Square Roots x USDA: investing in the next generation of real food entrepreneurs.

tobias peggs
Dec 24, 2016 · 4 min read
The next generation of real food entrepreneurs at Square Roots — credit @ismaelplus

Strong communities are built around local, real food. Food we trust to nourish our bodies, the farmer and the planet. This isn’t just a Brooklyn hipster foodie thing — it’s a global mega trend, driven by a total breakdown of consumer trust in the incumbent industrial food system. Organic food has come from nowhere to become a $40bn industry in the last decade. Demand for local food is growing even faster. There’s no doubt about it, people want local, real food.

At the same time, those people increasingly live in cities. By 2050, there will be 9bn people on the planet, and 70% will live in urban areas.

With many more people living in cities, who are increasingly demanding local food, it’s obvious we have to figure out how to grow food in the city — at scale — as quickly as possible.

This presents an extraordinary opportunity for a new generation of entrepreneurs — those who understand urban agriculture, local food systems, and the power of real food to strengthen communities and drive sustainable business models. As Kimbal Musk frames it, this opportunity is bigger than the internet for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

This is why we set up Square Roots — an urban farming accelerator with a mission to empower the next generation to become leaders in the coming real food revolution.

Square Roots builds campuses of vertical, hydroponic farms that enable year-round growing of fresh, tasty, nutritious food — right in the middle of our biggest cities. And on those farms we coach young, passionate people to grow real food, to sell real food, and to become a real food entrepreneur.

Since we announced Square Roots at the end of August, we’ve been humbled to hear from literally thousands of people who want to work with us and tackle this massive opportunity. Amongst those, we had over 500(!) people apply to become farmer-entrepreneurs in our first season — which kicked off this past November in Brooklyn, and only had 10 available slots. Clearly there’s a huge appetite to grow real food in the city — right next to people who want to eat it — and to turn that passion into a lifetime of real food entrepreneurship.

The USDA see that too. In fact, today we’re announcing that several of the Square Roots farmer-entrepreneurs have received microloans from the USDA’s Farm Services Agency (FSA) to help with initial startup costs. Items like seeds, water, electricity and more are all needed before the first harvest — which is when the Square Roots entrepreneurs start to generate revenue. They can now use their USDA microloan to help cover those initial costs.

This relationship between the USDA and the Square Roots entrepreneurs marks the first time such investment has been available to urban farmers in NY State — and by implication in our country’s biggest city, NYC. In many ways, New York is a template for the increasingly urbanized world of 2050. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if we can make it work there, then we can make it work anywhere.

To make urban ag success even more likely in New York, the USDA have now also appointed Ian Marvy as the first Urban Agriculture Outreach Specialist for the city. His job is to act as the interface between USDA and the increasing number of urban ag startups in New York.

Startups move fast, so often deliberately decide to sidestep the complicated systems and processes of government to maintain their velocity. As a result, they can miss opportunities for funding, grants and influence. Ian will be a major help for all of us in that community — helping us navigate the complexity to quickly find areas of mutual value.

Between the microloans for urban farmers and Ian’s appointment, a lot of positive impact has been made by the USDA in a very short period of time. And I’d like to personally call out the vision — not to mention the hard and fast work — of James Barber (USDA FSA’s Executive Director for NY State) and Val Dolcini (FSA Administrator) for making that happen. They are leaders of great teams that are taking big strides to help urban agriculture reach its obvious potential — in NYC and across the country. But (and here’s the rub) they are also political appointees — so will only be continuing their work until mid-January 2017.

We can only hope that the next administration follow their lead!

We might disagree with Trump’s team on topics such as climate change — so the fact that hydroponic vertical farms use 80% less water than conventional farmland might be dismissed as a moot point in any future conversations with them ;-) But I’m sure all sides will agree that investing in grassroots entrepreneurship, especially in areas that strengthen communities — like local, real food businesses do — can only help “make America great again”. Let’s keep working at this, together.

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Square Roots

A tech-enabled urban farming company growing local, real food and training next-gen leaders in urban agriculture.

tobias peggs

Written by

Brit in NYC. Cofounder & CEO at Square Roots.

Square Roots

A tech-enabled urban farming company growing local, real food and training next-gen leaders in urban agriculture.

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