Vertical farming in brooklyn

Square roots grow - Real food for everyonE


Nestled among Brooklyn’s quaint brownstones and converted warehouses is a secret urban farm. Inside, a pack of millennials take refuge from corporate life and instead spend their days learning about sustainability, experimenting with hydroponic gardening, and doing some good old-fashioned vertical farming…inside shipping containers.

The guy behind the scenes, Tobias Peggs, is a man on a mission. As cofounder and CEO of Square Roots Grow, an urban farming accelerator, he's looking to spark “a food revolution.” After spending several decades in the tech industry, he joined forces with cofounder Kimbal Musk to tackle the proliferation of food deserts across America. This problem is exacerbated within large urban cities, so New York’s very own concrete jungle seemed like the natural place to launch the first pilot program. They started by nurturing the next generation of food entrepreneurs through this incubator program, and Peggs plans to launch a country-wide expansion by replicating the model in other cities.

The dream? Bringing “real food for everyone,” he says. 

Walking down a set of winding stairways in the old Pfizer factory in Brooklyn, we arrive in a nondescript parking lot with 10 shipping containers. As you can imagine, since it’s the brainchild of two seasoned tech entrepreneurs, there’s nothing old-fashioned about this secret farm. It’s based on a hydroponics gardening system, and iPhone apps regulate both the light for and nutrient flow to plants. Farmers can easily keep track of quality-control checklists through their phones, playfully responding to location-triggered alerts with emoji codes.

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Neon magenta-pink lights line the walls, and automated smart systems feed the crops the perfect mix of nutrients in just the right doses. Peggs tells us that this particular lighting choice wasn’t merely an aesthetic decision but rather a reflection of the company’s continued commitment to environmental sustainability—the LED lights are pink instead of white because plants don’t need the full light spectrum for photosynthesis, and these lights consume less energy than traditional grow-lights. 

Each container farm can produce a crop yield equivalent to that of about 2 acres of land and uses about 80% less water than traditional farming methods. At the moment, Square Roots farmers are focused on growing plants such as kale, lettuce, and basil, because the amount of energy consumed by a crop is directly linked to its biomass. As technology progresses and their operation becomes more energy-efficient, Peggs hopes that in the next 18 months it will be financially viable to grow slightly heavier crops such as blueberries and strawberries. “Imagine getting fresh locally grown strawberries in the middle of the New York winter,” he says with a smile.

Since all of the Square Roots crops are grown inside containers, they are entirely insulated from outside elements that typically hinder growth such as drought, cold, and pests. The plants thrive in the climate-controlled environment with precisely calibrated doses of just water, nutrients, and light. It’s an extremely natural process with no chemicals, no pesticides, no additives, no waxes, in fact nothing artificial.

There are no GMO plants here, as all the seeds used are heirloom. Peggs proudly says, “This is the cleanest food you’ll ever have.”

However, the model has its challenges, since extremely fresh, clean food is also extremely expensive to produce—especially in New York City. Thus, Square Roots Grow is simultaneously piloting an innovative distribution model that eliminates supermarkets and sells directly to consumers. To do this, SRG hosts a series of “meet-your-farmer markets” in its Brooklyn backyard as well as pop-ups around New York City. The team also put their own spin on the traditional CSA vegetable boxes and have created a program designed around office snacks across NYC. The idea is that rather than eat the usual corporate snack diet of cookies, chips, and candy, employees can choose to snack on prepackaged bags of fresh vegetables.

In the spirit of supporting healthier habits, Square Roots will schedule an office snack delivery even if there just one person is interested in signing up. The team is confident that the quality and flavor of the fresh vegetables speaks for itself.

Technology aside, Peggs says that the real secret formula for these flavors is the TLC that each Square Roots farmer puts into his or her plants, because “in food there is love.”

By Daniela Osorio