The View From Inside Square Roots’ Urban Shipping Container Farms
The View From Inside Square Roots’ Urban Shipping Container Farms
By April Joyner / CONTRIBUTOR
Square Roots, the urban farming accelerator launched by Kimbal Musk and Tobias Peggs, began its yearlong program in the Pfizer Building on the border of Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy. Due in part to the boldface name behind it, and also to the growing popularity of urban farming, the program got lots of buzz right off the bat. So how’s Square Roots’ bid to kick off a “real food” revolution going?
Last Wednesday, Peggs opened up Square Roots’ doors to the public for a tour of its shipping-container farms and a first taste of its 10 participants’ greens.
The program, as he pointed out, emphasizes the “urban” in urban farming: the container farms are just across the street from the Marcy Houses, and they connect to the city’s water supply through a fire hydrant. And there’s a good reason the farms have a pink-purplish glow. Red and blue are the colors most actively involved in photosynthesis, Peggs said, so to maximize resources the farms use those colors for lighting. Electricity is the farms’ greatest expense.
As for the tasting, Technical.ly was able to sample some mustard greens, at $5 a bag, grown by participant Sylvia Channing. Upon the urging of another participant, this reporter ate them raw, straight out the bag (which she would’ve never done otherwise — not Southern tradition), and they were surprisingly enjoyable: crisp and tangy.
But the real challenge ahead isn’t how the greens taste; it’s whether the participants can make viable businesses out of them. The program has hit the five-week mark, and the participants’ crops are set to reach their first harvest, which means they will finally have tangible goods to sell. Next Wednesday, Dec. 21, Square Roots will host its first farmers market.
The farmer-entrepreneurs have been given free rein to develop farming and business strategies of their own choosing. The challenge, both Peggs and the program’s participants stressed, is figuring out how to make the economics work. The modular farms, which use technology from Boston-based Freight Farms and Laramie, Wyo.–based Bright Agrotech, cost about $3,000 a month to run, according to participant Jonathan Bernard. But they also produce a relatively high yield, given the space: one farm, for instance, could yield 55,000 mini-heads of lettuce per year, Peggs said. The farming system Square Roots uses allows the participants to yield a weekly harvest once their first crop matures.
In addition to learning how to operate their farms, the participants are also getting advice on sales and marketing, including the basics of pricing: enough to meet their expenses, but not so much that customers will balk. For instance, Bernard plans to charge no more than $3 each for his mini-heads of lettuce in order to keep his prices competitive.
While Square Roots paid for the cost of the farm and the initial expenses to run them, the participants will be responsible for meeting expenses thereafter. The farming system itself is quite reliable, Bernard said, but without a real product just yet, none of the farmers has a customer base. Whether enough people will come to shop is an open question.
“I’m fine with that risk,” Bernard said. “Maybe I was chosen because I’m one of the people who’s crazy enough to consider it.”
Jonathan Bernard, one of Square Roots’ participants, in the accelerator’s office. (Photo by April Joyner)
As it turns out, even their choice of crops involves marketing strategy. For now, all of them are focusing on herbs and leafy greens, because they offer the most bang for the buck — the majority of the plant is eaten, as opposed to, say, a strawberry plant, from which only the fruit would be sold. In the beginning, Bernard said, they were given starter crops by lottery — each person drew a particular choice of plant — and then traded amongst each other for their preferred crop. Since then, they’ve had the opportunity to pick crops that appeal to their desired market.
And yes, as this reporter learned, there is a specific market segment for certain vegetables. Some of the participants have chosen specialty crops, such as Japanese shiso, to sell to high-end restaurants, while others are focusing on selling more common greens such as lettuce at farmers markets.
Another participant we spoke with, Electra Jarvis, chose kale and cilantro in order to appeal to vegetarians and vegans. Kale, of course, has been a trendy green (almost to the point of punchline) for some time, in part because it is known for being rich in nutrients. Jarvis chose cilantro, she said, because it’s versatile as a seasoning and as a garnish for many types of dishes.
She’s applied to several farmers markets, including New York City’s greenmarket program. Jarvis said she hopes to sell at the farmers market in Greenpoint’s McCarren Park, both for its relative proximity to her farm and its enthusiastic customer base. In addition, Jarvis, who is vegetarian and in the process of transitioning to a vegan diet, plans to attend meetups that cater to vegetarians and vegans in order to familiarize herself to her target customers.
“I want them to feel supported by somebody’s who looking out for that cause, to be a farmer that they can relate to,” she said.
On the farming side, the participants are beginning to experiment as well. At the launch of the program, they received general guidelines for the appropriate temperature, light and humidity settings for their farms, as well as a standard nutrient mix — potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus — for their plants. But as Peggs explained, the containers enable farmers to create custom environments, or “recipes,” for their crops — even to mimic particular climes in hopes of, say, reproducing the best kale out of Tuscany. Many of those “recipes,” which are usually tailored to specific plants, are proprietary, Jarvis told Technical.ly, so it’s been up to the farmers to figure out what works best for their specific crops.
So what drew Square Roots’ participants to the program in the first place?
As Peggs noted in our previous interview with him, they are indeed passionate about changing how people think about the food they consume. Bernard, for instance, is an avid cook interested in having high-quality ingredients available to the average person. He lives in Huntington, on Long Island, where he’s currently testing out his lettuce with members of a local CrossFit gym. His eventual dream, he told Technical.ly, is to see Square Roots’ urban farming system shrunk down into a module that could fit into a home kitchen.
“Once people start doing this at home, then they’re changing habits,” he said. “They’re not just paying more at the restaurant or at the grocery store, but they’re actually taking part in it. I think the consumer is the end goal.”
Jarvis also came to the program with a keen interest in the food industry. She is a student in Pratt’s masters program in sustainable environment systems, from which she’s on track to graduate this spring. Jarvis told Technical.ly that’s she particularly interested in helping to promote a plant-based diet as well as exploring whether vertical farms such as those used in Square Roots’ systems could be a path toward food justice — in other words, making fresh vegetables more accessible to everyone.
“I don’t know if this is the answer, but that’s what I’m here to find out,” she said.
April Joyner is a journalist who covers business, tech and finance. As a freelance writer, she has contributed to OZY, NewYorker.com and FastCompany.com. Joyner's writing has also appeared on Business Insider and USAToday.com.