No More Tilling: Kimbal Musk Does His Farming in the Big City

By Hanna Neier, Senior Content Editor

Food entrepreneur and venture capitalist Kimbal Musk -- yes, Elon's brother -- seeks to seize control of the food supply from the industrial food complex. Through his venture, Square Roots, Musk and co-founder Tobias Peggs, are betting that the future of growing food lies in vertical urban gardens housed in shipping containers. Recently Peggs discussed their vision and plans for success.

What is Square Roots?

Square Roots is a Brooklyn-based urban farming accelerator. We exist to empower the next generation to become entrepreneurial leaders in the local, real food revolution.  Our co-founder Kimbal Musk says that the real food movement will be bigger than the Internet as an opportunity for next generation’s food entrepreneurs.

To tackle the challenges, Square Roots builds campuses of urban farms to enable year-round growing of local, real food. We coach young, passionate people to grow food and build sustainable businesses. In addition, we are trying to build and invest in communities that understand the power of local, real food.

Our ultimate aim is to bring real food to everyone.

How does urban farming address the need?

This isn’t just a Brooklyn hipster foodie thing. It’s a global mega trend. Many people—especially in our biggest cities—are at the mercy of industrial food. The industrial food system ships in high-calorie, low-nutrient, processed food from thousands of miles away. It leaves us disconnected from our food and the people who grow it. The results are awful — from obesity and diabetes to a total loss of community in our food system.

Organic food has come from nowhere to be a $40 billion industry and growing. Local food is the fastest growing sector within that. And the biggest buyers are the tech enabled, next-generation urban “millennials.” They are connected and informed and, increasingly, living in cities. They know what they’re eating and have lost trust in the industrial food system. So we’ve got to figure out how to grow real food in cities at scale. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for new entrepreneurs who understand urban agriculture.

Square Roots creates farms out of shipping containers, right?

Yes. A problem with farming in the city is lack of space. Farming vertically means you can grow in three dimensions, not just two, so you get a lot more produce from the same size footprint. Our farms are grown using vertical towers erected inside 40-foot shipping containers. They have a 320 square feet footprint, but the annual yield of a two-acre field. That’s a lot of real food in a very small space.

What can an urban farm provide that a traditional farm can’t?

I think that’s the wrong way to frame the question. It’s not about “urban farming” vs “traditional farming.” It’s about local, real food you can trust and that strengthens community, verses industrial food which leaves us disconnected from our food and the people who grow it. So whether the “local farm” is a soil-based, no-till, organic field or a series of vertical towers in a shipping container on a parking lot, the key question is, Can you be farm-to-table in a day? Are you transparent and can people trust you?

We took the idea of transparency to the extreme by putting a huge window on our farms so that people can walk by and see the food growing and the farmers working. We also run farm tours every month so anyone can come and see what’s going on. 

How is Square Roots different from other urban farms like Gotham Greens and Brooklyn Grange?

We love both, and we’re fortunate to count key members of their teams as mentors to our entrepreneurs. We’re all fighting the same fight—to bring local, real food to people in the city. We might use different technologies or take different approaches to reach the market, but we’re philosophically aligned in that we need more locally grown real food not industrial food.

Kimbal Musk has said that he wants people to know what real food is. But real food is expensive. How can Square Roots compete on cost?

Kimbal’s mission is to bring real food to everyone. The idea with Square Roots is to unleash a new generation of entrepreneurs that will also work on that mission. The more people we have working on the real food revolution, the more real food we’ll have available. That also means we’ll have more people thinking about the system and working on reducing waste and ultimately cost.

How is your project being financed?

We’re surrounded by a wonderful set of investors — including Powerplant VenturesGroundUpLightbank and FoodTech Angels. It’s a diverse set of folks all pulling together on a common thread: a true belief in the power of local real food.

What are the primary challenges to Square Roots financial success and sustainability?

Our success is tied to the success of our entrepreneurs which in turn is a direct result of our mentors. Square Roots mentors are individuals with deep industry, entrepreneurship or investment experience. They work with Square Roots entrepreneurs and share their knowledge and guidance freely to help then build sustainable thriving businesses. Basically, we couldn’t do it without mentors and we’re extremely grateful for all their contributions.

Where would you like Square Roots to be five years from now?

We’d love to be in 20 cities by 2020.

What do you think farming will look like in 20 years?

Real food for everyone!