How local grocery stores (and New Yorkers) are empowering the next generation of farmers
Over the past two years, Square Roots has high-tailed it from being a pitchbook in a WeWork office to a fully-functioning farm and training program in Brooklyn. Between our lean team and our cohorts of farmers, we’ve experimented with different sales channels: direct-to-consumer, wholesale to local chefs, farmer’s markets, and specialty grocery stores. As we’ve refined our Next-Gen Farmer Training program and pushed our technology, we’ve also narrowed our commercial focus. The big questions being: what are we selling and where?
As Head of Community & Communications, my job is to make sure these decisions keep us on track towards our mission, helps us to build a strong brand, and supports a strong culture of dialogue, values, and authentic relationships.
Cue the herbs.
Filling a gap on the shelf.
First off, there simply aren’t many options for local, fresh herbs in NYC, even in the Whole Foods and other high-end markets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Red leaf lettuces, arugula, and more unique varieties like butter lettuce and mizuna are filing in from urban farms in NYC and further out-of-state, but herbs are being shipped in from Florida, Mexico, and as far as Cypress or can only be found at once-a-week farmer’s markets.
And secondly, herbs are mostly found only in the summer months. Since our technology enables us to create peak-season climates, even during polar vortexes, we have an opportunity to supply people with fresh, local herbs all year round.
Herbs as a gateway to greens.
Surprise! Not everyone loves veggies—or knows how to cook with them. One of my favorite herb-features is that they can be used by the most talented health-focused chefs or they can be a toe-in-shallow-end gateway to greens that make a huge difference. Cases-in-point: the world of pestos is wide and varied and every iteration can make a simple dish into a thing of beauty. At the same time just snipping a handful of chives onto pre-made mashed potatoes takes them from meh to really effing delicious.
As we continue to widen our range of herbs, we hear from so many different people — with so many different backgrounds — how certain herbs are cornerstones of their cultural cuisines. Or we sense the intense trepidation people have around cooking with herbs they’re not familiar with. All of these moments are loaded with potential to build connections between people and the food they’re eating, to inject some ease and fun into their (loudly-applauded) efforts to cook at home, and to turn people on to the joys of eating locally.
Grocery stores are the new local.
If you haven’t read Grocery by Michael Ruhlman, stop reading this article and go pick it up right now. It’s best read subway-style, taken in small bits, as the stories are vibrant enough to stick in your brain and the facts are plentiful. It highlights the US love affair with grocery stores since they came into existence, and how influential they still are in shaping our eating habits, and therefore our lives. Fortunately, as e-commerce threatens to sway people from the store, small businesses are holding their ground in innovative and meaningful ways. In 2017, total US retail and food service sales amounted to about 5.75 trillion bucks. Not shabby.
Local grocery stores play a fundamental role in not only getting real food options in front of the people who want them, but in strengthening their neighborhood food communities. As stores themselves are realizing their potential as a third place for locals who love food, the produce section is a really exciting place to be. Through in-store demos and simply being on the shelves, we have the opportunity to provide healthier options, introduce cooks to new flavors, and to talk face-to-face with our customers about where the food comes from and how it was grown.
Our farms are herb-powerhouses.
The part of our mission to bring local, real food to people in cities relies heavily on having the right technology to do so. Indoor hydroponic systems are not in the business of growing crops like wheat or corn. Fruits and roots like strawberries and carrots, however, are absolutely possible (and we’ve grown them beautifully in the past few years… if you missed the adorable thumbelina carrots on instagram, here’s the link: enjoy!).
But our focus today is on lower-biomass greens that shine when they’re given special care and are eaten when their flavor is at its peak, directly after harvesting. With the wide variety of herbs out there, our opportunity to adjust each farm’s micro-climate means we can grow a range of herbs from all over the world within a few thousand square feet on a parking lot in Brooklyn.
Empowering the next generation of farmers.
I’ve been working at Square Roots since before it had a name, and I appreciate every part of our company, but by and large, our farmers are the coolest thing about what we do. The decision to focus in on herbs had to, without a doubt, satisfy our mission to empower next-gen farmers.
Over the past few years, we’ve had to examine and be realistic with ourselves about what we can teach people (in one year) who have little to no prior experience in farming. (If you’re not up to speed on the program, you can read more here). A critical element is the farmers learning how to grow, harvest, and sell an amazing product. Herbs can do that. And as we continue to refine the workflows of our farming business, (which I assume is a never-ending practice), the farmers experience firsthand how and why those decisions are made.
So beyond empowering people to cook healthy food, our herbs are empowering farmers to learn plant science, get exposed to the economics of farming, strengthen community through food, and experience the full journey of the plant from purchasing seeds to talking with their customers.
The beauty of farming is the general versatility in what you can grow and sell. Herbs won’t always be our only product, but for now, it’s a perfect niche to dive into as we continue to hone our technology and empower next-gen leaders in urban farming to bring local, real food to New Yorkers and beyond.