Square Roots takes 'ultra-scalable' urban indoor farming shipping container model nationwide

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Square Roots uses refurbished shipping containers where walls of leafy greens and herbs grow through its hydroponic, LED system.
Square Roots uses refurbished shipping containers where walls of leafy greens and herbs grow through its hydroponic, LED system.

Related tags indoor farming hydroponics

Brooklyn-born Square Roots, an urban indoor vertical farming startup, is taking its ultra-scalable, modular model to new markets through an exclusive partnership with Gordon Food Service (GFS).

Co-founders, Kimbal Musk (younger brother of Elon Musk) and Tobias Peggs (the startup’s CEO), launched Square Roots​ in a Brooklyn parking lot in 2016 as an accelerator


program training young entrepreneurs on the nuances of indoor urban farming.

“Part of our mission is to empower the next generation of leaders in the food system through our unique Next Gen Farmer Training Program,”​ Tobias Peggs, co-founder and CEO of Square Roots, told FoodNavigator-USA. 

The average age of farmers in the US is 58, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture. The census, published every five years, shows that the average age has increased by nearly eight years over the past 30 years.

The program provides hands-on training including learning how to grow herbs, greens, and other produce within Square Roots’ refurbished high-tech shipping containers, studying plant science, a study of the business from ‘seedlings to sales’, and focus on community building. Each farmer (no prior farm experience necessary) in the Square Roots program receives an entry level salary, healthcare coverage, and other benefits.

Scaling through GFS partnership

GFS is a family-owned food service company based in Michigan with 175 retail locations and distribution centers throughout North America.

The partnership will allow both organizations to answer the growing consumer demand for locally grown food, especially in urban areas where land comes at a premium and access to fresh, local produce nearby is more of an obstacle.

According to Packaged Facts, sales of local produce grew from $5bn in 2008 to $12bn in 2014 and is forecasted to surpass $20bn this year creating new market opportunities for local food providers. A 2018 survey​ of 4,000 consumers and 750 grocery professionals by retail software and data science firm Blue Yonder found that many retailers are not living up to shoppers' expectations of fresh foods. The survey revealed that in the US, 74% of consumers felt "let down"​ by the selection of fresh grocery items during their shopping trip. 

“Customers want an assortment of fresh, locally grown food all year round. We are on a path to do that at scale with Square Roots and are excited to be the first in the industry to offer this unique solution to our customers,”​ said Rich Wolowski, CEO of Gordon Food Service.

“This scale of relationship is an industry first. As is the adoption of this modular, scalable, indoor approach,”​ Peggs said.  

Unlike other hydroponic growers on the market that use fixed, larger greenhouses, Square Roots has developed it’s a ‘farmer-first’ high-tech farming platform constructed inside refurbished shipping containers with 320 square feet of vertical growing space equipped with LED lighting and irrigation pipes.

“Our proprietary cloud-connected, modular, indoor farm design, utilizes a water-efficient hydroponic growing system along with vertical growing towers - requiring significantly less water and space than outdoor farms,” ​Peggs noted.

Square Roots farmers are provided with data, insights, and other tools, to grow non-GMO, pesticide-free produce year round. Its data driven farming practices also allow consumers of Square Roots produce to trace a product back to the location where it was grown and the farmer that grew it by scanning a QR code on the packaging.

"Today we focus on a range of herbs and greens, but we're already developing recipes for more products such as strawberries,"​ added Peggs.

Square Roots fresh local produce is currently available at select retailers within the New York City area and through its partnership with GFS will soon be available in more markets across North America.

"Now, having partnered with Gordon Food Service, this unique ability to bring technology-driven local food will soon become a reality for food-conscious consumers across North America. And the Next-Gen Farmer Training Program will soon open up doors for even more driven young people, arming them with the skills to take part in building a better food system for our future,"​ Square Roots said in a statement.

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1 comment

Vertical water

Posted by Vic Cherikoff,

Hydroponics grows standing-up water. What's the point?

Feeding plants chemical solutions to produce the stuff that stops watery, nutritionally dilute, lectin-loaded tomatoes from soaking the glyphosate-rich bread is hardly feeding people.

What a waste of time and effort.

A real innovation would be a microbial soup with bioavailable nutrients including silica and trace minerals feeding plants that were nutritionally relevant.

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