A Hydroponic Farm Grows in Bed-Stuy

by Natasha Rodriguez and Leena Sanzgiri

A Square Roots farm grows inside a large shipping container. (Photo by: Natasha Rodriguez)

The average apple purchased at a US supermarket has been traveling for 9 months and is coated in wax to stop it from decomposing. Meanwhile, the average tomato today travels 1,400 miles to get from farm to table.

Enter Square Roots, a company that is hoping to change the way we get our food. “Millions of people — especially those in our biggest cities — are at the mercy of industrial food,” says Tobias Peggs, CEO of Square Roots. “This is high calorie, low nutrient food. It leaves people disconnected from their food and the people who grow it.”

Square Roots was founded by Peggs and Kimbal Musk. Their mission is not only to grow food locally, using a hydroponic farming method, but also to create a tech incubator where young food entrepreneurs can be mentored. Ten farmers were selected to participate in a twelve month, intensive accelerator program. Theirs is the first class of what Peggs hopes will be a long-running program. The farmers each run their own farm, choosing their preferred mix of produce.

The Square Roots farms are located inside ten shipping containers on a parking lot in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The process is entirely automated — sensors control the LED lights that mimic sunlight; an irrigation system delivers a continuous flow of water, and nutrients are carefully dosed by monitors and streamed into the water.

A Square Roots shipping container houses one hydroponic farm. (Photo by: Natasha Rodriguez)

The farmers must also find their own customer base by delivering produce to offices, grocers, and restaurants throughout New York City. “I do CrossFit personally, so I kind of figured, why not bring the real nutrient dense vegetables to the gyms?” says Jonathan Bernard, one of the Square Roots farmers. “I can go there, work out with people, and talk to the customers. That’s my favorite part.”

Hydroponics is the process of growing plants without soil, feeding them nutrients through a water solvent. The term was coined by Dr. William Gericke of the University of California at Berkeley in 1938. He came up with a technique for growing flowers and vegetables in shallow tanks of water containing minerals.

Today, many farmers are embracing the hydroponic farming method because it is so compatible for farming in urban areas, and people are moving to cities in growing numbers. Square Roots is not the only hydroponic farm in New York City. Others include Gotham Greens and Farm.One.

Left: Electra Jarvis, a Square Roots farmer, removes a tower garden for harvesting. Right: Kale is harvested for delivery. (Photos by: Leena Sanzgiri)

The farmers seed each plant in peat moss plugs. Once the seedlings have sprouted, they are transferred into tower gardens to receive light, water, and nutrients from the automated system until they are ready to be harvested. The greens vary greatly and include lettuce, chard, kale, arugula, basil, and mint. As the cost of LED lighting, a major farming expense, decreases, Square Roots hopes to grow bloom crops, like strawberries, blueberries and tomatoes, within the next 18 months.

Left: A peat moss plug for seeding. Center: Greens beginning to sprout. Right: Lettuce ready to be transferred to the tower gardens. (Photos by: Natasha Rodriguez and Leena Sanzgiri)

Many people are wary of consuming greens grown out of shipping containers. Nabeela Lakhani, a farmer at Square Roots, claims that her greens taste a lot better than any produce one would find at a grocery store. “Our kale doesn’t taste like other kale,” she says. “It’s super tender.”

The fact that the Square Roots farming method replaces natural sunlight with LED lights can be a turn off to potential customers. However, Lakhani sees it as an advantage. In the shipping containers, one can control all aspects of the environment including the light, temperature, humidity, nutrient level, and CO2 level.

“You’re creating the optimum plant. It’s going to have the maximum freshness, the maximum nutrients and the maximum taste because there aren’t any changes in the weather and therefore no stress on the plant. The plant is getting everything it needs and that’s going to reflect in enhanced flavor.” — Nabeela Lakhani, Square Roots farmer
The farmers’ harvested greens are packaged and ready to be delivered. (Photo by: Leena Sanzgiri)

Critics of Peggs have said that he is out to disrupt farming, but Peggs disagrees. “We’re on the same side,” he says. “Whether you’re in a steel shipping container in a parking lot in Brooklyn, or on a ten-acre plot upstate, we’re on the same side. The common enemy here is the industrial food system and that’s who we should all be working against.”

Peggs hopes to take down the industrial food system by training the farmers of tomorrow. He plans to invest in the current Square Roots farmers once they leave the program and start their own businesses.

Although Peggs wants to grow Square Roots to scale globally, it is difficult to see how this can be presently done. Square Roots sells its greens at high prices that the majority of the world cannot afford. Currently, a bag of leafy greens costs $7, and getting a seven pack of greens will set you back $35. However, Peggs is certain that these prices will decrease as the cost of the expensive technology that the company uses goes down. In the meantime, Square Roots grows fresh leafy greens for a niche audience.

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