“If you know your farmer, you trust your food,” Tobias Peggs tells me with the self-assuredness and confidence of a long-time entrepreneur. Unlike founders of food startups, Peggs doesn’t run from grocery store to grocery store trying to sell a product or spend hours marketing a DIY cooking kit. Rather, he spends most of working hours in near vicinity to ten hydroponic, climate-controlled container farms located in a parking lot in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Inside, leafy greens, spinach, arugula and more grow year-round, even in the middle of a busy city and even in the dead of winter. This is Square Roots, an urban accelerator at the forefront of the urban farming scene. It’s purpose: to bring together technology, entrepreneurship and a love of real, local food to empower leaders in urban agriculture.
Rules of Impact // Tobias PeggsMute/unmute
As part of a 12-month accelerator program, Square Roots provides entrepreneurship coaching, mentorship, business planning and opportunities to run a farming businesses to ten ‘Farmers-in-Residence’. The program transforms farmers from providers of commodities to social entrepreneurs, able to educate the public by harvesting for the seasons, throughout all seasons. In turn, consumers get food harvested the same day, directly from their farmer. This is the cyclical growing economy that Peggs hopes will change societal relationships to food.
If you know your farmer, you trust your food. tweet
Square Roots is a direct response to the problems of the industrial food system. “Our food might have traveled for two miles to get to you in comparison to the average tomato that you would buy in a supermarket that travels 1,800 miles,” he explains. “When food travels that long and takes that much time, all of the nutrients break down into sugars. You end up with something that is tasteless and not very good for you.” The catastrophic impact of the industrial food system on our health is directly correlated to high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart and respiratory problems.
Food is the new Internet. tweet
Peggs notes that 30% of kids in the US are obese. “That’s nothing kids decided to do to themselves. That’s a result of the system.” Organic has grown from almost nothing to a $40 billion industry in a decade. Yet demand is still five times larger than available supply. “That is indicative of a consumer actively looking for food they can trust,” he says. “They are matching organic to trustworthy.” The size of the market opportunity is so massive that Peggs’ co-founder and partner with Square Roots, Kimbal Musk, says “Food is the new Internet.”
“They are matching organic to trustworthy.”
Peggs enthusiasm to startup life is a homage to his past career and personal endeavors: he received a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence, spent years as Managing Editor of ID Magazine, and spent more than a decade founding tech startups in Silicon Valley before partnering with Musk (yes, the brother of Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity). Outside of the office, he has spent the past twenty years competing in triathlons, one of the reasons he’s always been mindful of his relationship to food.
The breakthrough moment for Peggs came while he led OneRiot’s acquisition by Walmart, placing him in a leadership role at WalmartLabs. His job was to develop mobile shopping apps for countries around the world for a brand that is the largest buyer of organic produce. “Watching shopping habits at that huge scale across the globe was pretty enlightening. I was curious as to where things were shipped or grown from,” he explains. “It was like I sat on top of a data set of the industrial food system.”
As a tech entrepreneur, developing apps to manage efficiency of shipping and delivery, Peggs began to wonder if there was a better way to meet demand. “Knowing the nutrients in food degrade the longer it takes to get to a consumer made me realize what Kimball had been talking about for a decade at that point.” Meanwhile, his eventual partner Musk was developing and scaling The Kitchen, an industry-leading chain of restaurants specializing in farm-to-table cuisine at the forefront of the Food Revolution based in New York City.
“It was like I sat on top of a data set of the industrial food system.”
Peggs left Walmart to become CEO of Aviary, a mobile design app that was quickly acquired by Adobe. The logical next step would have been for Peggs to continue in tech after leading two successful exits, but he felt called to make a change to the food system. Peggs looked to his old friend Musk for education.
“I called him and told him I wanted to carry his bag for a year and understand his thinking for the last ten years,” he said. This led Peggs to a position as President of Impact for The Kitchen, which eventually led to the launch of Square Roots.
“Think of a modular box that you can drop onto any plot of land”
The immediate public response pointed to the overwhelming demand for urban farming; Square Roots received over 500 applications for ten ‘Farmers-In-Residence’ spots in its first year. The company selected from a diverse group of backgrounds and ages – from college graduates to a former investment banker – who shared a common desire to make an impact through innovation and food. One participant, Lou, traveled from Hunts Points in the Bronx, the epicenter of the industrial food system in the tri-state area — a food desert, that lacks any supermarkets or bodegas that sell fresh food. For people like Lou, becoming an urban farmer was a form of social justice and community activism.
Each week, participants in the accelerator hold roundtable discussions on how to best serve the needs of their customers, often leading to unexpected breakthroughs or offerings of new services. Peggs recalls the story of Max, an entrepreneur who visited a friend, an employee at Vice, with his samples of leafy green lettuce “in bags the size of a bag of chips.” They started to snack on it and realized they had never tasted food harvested within hours. Vice employees immediately voiced that they wanted something healthier, like Square Roots, available to them at work.
“We were then able to work with the entrepreneurs to develop that model, put technology behind it, coach them around customer acquisition and retention, and ultimately logistics,” Peggs shares. Today, customers can sign-up for a weekly subscription serving eighty locations and counting across New York City. “A farmer will freshly harvest a bag of salad mixes, literally jump on the subway or grab a Citibike and come to your desk at work and hand over a bag just in time for lunch.”
“Food security combined with the oil industry is going away.”
This iterative approach to developing new business models around food makes Square Roots revolutionary and replicable across different cities and cultures. “Campuses in literally every city in America are coaching tens of thousands of people at a time to become real food entrepreneurs,” he explains of the trend. “Food security combined with the oil industry is going away.” The current push toward a de-globalized world is also forcing people to think about growing food locally in densely populated urban environments. While they are hyper-focused on the US market, they have been approached by governments in places like the Middle East who face rising temperatures from climate change and economies in need of transition to new agricultural processes.
Looking ahead, the rise of autonomous vehicles could also accelerate the adoption of urban vertical farming. Within two decades, car ownership could be replaced by transportation-as-a-service.
“That industry then looks like a fleet of autonomous vehicles driving around that are 100% utilized. If you take that to its conclusion, then there is no need for a parking lot anymore,” he says. Potentially 20-30% of urban space currently dedicated to parking could open up. “Think of a modular box that you can drop onto any plot of land. A ten-story parking garage is suddenly empty. We could drop in these containers and turn that into a farm overnight.”
Square Roots is a reminder of the tremendous power of a simple idea: growing our own food. Replicating the model of vertical farming that exists in a shipping container in Brooklyn has the potential to transform the planet’s relationship to produce – how it’s grown, purchased and consumed. Yet Peggs is quick to point out that the company is not in competition with organic or urban farmers. “We line up alongside those farmers,” he says. “Seek out a local farmer. Support them.”
Seek out a local farmer. Support them.
Anyone based in New York City can sign-up for subscriptions through their website. “Have a farmer show up on a weekly basis at your desk and start a conversation.” This is the first step toward rebuilding trust and breaking free of the industrial food system. Of course, as an added benefit, “You’ll get the tastiest food you’ve ever had.”