Business

Q&A with Tobias Peggs: CEO of Square Roots

When you think of farming, wide sprawling hills with rows of stalks and veggies comes to mind.  You probably imagine a farmer as a dude with a plow with denim overalls, not necessarily as an entrepreneur.  Square Roots is a startup that is changing the way we think of farming.  Cofounded by Elon Musk’s brother, Kimbal Musk, this company is disrupting the industrial food complex by closing the gap between the food that farmer’s grow and the consumers who buy them.

In the heart of Brooklyn in a old industrial parking lot sits a bunch of unassuming shipping containers.  The last thing you’d expect them to contain would be two acres worth of growing produce, but alas, that is exactly what’s inside of them.

Your typical apple travels a huge distance from where it was picked to the grocery store shelf.  In the process it looses the vast majority of it’s nutrition.  Square Roots attempts to resolve this inefficiency by providing a place for produce to be grown in an urban setting.  It does this by growing produce in shipping containers hydroponically (a method of growing without soil).  Each shipping container is manned by a farming entrepreneur who is responsible for creating their own business plan, marketing and distribution logistics.  Once the produce is ready for harvest, farmers deliver the fresh goods directly to your office/home, connecting the farmer with the consumer in a more intimate and conscious way.

A couple weeks ago I took a tour of the urban farm led by of Square Root’s CEO Tobias Peggs.  Here’s a look at some of the things I learned along the way:

How much produce can one shipping container yield on average?

One shipping container can produce about 50lbs of leafy greens.

How long does it take a plant to get from seed to harvest?

This varies depending on what type of vegetable is being grown but take for example a head of lettuce: it takes about 2-3 weeks for the plant to go from seed to harvest.

Tell me more about the tech that goes into growing food in shipping containers.

To replace sunlight, we use red and blue LEDs, which are really the only two types of light plants need for photosynthesis.  Each shipping container is modular with a controlled climate.  My background is in artificial intelligence, so every aspect of the conditions in each shipping container is controlled by AI.  Say we had an heirloom seed that grew in southern Italy in the 1800’s.  We can look to see what the climate was at that time and replicate it’s environment within the container.   This way, instead of literally shipping food from southern Italy, we just ship the data about that environment and use it to grow exotic foods locally.

What control do farmers have over what they grow?

Our farmers are 100% entrepreneurs.  They decide which seeds to use.  They also are responsible for their own branding and marketing and how to distribute their goods.  This is our first cohort of farmers, they don’t have to use the Square Roots name, but most choose to.

Is there anything like this currently being attempted?

There’s one in particular being attempted in Japan.  A large portion of farmland was rendered unusable after the meltdown in Fukushima.  Because of this Japanese consumers now have stamps on the food which literally says “Proud to be grown indoors”.  So people are attempting it, all of them in different methods. I would say we were the most modular.

After the tour I got to sample some of the shipping container-grown produce.  The picture above is from a mustard green.  Believe it or not it was really spicy!  I never thought of leafy greens as spicy, but regardless it was bomb as hell in my salad.

As populations rapidly grow and change in cities, so must the way we produce and distribute food.  Not only does the current method of industrialized farming diminish the quality of our food, but it also disconnects the farmer from the consumer.  Square Roots presents us with a wildly innovative solution to these issues.  Where does your salad come from?  Mine came from a badass shipping container in Brooklyn.

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