Growing Food Without the Sun

Jan 11, 2019  | 6 min  | Ep4421

Hydroponics. Aeroponics. Aquaponics. All are accepted methods of producing food without soil. Some are in confined spaces located a distance away from rural America. Many have achieved success while others have suffered dismal failure. This has not stopped the entrepreneurial spirit seeking ways to feed more people, cut costs and reduce carbon footprints in order to give year- round access to certain foods. Peter Tubbs reports in our Cover Story. Producer Contact:

Tobias Peggs, CEO of Square Roots: “So there’s no doubt, and I hope that during the course of a year here, we would definitely inspire a number of the people here to embark on a lifelong journey to be farmers.”
The here is the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. On the edge of the parking lot of a former Pfizer pharmaceutical plant sit ten shipping containers. Each has been converted for growing hydroponic vegetables under LED lighting. Ten laboratories for aspiring agricultural entrepreneurs, growing food that is unique in product and location.
The brainchild of Tobias Peggs, Square Roots is a non-profit that aims to bring fresh produce to urban consumers by training farmers to build businesses in their communities. Each container has the production capacity of two acres of land and promises a better quality product by maintaining a consistent environment. 
Tobias Peggs, Co-Founder, CEO of Square Roots: “obviously people are increasingly moving to the city, so we have to figure out how to farm, in those urban areas. Whether that is indoors in containers, or whether that is outdoors in more urban gardens, or greenhouses or whatever it is, the more food that is grown close to the city, the more access that people have to local food, the better.”
Square Roots mentors spend a year teaching the “How To” of business and hydroponic agriculture to classes of recruits who dream of becoming urban farmers.  Few of the entrepreneurs arrive with an agricultural background, so the learning curve can be steep. Farmer Josh Aliber spent his year learning to grow basil and build an audience for his crops.
Josh Aliber, Farmer and entrepreneur: “I spent the first 2 to 3 months walking around from restaurant to restaurant in Manhattan meeting chefs. Learning about what they value, how can I improve my crops, and becoming a better farmer. The startup time was really hard, but it worked. Because the product we grow is so fresh, and you say I harvested this today, and they say ‘I’ve never tasted basil like this.’ “
Freshness is only one of the selling points for the Square Roots farmer. Growing crops unavailable in the wholesale and retail supply chain can help close a sale. 
Josh Aliber, Farmer and entrepreneur: “A lot of these chefs have been in the culinary industry for 30 or 40 years, and as a brand new farmer, because I’m growing in a really unique environment where I can grow really unique crops, I can bring them things that they have never tried before. And the taste speaks for itself, because it is growing in the exact environment that it wants.”
The taste drives a solid price for produce. While a salad mix starts at $10 per pound, rare varieties of basil command $30 per pound at local restaurants. Each farmer develops a customer mix of restaurants and food retailers who buy in bulk, and individuals who purchase salad greens through a subscription model. The greens are handpicked and delivered up to three times a week. 
Tobias Peggs, Co-Founder, CEO of Square Roots: “So we feel that the way that the product is priced is definitely mass-market, but every single day we work to improve the technology, make the system more efficient, that will allow us ultimately to bring down that price and ultimately fulfill the mission that the company has, which is to bring real food to everyone.” 
The physical constraints of a Square Roots container farm limit the types of crops grown by each farmer to just the small and valuable. Salad greens, kales, sorrel, Swiss chard, and herbs are best suited to the vertical towers inside the farms. Crops grow quickly under the red and blue LED lighting optimized for plant growth. A footprint of only 400 square feet allows a farm to squeeze into tight urban environments and shorten the literal distance from farm-to-plate. Under LED lighting some crops go from seed to harvest in as little as 8 weeks. The container farm has operating costs of roughly $1000 per month, but requires only 8 gallons of water per day.  Once a crop rotation is developed, harvesting can happen each week, year round.
Josh Aliber, Farmer and entrepreneur: “So what we are able to do is to create unique environments for out crops in very urban settings. Today we are in Bed-Sty. I personally grow crops that you wouldn’t be able to find in an urban environment.” 
The ability to simulate varied environments is another advantage of growing crops inside a container. If a variety of basil prefers a specific temperature, humidity or altitude, the environmental controls within a Square Roots farm can be set to mimic ideal growing conditions. 
While the ability to grow a high volume of quality produce in a small amount of urban space has been confirmed, price is the next frontier. For urban container farming to scale-up and become affordable for a neighborhood, the cost per pound will have to decline.
Josh Aliber, Farmer and entrepreneur: “The fact that we are able to compete now, tells us that as we really increase production to bring the costs down, we are going to be able to produce food at a much more competitive cost that is better quality than is already existing in the marketplace.”
Until then, this farm incubator will continue to experiment with a food supply chain that can be measured in yards rather than miles. 
Tobias Peggs, Co-Founder, CEO of Square Roots: “At the end of the day I think what the consumer wants is food they can trust, and that tastes really amazing. And if you know your farmer, you trust the food. Once you taste that food, you are won over.”
For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs. 
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