Square Roots Urban Farm expands in Michigan

Square Roots, an urban farming concept, opened its indoor farm September 2019 in Wyoming, and recently celebrated opening their second Michigan farm April 14. Founded by Kimbal Musk and Tobias Peggs, Square Roots began in Brooklyn, NY in a parking lot, with an electric tricycle distributing produce. The new two-story farm is in addition to the original 10 shipping containers located behind their partner’s headquarters, Gordon Food Service in Wyoming. 

The urban farm utilizes a modular farm-tech platform of upcycling prefabricated shipping containers into ready-to-go farms. Regulating climate conditions for optimal growth, these farms can produce the highest quality food, regardless of weather conditions. The farm-tech platform aims to bring local food to people and empower the next generation of farmers. “Central to our mission is our Next-Gen Farmer Training Program which is aimed at new farmers, or those at early stages in their careers,” says Michelle Walters, Square Roots learning and development manager, based in Grand Rapids. “Farmers initially join Square Roots as apprentice growers — full-time, paid employees on our production farm teams, similar to traditional farm apprenticeships [but with benefits].”

The company’s partnership with Gordon Food Service, one of the largest foodservice distributors, is the first step toward a shared ambition to bring these indoor farms and local food options to cities all over the continent. Though many industries were negatively impacted by the pandemic, grocery stores and many farms saw a necessary increase in demand for their products and goods. “While COVID-19 wreaked havoc across the industrial food system, consumers increasingly valued local food, which in turn accelerated the adoption of indoor-grown produce,” says Walters. “Consumers, forced to stay at home and cook, were able to experience the consistent peak-season flavor of our locally-grown greens. Meanwhile, retailers appreciated the reliability, longer shelf life, and complete traceability of all Square Roots’ products.”

That demand in retail led to Square Roots products now being available on shelves in over 200 stores, including Whole Foods, FreshDirect, Fresh Thyme Market, D&W Market, Horrocks and more. Local downtown neighborhood grocery store Bridge Street Market started selling Square Roots arugula and basil last year amongst their over 4,000 Michigan-made products. 

“The team at Square Roots heard about the Market and got excited about the possibility of having their greens available [here],” says Daltyn Terpstra, Bridge Street Market marketing manager. “They approached TJ Suminski, an assistant store manager with a focus [on] produce and the rest was history.”
Keeping a close relationship between the buyer and the seller is important for Bridge Street Market, and they work closely with Square Roots farmers. “As often as we can, we like to keep as close to the source [as possible],” says Terpstra. “We do often work directly with farmers in the West Michigan area but we also source produce and other grocery items using larger distribution centers or the distributors working with local vendors.”

All greens are non-GMO and grown within vertical, modular hydroponics farms, which use 95% less water than conventional farming, and do not use pesticides. Using digitally-controlled hydroponics and full-spectrum LED lighting systems rather than Mother Nature’s temperamental weather patterns means products have peak-season flavor at all times. This precision growing method also decreases food waste, by growing on demand rather than overplanting to account for nature. “Our farmers first seed and then transplant the seedlings into the grow towers where they continue growing until they’re ready to be harvested. Once they’re ready to be harvested, our farmers hand-harvest and package them to be delivered to local grocery stores around the area,” says Walters. Since inception, Square Roots has grown over 200 varieties of root vegetables, fruits, leafy greens, microgreens and herbs.

Their products also include a QR code on the package, enabling customers to trace the story of their greens with their Transparency Timeline. By scanning the code, customers can see data from the Square Roots Farmer Toolbelt, an operating system which captures information from seed to shelf.

Keeping both the produce and the farmers local is an important aspect of this urban farm and nurturing both is necessary for healthy growth. Creating opportunities for young people to discover farming pathways is important to Square Roots’ mission to change the food system. Currently, the average American farmer is 58 years old. To combat this, the Next-Gen Farmer Training Program features recent graduates of all disciplines ranging from agricultural food production, biology, intercultural studies and theology, and business from Ferris State University, Hope College and throughout the state. 

Locally, Square Roots donates any excess product (if available) to Buist Community Assistance Center and Feeding America. Wyoming farmers have also volunteered with Urban Roots, a community farm and education center, and Hope Gardens, a nonprofit that addresses food insecurity. “The Grand Rapids community has been very welcoming and excited to have us in the area,” says Walters. “Pre-COVID, we hosted free monthly farm tours and every month, we were blown away by the attendance and community support. We hope to resume these again soon, post-pandemic.”

Photos courtesy Square Roots

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
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