Spotlight on a Startup Growing the Next Generation of Farmers
Unlike many other urban farming enterprises, the New York City-based vertical farming startup Square Roots does not only grow plants: it’s also growing farmers. Launched in 2016 with the mission of combatting the harmful effects of our industrial food system, Square Roots is working to achieve this goal by identifying, training, and empowering the next generation of urban farming leaders. Read on to learn more about how this innovative company is cultivating the future of farming.
What is Square Roots?
Billing itself as an “urban farming accelerator,” Square Roots was co-founded by Tobias Peggs and Kimbal Musk in 2016. In his work as a restaurateur, Musk had become increasingly disillusioned with our industrial food system and its damaging impact on human health and the planet. Out of this disillusionment sprang the inspiration for Square Roots. The goal of the company is to leverage the promise of urban agriculture and the power of local food systems to provide city dwellers around the world with real, fresh food, all year round, grown right where they live.
An urban farming business, Square Roots develops human-centered farming technology. As a seed-to-sales urban vertical farm located in Brooklyn, Square Roots grows a variety of fresh, flavorful herbs that are hand harvested, self-packaged, and delivered to retailers across New York City by trike. On the technology side of things, Square Roots works to develop data-driven platforms that give urban farmers the insights and tools they need to grow high-quality food while using resources efficiently. But beyond these activities, the true heart of Square Roots is its Next-Gen Farmer Training Program.
What is the Next-Gen Farmer Training Program?
Square Roots is committed to creating opportunities for more people to become farmers, and the Next-Gen Farmer Training Program is one of the most important ways in which the company fulfills this commitment. Square Roots believes that changing our food system must involve creating more ways for young people to launch successful farming careers, and that’s what the Next-Gen Farmer Training Program is all about.
The training program is essentially a year-long, hands-on, entrepreneurial apprenticeship at Square Roots. For the first cohort, launched in 2016, participants underwent a period of in-depth training at Square Roots’ Brooklyn “campus” — a collection of indoor, climate-controlled, hydroponic container farms — and then spent the remainder of the year growing food for Square Roots customers while participating in an ongoing curriculum of skill-based training, experiential business learning, and general professional development. Some of the key components of the program include:
Learning to farm indoors — Program participants learn the ins and outs of growing food using the latest tech-enabled systems and equipment.
Studying plant science — Participants become better growers by learning more about plant biology and understanding what’s happening to plants as they grow at the molecular level.
Business exposure — By taking on an active role in every step of Square Roots’ operations, from seedlings to sales, participants have an opportunity to study entrepreneurship frameworks that are transferrable to any future startup.
Community building — Square Roots develops partnerships and programming with local youth-oriented organizations so that participants have the opportunity to inspire even younger people to deepen their connections with food.
As Square Roots CEO Tobias Peggs describes it, the Next-Gen Farmer Training Program gives participants the knowledge and skills to set up all kinds of companies related to urban agriculture. For example, some graduates might become hands-on farmers, while others might launch hardware companies to design more efficient urban farming lighting systems or software companies to better connect consumers with local farms.
Who can participate in the Next-Gen Farmer Training Program?
The Next-Gen Farmer Training Program is open to anyone. No prior farming experience is necessary. Instead, Square Roots looks for candidates with passion and an entrepreneurial spirit. Participants receive an entry-level salary, as well as benefits including healthcare coverage.
For the inaugural cohort in 2016, Square Roots received 500 applications for only 10 spots. Some of the successful candidates included:
Nabeela Lakhani — Through her participation in the training program, Lakhani has become Chalk Point Kitchen’s first official farmer, providing locally grown food to the restaurant and chatting with customers as they eat her produce. She has also created a wildly popular series of how-to videos on urban farming.
Electra Jarvis — Applying the lessons she learned while operating her Square Roots container farm, Jarvis has gone on to launch Green Food Solutions, a new business that uses a network of tower gardens to supply fresh food to neighborhoods in New Jersey.
Paul Philpott — Philpott has combined the entrepreneurship principles of Square Roots with the values of a nonprofit to develop an innovative social enterprise model that works to provide nutritious, fresh greens to New York City residents with low incomes.
Maxwell Carmack and Erik Groszyk — The two training program graduates joined forces to pioneer a unique farm-to-desk delivery program, bringing fresh greens to more than 80 office locations across New York City.