The future of farming is taking root in a parking lot in Brooklyn.
A “vertical farming accelerator” called Square Roots is giving average green thumbs the chance to grow produce inside shipping containers and then sell their crop in farmers markets, restaurants and other venues that favor local goods. The long-term goal is to “empower thousands of millennials” to rediscover the virtues of “real food” and develop businesses that bring fresh, local produce to urban communities.
The first accelerator will debut this fall in the parking lot of an old Pfizer factory in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. There, 10 shipping containers will be converted into vertical farms where fruits and vegetables can be grown using LED bulbs instead of sunlight. Just how much can you harvest in a 320 square-foot container? The equivalent of about two acres of farmland, it turns out.
Vertical farming has been gaining traction of late as the declining cost of technology makes it a more commercially viable venture. The practice not only allows for denser farming because plants are stacked in tall rows, but also reduces the toll on the environment because even urban cities can source crops locally.
Square Roots is the brainchild of co-founders Tobias Peggs and Kimbal Musk, serial entrepreneurs looking to upend the country’s industrial food supply. Musk is the younger brother of Tesla and SpaceX pioneer Elon Musk and founder of The Kitchen restaurant group. Peggs, who works as president of The Kitchen, is a seasoned start-up CEO whose past ventures have been acquired by Walmart and Adobe.
Musk has been a vocal proponent of what he calls “real food” and restoring trust in the food industry. That starts with producing more food locally, rather than shipping it in from across the globe, which can only happen if densely developed urban communities have the people and places to make vertical farming a reality, he said.
If successful, Square Roots could jump-start that movement.
“The entrepreneurs will learn specific skills from our network of coaches and mentors — such as the ins and outs of hydroponic farming, or how to sell at a farmers market — but they will also be encouraged to innovate and collaborate on new ideas together,” Peggs said.
Square Roots is getting off the ground with an undisclosed sum of money from investors that include The Kitchen, Powerplant Ventures, GroundUp, Lightbank and FoodTech Angels, Musk said.
“We have a lot to prove in Brooklyn. But our aim is to replicate the model in every community as soon as we can,” Musk said.
He added that the next accelerators after Brooklyn will likely be located in places where The Kitchen already has a footprint, such as Boulder, Denver or Chicago. “While we are excited about every community in the country having a campus, we love to prioritize the communities that shared our vision and helped us along the way,” he said.
Think you’ve got what it takes? Apply here.
Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovations section.