for locally sourced responsibly grown food increases- local food appears to be the future.

Enter Square Roots, an urban farming accelerator hoping to disrupt the stale practices of the Industrial food system.  The company, started by Kimbal Musk and Tobias Peggs employs re-purposed shipping containers created by Freight Farms to grow healthy greens year round.  The company employs a farm to local approach to food, delivering bagged greens directly to office buildings across the city.  Though this location is their first, they hope to expand to major cities across the US- starting first in those close to New York including Chicago, Memphis and Pittsburgh.  Classified as a temporary structure in New York- the containers are entirely mobile.  The ten farms on site at the Pfizer building are fed water from a New York City fire hydrant.

Each container houses a separate farm, individually run by 10 entrepreneurial farmers- each of whom possess distinctly different farming experience .  Square Roots employs a 12 month training program.  In the first 2 months, entrepreneurs go through a farming crash course; in the remaining 10 they continue to learn and grow successful businesses aided by sales and marketing specialists.  After the 12 month period, Square Roots will help the entrepreneurs establish their own businesses.

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Though Square Roots paid the initial costs to get the farms operational, farmers are responsible for operational costs week to week.  For this reason, they are largely autonomous and make business decisions that work for them.  Monthly overhead runs about $2000 for each farm- so they plan and price their products accordingly.

Consumers might ask, why Square Roots?  Because they employ modular indoor controlled climate farms- produce is consistently available year round.  As customer demand drives restaurants to pursue more local produce- they look to small operators.  But where outdoor farms and greenhouses at the mercy of weather patterns have the potential to yield inconsistent product- Square Roots’ carefully controlled farms remain largely consistent and free of pests.  Virtually everything is controlled and thus tweak-able- specific environmental conditions can be recreated to give farmers the exact crop they want.

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Each shipping container, 320 Sq ft in size, can grow the same amount of produce as a conventional two acre farm but uses 80% less water (about 10 gallons a day).  Though they are expensive ($90,000), the vertical hydroponic growing system they employ results in high crop yields bringing the overall payback period for the 10 farm plot in Brooklyn to about three years.

Electricity costs are the most costly expenditure- the containers use around 90 KWh a day (for reference a standard energy-star refrigerator uses about 45 KWh a month), resulting in a $550 monthly electric bill for each farm.  CEO Tobias Peggs has expressed interest in incorporating solar panels to offset some electricity costs, but if the containers roof was completely covered, the panels would only produce 25% of the farms energy needs.  As a young start-up, many ideas for improvement of the system are under development.

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In spite of the fact the company is only a few months old, a farm tour on March 28th showed an impressive level of public interest.  Over a hundred members of the community were on site to ask questions and sample produce.  Next months tour kicks off at 5:30 pm on May 23. RSVP here

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