10 Ways Container Farms Empower Next-Gen Farmers

Square Roots | 04.15.19

Square Roots is building a distributed network of indoor, modular, Climate Containers, farmed by next generation farmers, to grow hyper-local food for people in cities, all over the world. Here’s why it’s working.

Inside a Square Roots Climate Container, replicating optimum growing conditions, all year round,

Inside a Square Roots Climate Container, replicating optimum growing conditions, all year round,

At Square Roots, our mission is to bring real, local food to people in cities around the world, by empowering the next generation of leaders in urban farming.

Whether we’re in the farms tweaking CO2 levels, or in a board meeting plotting a pathway for what the company looks like in 2050, every decision we make is guided to help us achieve our mission faster, smarter, and with as much impact as possible

Choices we’ve made around our technology platform are a good illustration of that. Our platform needs to bring fresh, healthy food to urban areas year-round, consistently, and on any continent in the world. At the same time, it must also be a welcoming environment, conducive to training future generations of farmers to be productive, fast.

Central to our platform is the decision we made very early in the company’s life to build a distributed network of modular Climate Containers, as opposed to following the plant factory template.

Square Roots technical drawings of Climate Container, indoor farms.

Square Roots builds campuses of Climate Containers, scalable, resilient, and smart.

There are a lot of smart people in this industry, all working hard to bring better food to market — which, given our wider vision to bring real food to everyone, is wonderful to see. The more of us working on the real food revolution the better — and I want all of these systems to flourish. But here are 10 reasons why we think container farming rocks:

1. Speed to Market

Today we can enter a new market and open a Square Roots “Super Farm” with 25 Climate Containers. This costs less than $2MM, and we can build it in less than three months. That cost and time period is only coming down. In comparison, building a plant factory can cost tens of millions of dollars, as well as take years to construct. We want to get real food to more people, and fast!

2. Easy to Scale

To meet increasing market demand we simply add Climate Containers to any existing deployment. This means just-in-time capital deployment, and also just-in-time technology deployment. This is really important in an industry where the technology is improving fast. You don’t want to spend years and millions to open a big farm full of old tech that immediately needs a refresh.

3. Climate Control

I was an early investor in Chicago’s Farmed Here, one of the first and largest plant factories in the US. There, I saw first-hand how much the team struggled to control the climate in a building that size. Plants don’t like it when you get it wrong. And neither do landlords — the humidity can wreak havoc with the underlying infrastructure. In our programmable Climate Containers, each one built inside a 320 square foot shipping container, optimum conditions for a variety of crops can easily be maintained. The perfect climate for each variety can be seamlessly replicated — in any market — to ensure consistent quality every time, at every harvest.

Square Roots Super Farm in design phase for NYC.

Square Roots Super Farm in design phase for NYC.

4. Diversity of Products

Multiple containers on our Super Farms allow for multiple climates, which lets us grow multiple crops at the same time to satisfy local market demands. For example, basil requires a completely different climate than chives to grow well, so it’s practically impossible to grow these two products together in a way that tastes good if you have a giant farm with one mono climate. The ability to grow multiple quality SKUs is particularly important in the retail market, where product variety is key to getting shelf real estate. Having multiple climates also means we can tackle many niches in any local market (e.g. using one container on a Super Farm to grow something exotic like Shiso or Mustard Greens), giving us a lot of business flexibility while keeping things interesting for our teams of farmers.

5. Sustainable Systems

Square Roots uses zero pesticides, and 90% less water than outdoor farms. We can also be clever about energy usage. For example, we make it “daytime” in the farm by turning on our grow lights overnight when there is excess energy in the grid, and the cost per kilowatt hour is lower. However, if for some reason we need to be in the farms during “daytime,” we can put a Climate Container into “harvest mode” — which dims the lights, and configures the climate to be optimum conditions for people at work — before seamlessly switching back to plant growing mode once we’re done.

6. Location

Our modular architecture means we can be very creative in repurposing existing city infrastructure when we look for locations to build a farm. We can pop up on an empty parking lot like we did in Brooklyn, or take over a disused warehouse, or even be built into a new development. This flexibility means we can build our Super Farms literally in the same zip code as the end consumer. This means fresher and tastier product for the customer (we go from harvest to store in 24 hrs in Brooklyn). It means fewer food miles (most industrial food is shipped in from the other side of the world!). And it means less food waste (our distribution chains are super short to city center retailers. We use climate-controlled e-trikes to transport our food, and there is basically no spoilage along the way). It also helps to get consumers more connected to their food and the people who grow it — they can simply jump on a subway and come visit the farm!

A Square Roots e-trike, bringing locally grown herbs to city center grocery stores, within 24hrs of harvest.

A Square Roots e-trike, bringing locally grown herbs to city center grocery stores, within 24hrs of harvest.

7. Food Safety and System Resilience

All indoor farms need to be prepared for bad things to happen. While there is way less risk in a controlled environment vs an outdoor farm, it’s inevitable that you will get some sort of pest outbreak, powdery mildew, or some other issue at some point while you’re managing a complex ecosystem full of living, breathing plants. If that ever should happen in one of our Climate Containers, we can quickly shut it down and reboot that single node while the rest of the network keeps going strong. I’ve seen this happen in a plant factory, with one big mono climate, and you lose all your crops.

8. Faster Learning

Our farms are cloud connected, and we collect millions of data points that we analyze to determine how changes in certain environmental parameters can impact factors like yield, taste and texture of the final produce. More climates in more containers means more feedback loops, which means faster learning. For example, our system has learned to reduce the growing cycle of basil from 50 days to 28 days in the last year alone.

9. The Network Gets Smarter as it Scales

As we’re architected for faster learning, it’s no surprise that we learn a lot. With Over The Air updates, as we discover an enhancement to a growing recipe, or develop a new feature to more optimally control the farm, we can push that out to the whole network at the same time, making everything more efficient, everywhere. Just like a Tesla, the software is always up to date and we can improve our containers from anywhere in the world with a simple software update.

10. Sense of Ownership

Perhaps this is unique to Square Roots and our Next-Gen Farmer Training Program, but because we grow in modular Climate Containers, we’re able to give all our young farmers personalized software to help them understand their individual impact to the overall business. What we call our “Farmer Toolbelt” provides day-to-day instructions, a means for data capture, and real time analysis of both plant health and business metrics. All this information is accessible from the tablets that everyone on our farm team carries everyday. This system also ensures that we track every aspect of production — who does what, when, and how, from seed to sales. This is a goldmine of data, that not only helps us improve operations, but also implicitly provides traceability. Last December, we started exposing this data to consumers in the form of our Transparency Timeline. On every package of Square Roots produce, you can simply scan a QR code and get a complete story of where your food comes from — seed to shelf.

Scan the QR code on every Square Roots package to see where your food comes from.

Scan the QR code on every Square Roots package to see where your food comes from.

Our Super Farm platform is exciting in terms of scalability, resilience, and efficiency, and it’s a really wonderful environment for our farmers to farm. For urban consumers it means local farmers growing your food with love — which is why it tastes absolutely delicious. And technology enables us to grow a ton of food in a very small area, in ways that make a lot of business sense too. It’s a classic example of “doing well by doing good”.

It has been an exciting journey to our Super Farm platform. When we launched Square Roots back in 2016, we were very focused on figuring out the Farmer Training Program model — as we knew that farmers bring love to the food, the program would create enormous impact over time, and it would also be a long term of engine of growth. So we partnered with a number of 3rd parties who could provide parts of the growing system for us, while we got the training program right. (In many ways, that was like Tesla sourcing our chassis from Lotus for the first Roadster). After that initial phase, and finding out what the urban farming world needs, we have developed our own technology specifically tailored to our model. This enables us to grow local food at incredible scale in ways that make sense for people, planet and profits.

We recently announced a strategic partnership with Gordon Food Service, which will see the first major deployment of this Super Farm technology platform — and will help us bring local food to people in cities all across North America while training thousands of future farmers. Which, in a neat and circular way, brings us right back to the mission statement I started this post with.

Of course, we still have lots to work to do! But these are exciting times. We’re always looking to talk with great people — from hardware and software engineers to farmers and plant scientists. So feel free to check our website and get in touch.

This article was originally published by Kimbal Musk on April 15, 2019.

Recent Posts