With the ongoing global climate threat and challenging economic environment, the way we produce food at a commercial scale must change, said Square Roots co-founder and CEO Tobias Peggs.
Peggs believes that creating stronger local food systems which require fewer resources (e.g. fewer miles traveled to reach retailers and restaurants) and in the end provide a better-quality product to consumers can create a more sustainable future for the food industry.
"The demand for local food is undeniable," Peggs told FoodNavigator-USA following the company's ribbon-cutting ceremony at its newest and largest indoor farming facility co-located with Gordon Food Service in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Square Roots is aiming to make it easier for all consumers -- no matter their geography and time of year -- to purchase locally-grown produce year-round.
"It is all about getting local food to as many customers as possible. It's really just a case of getting that food on the shelf and then when it's on the shelf, if you're there doing your grocery shopping, you see the difference. When you get it home you realize that food is going to last for about three weeks in your refrigerator because the day you bought it, it was harvested that same day," said Peggs.
"It's such a far superior product, at exactly the same price as organic produce, why wouldn't you buy it?"
Year-round indoor growing
At its Kenosha indoor vertical farm, Square Roots has created 20 separate 'grow zones,' each programmed to grow a specific variety of fresh herbs or leafy greens.
"Essentially what happens within the farm is that we're creating climates that are optimized to grow certain crops. We would literally program a grow zone to be the optimum climate to grow basil, and then we maintain that climate for the entire life cycle of the plant. And then we can also do things like extend how long the day is by keeping lights on for longer -- so there are other things we can do to speed up the growing," explained Peggs.
"And we can do all of that 365 days a year, which means even in the middle of February when there's two feet of snow outdoors, it is the perfect climate indoors."
The flexibility of its modular farming approach means that Square Roots can adjust to the demand of the local market. Right now, half of the grow zones are allocated to growing basil, but demand is quickly rising for salad mixes, which the company will start allocating more growing space toward. The company's current output is about 2,000 lbs of fresh greens per week, and at full scale, Square Roots' Kenosha farm will be capable of producing more than 2.4 million packages of leafy greens and herbs per year.
'These farms are quite intensive when it comes to energy use'
"A lot of companies will talk about the sustainability aspect of indoor farming. Obviously, we use a lot less land because we're growing vertically. We use a lot less water... but the thing that a lot of companies tend to gloss over is the energy use. These farms are quite intensive when it comes to energy use," said Peggs highlighting that using LED lights, while beneficial in creating an endless growing cycle year-round, requires a lot of energy on Square Roots' part.
"What a lot of companies will have to figure is, how do you take the farms off the grid? How do you think about having onsite renewables (solar combined with battery storage) so that you're not burning more fossil fuels in an attempt to create a food system that is supposed to be reducing greenhouse gases."
Working with Gordon Food Service, Square Roots will be introducing onsite renewable sources of energy to power its indoor vertical farms.
"So very quickly all of these farms will be coming off the grid and then you can start to get to a world of carbon neutral food production," said Peggs.
'There's this demographic time bomb that's about to detonate across the industry'
Crucial to its indoor farming industry at large is addressing the aging population of US farmers, which on average is about 55 years old.
"In addition to all the environmental problems and things like pesticides, water use, etc. there's this other challenge which is there's this demographic time bomb that's about to detonate across the industry," said Peggs.
Thinking more like a tech company rather than a traditional farming company by providing its employees with competitive and equitable pay as well as full benefits and stock options, Square Roots has attracted a younger workforce interested in a career in the high-tech agricultural industry.
"It's something that we realized very early on at Square Roots. We have an opportunity and obligation to figure out ways to bring young people into the industry," said Peggs.