Feeding New York Through Shipping Container Farms

The view inside a Square Roots shipping container farm. The pink lights emulate daylight and save energy costs. (The Ink/Angel Au-Yeung)
The view inside a Square Roots shipping container farm. The pink lights emulate daylight and save energy costs. (The Ink/Angel Au-Yeung)

An outdoor parking lot next to an old pharmaceutical plant may seem like an unlikely place for an urban gardening experiment. But that’s what’s happening in Brooklyn where lettuce, basil, watercress, arugula and other vegetables are growing inside ten shipping containers that have each been transformed into a miniature farm.

“Imagine going to a grocery store in SoHo and knowing that the produce was grown just four subway stops away,” said Tobias Peggs, co-founder and CEO of Square Roots, an urban farming venture.

Square Roots, which launched in August, has built ten climate-controlled farms inside the shipping containers parked outside of the company’s headquarters in the former Pfizer Building at 630 Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. During the first public tour of the farms on Nov. 16, Peggs said the company aims to feed the entire population of every major city around the world with food grown in Square Roots’ containers.

That’s a lofty goal, for sure. Peggs and co-founder Kimbal Musk, the younger brother of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, launched Square Roots to address urban food supply concerns and an increasing consumer preference for naturally-grown food over processed food.

The potential market for city-grown food is substantial. According to a July 2014 United Nations report, 54 percent of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas. That’s projected to increase to 66 percent by 2050.

As urban areas become more highly populated, consumers are buying more organic food. Organic sales in the United States hit a record $43.3 billion in 2015, up 11 percent from the previous year, according to a May 2016 survey by the Organic Trade Association. Meanwhile, the top 25 U.S. food and beverage companies, which include manufacturers of processed food like Kraft Foods and Nestle, saw retail sales decline three percent between 2012 to 2015, according to an August 2016 report by The Hartman Group, a food industry think tank, and consulting firm A.T. Kearny.

“Consumers have lost trust in the big food industry,” said Peggs. ”They want to know where their food is coming from,” said Peggs.

Enter the Square Roots shipping containers. Each one is managed by a “food entrepreneur,” with experience providing food to consumers. The first ten entrepreneurs were selected from a group of 500 applicants and will receive mentorship and training from expert farmers and scientists provided by Square Roots. The entrepreneurs began their training in early November.

Square Roots uses hydroponic farming, which saves space by rooting crops in water filled with nutrient solutions instead of soil. Pink LED lights emulate daylight within the shipping containers around the clock and quicken the harvest time for crops. In the shelter of the shipping containers, farmers can grow crops all year round.

Each container includes the equivalent of two acres of outdoor farmland. The entrepreneurs will sell their harvests at farmers’ markets, restaurants or through community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes.

While Peggs and Musk have high ambitions for Square Roots to address some of the biggest issues in the food industry, the startup is still in the early testing stage.

“Kimbal and I have a saying,” said Peggs. “Plan for the next 90 days, imagine the next 50 years. Everything in between, we’re not quite sure how that will happen, but it will get figured out.”

Peggs and Musk have worked together as a part of The Kitchen, an impact organization co-founded in 2004 by Musk and two other partners. The Kitchen’s initiatives aim to foster “community through food,” according to its website and include running farm-to-table restaurants and building community gardens in low-income schools.

Paal Elfstrum, a former pharmaceutical worker who runs a 12-acre greenhouse in Buffalo, New York, was one of the 30 people attending the Square Roots tour. “We live in some magical times where technology can help grow food,” he said. “It’s a real thrill to see this all unfold for the first time.”