Square Roots, GFS turn shipping containers into food oasis

Kent County

WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — A venture co-founded by Elon Musk’s younger brother is growing in Wyoming.

“It’s really amazing to be in a box full of fresh mint that smells so good and it’s snowing outside. That’s pretty cool,” said Michelle Walters of Square Roots.

Ten repurposed shipping containers line the lot behind Gordon Food Service’s headquarters on Gezon Parkway near Burlingame Avenue SW. Inside, customized grow lights illuminate walls blanketed in plants.

“It’s so peaceful. It’s like being transplanted to a different area of the world. You get the bright sunshine, simulated sunshine from the LED lights, if you turn them on,” said Square Roots Next-Gen farmer Savevone Sonsynath. “Then you’re surrounded by greenery and just like clean air.”

Square Roots, founded by Kimbal Musk and Tobias Pegg, opened the indoor farm Sept. 30. Its Next-Gen farmers celebrated their first yield Nov. 4 and have harvested crops almost continually since then.

(A Sept. 30, 2019 photo shows Square Roots and GFS leaders cutting the ribbon on Square Roots’ Michigan farm campus. Photo courtesy: Square Roots)

The Wyoming farm is only the second of its kind to open; the original Square Roots indoor farm was perfected in a Brooklyn, New York, parking lot, with produce distributed via electric tricycle.

(An undated courtesy photo shows an electric tricycle used to distribute Square Roots’ produce in New York City. Photo courtesy: Square Roots)

HOW IT WORKS

The nine farmers in charge of Square Roots’ operations in West Michigan use hydroponics fine-tuned by technology to grow the herbs.

“We’ve created a program called ‘The Toolbelt,’ and that allows the farmers to control all of the different settings within the farm right from tablets or their cellphones. So they can turn the lights on and off, adjust the CO2 levels, adjust the PH, adjust the temperature, all of those things right from their phones,” Walters explained.

The Toolbelt also gives farmers daily task reminders, alerts them when levels are off and collects growing data for analysis.

(An undated courtesy photo shows Square Roots’ Next-Gen farmers checking farming conditions on their customized app, the Toolbelt. Photo courtesy: Square Roots)

“That allows for us to collect a lot of data to improve our grow recipes and make sure that we are being as efficient as possible,” Walters said.

Basil is the primary crop, growing in six of the containers once used to ship produce. Walters says while it typically takes 28 days to grow basil, Square Roots’ farmers stagger when the seeds are planted, leading to a roughly 100-pound harvest every two weeks.

It takes a team of six farmers two to four hours to harvest a container, depending on the crop.

(An undated courtesy photo shows Square Roots’ Next-Gen farmers harvesting basil. Photo courtesy: Square Roots)

Square Roots’ herbs are non-GMO and pesticide-free. The farmers wash and sanitize and wear coveralls, gloves, boots and hats left on site to prevent contamination inside the containers.

“We do have a thing called ‘Mohave mode,’ which is where after we take everything out, it basically cooks everything in there. So if we have any pests by chance, then it will kill all the pests and everything. It’s like a brand-new container when you come back in,” Next-Gen farmer Rebekah Box explained.

Her fellow farmer Sonsynath explained that at harvest time, the herbs are cut off the wall and loaded directly into packaging to “minimize the touches to the plant.”

The clear packages add another layer of high-tech transparency for customers.

“On the back of every package that we sell is a QR code that you can scan with your phone and it will show you every step of that plant’s life, from seed to harvest. So if you scan it, it will show you where we purchased the seeds from, what date they were planted, it’ll show you pictures of each farmer’s face that did each step so here’s who planted the seeds, here’s who moved them into the nursery, here’s who put them in the grow towers, here’s who harvested it. And it even shows at the end, here’s the GFS delivery van that picked it up,” Walters said.

“I think it’s important to know where your food’s coming from and also be aware of the sustainability aspects of the food that you’re consuming,” she added.

SAVING RESOURCES AND TASTE

From water to flavor, Walters said Square Roots’ container farming concept is all about saving.

“The biggest thing that we’re saving here is water. So, the way that the system works, in the grow towers, the water trickles down from the top. There’s a pipe at the top, it goes through the towers and anything that doesn’t get absorbed by the plants gets captured in a trough at the bottom, filtered and reused. So we’re using about 90% less water than soil farming,” said Walters.

In addition to the retrofitted containers, Square Roots plants its basil in ground coconut husks recycled from the food industry, according to Walters.

(An undated courtesy photo shows basil growing inside a retrofitted container on Square Roots’ campus. Photo courtesy: Square Roots)

“We try to reuse, recycle as much as possible,” she said. “Any food waste, like those plugs for example, are compostable.”

Walters says the container gardens can also be stacked, conserving space in congested cities.

“There’s a huge trend in people moving to cities, but there’s also an increased demand in local food, so we needed to find a way to bring that local food to people who live in areas where we don’t have space for fields,” Walters explained.

(Square Roots co-founder Tobias Peggs addresses a crowd outside one of the container gardens in New York City. Photo courtesy: Square Roots)

She says Square Roots’ model also means better tasting food that lasts longer at home.

“Because we are so local, there is no nutrient loss. It’s a big issue with the current food system. If it’s getting shipped from across the country — a lot of food comes from California — there’s a lot of nutrient loss in that process. There’s also a lot of fossil fuel usage in that,” she explained.

Another flavor saver: turning down the temperature at harvest time.

“It has to do with the amount of oils that it releases,” explained Box. “Because you want the shelf life to be longer and so you don’t want… the stomata to open and the oils to release.”

“I never really truly knew what basil tasted like until I tried it here after harvesting it. It’s so good. The taste is just so prevalent,” she added.

“The smell, it’s overwhelming in an amazing way. I tell you, we have the opportunity to have a lot of great quality product here but the basil… is unbelievable,” explained GFS Marketing Director John Kesterke.

He said the farming method Square Roots has adopted is a game-changer.

“You know we have a very short window of farming in this state. It’s 31 degrees right now and we’re freezing. And so this allows that opportunity to meet our customer demands of having additional local product be able to be grown while we’re going through our winter season,” he explained.

Square Roots’ farmers also save time in setup and growing year-round when other Michigan farmers are stalled by winter.

“Our contract for this was signed in March. We were up and running by September. So that is one of the really nice things about the modular setup of the containers is its very quick to get built and set up. We just drop these in place with a crane and we’re able to get up and running within, what is that, less than six months?” Walters said.

Square Roots’ Grand Rapids Program Manager Tyler Blair says the company is also in talks to donate leftover basil to John Ball Zoo to feed its animals.

“Who would’ve thunk that in this point of time we’re harvesting you know great high-quality product in shipping containers in Michigan in January. Who would think of something like that? Some visionaries did and it’s pretty exciting to be on that true cutting edge of blending technology with great local product,” Kesterke said.

(Tobias Peggs, CEO of Square Roots Urban Growers, speaks about urban farming outside one of Square Roots’ first containers on April 25, 2017 in New York. Photo courtesy: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images)

WHY WEST MICHIGAN?

A partnership with Gordon Food Service brought Square Roots to Wyoming.

“They’ve been amazing partners,” Walters said. “They really believe in our mission and want to bring sustainable local food to people in urban areas while also training our next generation of farmers who may or may not have the opportunity otherwise to get into the farming industry.”

Setting up the farm near GFS’ headquarters and distribution center in Wyoming was ideal considering Square Roots’ goal: shipping container farms on or near GFS stores across North America providing produce year-round.

(An undated courtesy photo shows basil growing in one of Square Roots’ container farms. Photo courtesy: Square Roots)

“To feed families and restaurateurs that may have never had the opportunity to have great local product grown and harvested — it allows that opportunity,” Kesterke said. “There’s a lot of what we’ll call ‘food deserts,’ where, you know, young children or others may not ever experienced tasting homegrown right-off-the-harvest produce. And this allows that opportunity to do so.”

Square Roots started by selling herbs in GFS stores in Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Cascade Township. Earlier this month, it expanded distribution to all 56 GFS stores within the region.

Numerous local restaurants are also among Square Roots’ customers.

Square Roots’ first crops were basil, mint and chives.

“Herbs have a really good ROI because… we can harvest the whole plant and sell the full biomass of it,” Walters explained. “Things like fruiting plants, you put all the resources into it but then you only harvest a few pieces off of it. As technology continues to get better, that becomes more and more feasible.”

Walters says Square Roots has been experimenting with growing fruiting plants including strawberries, tomatillos and peppers, but the next new crop will be microgreens. At the Novi Food Show on March 18, Square Roots will roll out four varieties of microgreens dubbed confetti, rainbow, pea shoots and bull’s blood.

Square Roots’ mission takes it well beyond Michigan:

“Our mission statement says we want to be in every city around the world. So that’s, you know, long term, the dream,” said Walters.

But the company’s co-founder isn’t stopping there.

“I’m focused on bringing real food to everyone (on Earth), but the farming technology we are building at Square Roots can and will be used on Mars,” Kimbal Musk told CNBC.

(Kimbal Musk, brother of Elon Musk, teaches students at Eucalyptus Elementary School to plant a vegetable garden in Hawthorne, California on March 13, 2019. Photo courtesy: David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

THE FUTURE OF FARMING?

Vertical farms aside, there’s another noticeable difference at Square Roots: most of its Next-Gen farmers are in their 20s or 30s — much younger than the typical farmer.

According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the face of the farming industry is getting older. The average age of farm producers is 57.5 years, more than a year older than in 2012. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it’s a long-term trend; only 8% of U.S. producers were under age 35 in the 2017 census.

>>PDF: 2017 Census of Agriculture

“Ten years from now when those folks start to retire, who’s going to be growing our food? So we wanted to create opportunity for young people to get into the industry. And a lot of people don’t consider farming as a career anymore. I know that was certainly something I didn’t consider until I got my position with Square Roots,” Walters said.

Square Roots is trying to grow the next generation of urban farming leaders through its Next-Gen Farming program. The yearlong initiative includes classes in entrepreneurship and business, plant science and joining GFS salespeople on client trips.

“I have never done any kind of farming ever in my life,” Sonsynath said with a laugh. “It’s very enlightening.”

When the year is up, Next-Gen farmers are encouraged to start their own sustainable farming business or join Square Roots full-time.

The interest is there, according to Walters. She said about 150 people from around the world applied for the inaugural program in Wyoming.

“We tried to hire as many as possible from the local area, we did get a few that relocated here. We got one who came from Dallas, Texas, so we did have a few folks move across the country to be a part of this,” she said.

The enthusiasm for urban farming comes as traditional farmers struggle in West Michigan. Fast-developing Ottawa County says it has lost more than 14,000 acres of farmland over the past five years as thousands of producers reach retirement and cannot find someone to carry on their business.

Ottawa County isn’t alone. All 14 counties in our area saw the number of farms drop between 2012 and 2017, based on census data. Farm acreage also shrank in 12 of those counties.

But the season may be changing.

“I grew up gardening with my parents and then my grandparents were farmers, but my parents weren’t. And so I knew there was a generation gap there,” Box said. “I studied natural resources and sustainability in college and I was just really interested in farming and growing my own food and I found it just like super rewarding and fun.”

“I think it’s because the up-and-coming generation — the millennials and the Gen Zs — they are very socially conscious and are really interested in sustainability and knowing where their food comes from and being a part of a movement. So I think that… this is like a way for them to find that,” Walters said.

“They really ensure that our talents are allowed to be utilized,” Sonsynath explained. “I have a passion for nutrition and I get to take on a project studying the oil content of the basil, which is really exciting for me. And we have a lot of business-oriented farmers who get to try marketing our product and work closely with GFS.”

While Square Roots is gaining interest, Walters says traditional farmers shouldn’t worry about high-tech urban farming putting them out of business.

“I’d say that there’s a place for both. There’s a lot of folks out there doing traditional farming that are really paying attention to soil restoration and being eco-friendly. I think the real shift is people demanding local food and feeling connected to the food that they’re eating,” Walters said.

Kesterke, the GFS marketing director, agrees.

“Certain commodities like corn and soy, other things that are just, you need to have the space to do that. In theory, it could be done here but probably not as effectively and as efficiently as some of the herbs and the other things that could be harvested here. So I think it adds a connection to the field-grown product, to the things you’ll be seeing in greenhouses. This is just another component and an addition to allow for that local grown produce,” he said.

“The farmers are the most important part of all of this, you know, even though we’ve got all this technology. So we’re using technology to make it easier for the farmers, to make it more efficient for them, not to replace them,” Walters added.

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