Tobias Peggs Empowers Entrepreneurs to Feed the Planet

Tobias Peggs, CEO of Square Roots in Brooklyn, New York, is empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs in the real food revolution. He shares his thoughts on modular urban farming, artificial light technology, and finding community through food.

The average tomato travels 1,800 miles from farm to table. It takes weeks to make its journey. Unsustainable traditional food-production systems need to change, and consumers are the ones driving that change. People don’t want to just buy food anymore—they want to purchase products with purpose that have a positive impact on the planet. Forty-eight percent of grocery shoppers now actively seek “local” produce, because it is better for them personally as well as the planet. By 2050, the world will total nine billion people and 70 percent of them will live in cities. Producers need to figure out how to grow sustainably, in cities, at scale, and do so year round.

Finding solutions to feed a huge number of urban dwellers with locally grown food presents an extraordinary opportunity for entrepreneurs. As a consequence, there has been a lot of recent innovation and investment in controlled-climate indoor urban farming. “Plant Factory” installations are popular in countries like Japan, and companies like Plenty and Gotham Greens lead the way in the U.S. Meanwhile companies like IKEA are socializing domestic-scale utilities (think a dishwasher-sized box in your kitchen, with a mini-farm inside growing lettuce for dinner).

A third approach—and one we are using at Square Roots—is to create a distributed network of small modular farms, growing food in the middle of urban neighborhoods. We launched Square Roots in August 2016 as a platform for urban farming and real food entrepreneurship. Our flagship Brooklyn campus is a collection of indoor controlled-climate, hydroponic farms built inside retrofitted shipping containers. We also created a 12-month program to coach young, passionate people in how to become real food entrepreneurs. This program is the first of its kind, and with our coaching in everything from seeding to sales, our resident entrepreneurs learn to simultaneously grow food and run a small business.

When they graduate, they’re in a position to launch their own company and become the leaders in the industry. That might be in farming or creating value-add products (e.g. launching a pesto company now that they know how to grow basil). Or it might be a hardware or software company (selling AI-controlled lighting systems to indoor growers, for example). All of these companies will be necessary to bring real food to the cities of our future.

Great farming techniques, and a whole lot of love, are key to growing delicious food. But data science increasingly plays a large role as well, specifically in analyzing how micro-changes inside our controlled-climate farms can impact factors like taste, texture, and yield of the crops. One thing that we’re working to improve is the lighting systems for indoor farms. Artificial light brings many advantages. You can fine-tune the growing system to create the exact taste or texture you want. And you can grow predictably all year round. But artificial lights also require electricity to run—they are not free like the sun. We’re looking right now at how we can improve the efficiency of the lighting systems so that we can take the farms off the grid and run them on solar. We are also looking at ways to “download the sun” using fiber optics and streaming natural light into otherwise controlled climate environments. We are at the very early stages of this technology, which is why it’s so exciting.

Despite the incredible advances in technology, perhaps the most significant thing for modern farmers to consider is the fundamental human need for community and connection through food. Square Roots is training an army of next-generation leaders and unleashing them into the food industry. Our first cohort of modern farmers now delivers same-day harvested veggies by foot, by Citi Bike, or by subway, directly to customers at over 80 office locations in New York City. Forging a direct relationship with consumers is key. We need more entrepreneurs working to bring real food to everyone, and it’s not going to happen through charity. We need new, viable sustainable business models to make this change permanent.