Kimbal Musk’s goal: Grow fresh food in containers in every American city

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Kimbal Musk
SUSAN FRANCE

Standing out in Boulder is not an easy thing to do. From famed world athletes to politicians, the city has its share of notable residents, but when a 6-foot-4-inch man wearing a cowboy hat walks around town, people notice. Some know who he is; some don’t. It’s Kimbal Musk, food entrepreneur and owner of The Kitchen restaurant chain. 

Musk’s newest venture — alongside his co-founder Tobias Peggs — combines food and technology to empower the next generation of farmers. Square Roots is a seed-to-sales urban farm, connecting people in cities to locally grown whole foods. The farm also runs a farmer-training program, which creates opportunities for more people to become urban farmers. 

Currently, Square Roots farmers grow a variety of fresh herbs in indoor, vertical farms inside containers, right in the heart of Brooklyn. They hand-harvest, self-package and deliver to retail stores across New York City. The herbs are non-GMO and pesticide-free, developed through human-centered farming technology that surrounds farmers with data, insights and tools so they can grow high-quality food, all year-round, using the fewest resources possible.

The system uses a water-efficient hydroponic growing system within vertical modular farms in shipping containers, which means there is no need for pesticides. Plus, Musk says, it requires about one-tenth the amount of water compared to traditional gardening. 

Musk started to really think about urban gardening 16 years ago when he opened The Kitchen in Boulder alongside partner and chef Hugo Matheson. According to Musk, they worked with local farmers from the beginning because the food simply tasted better. Along the way, they ended up learning about the sustainability ethos and how much local farmers care about the land, as well as how important it was to have local food production.

The idea behind Square Roots, Musk says, was to create something that would enable the best quality herbs while empowering young farmers to grow food in the city.

“Most of our young farmers are in big cities,” Musk says. “They are not in the countryside.”

But every new technology comes with a cloud of doubts and skepticism, and Square Roots is not immune. Critics have questioned whether or not Square Roots will require more fossil fuel energy to grow food inside, as well as the limits to the type of food that can be produced without soil, and the unrealistic possibility of feeding millions of people with a technology that cannot produce food for the masses. 

Musk says that Square Roots’ electricity consumption is mitigated because the containers use electricity at night when power plants have excess energy. 

“The energy is being produced anyway,” Musk says. “The farms don’t pull more energy from the grid, which allows us to get electricity at a much lower price.” 

For farmer Maxwell Carmack, a Square Roots graduate, the future of vertical farming seems promising. Aware of the critics, he says the carbon footprint of the transportation and refrigeration costs currently in use to move food across the country is worse than the electricity needed to run the indoor farms. Still, he is looking forward to incorporating sustainable energy production technologies to the industry of vertical farming to take it to the “next step.”

While critics may think it will be impossible to feed cities out of containers, Carmack, an engineer who decided to stay on with Square Roots after graduating the program, is excited to prove them wrong. 

“I spend my time making all of the marginal gains that can add up,” he says. “In fact, in the past year we’ve doubled the production. I see improvement every day. In the end, as an engineer, I care about what might be possible and not what might not.”

Since its founding two and half years ago, the Square Roots program has graduated 30 people, and many graduates have taken the path of entrepreneurship, from rooftop garden installations to catering. And it’s expanding, as urban farmers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, will soon start producing fresh herbs as well. 

Musk says the ultimate goal over the next 10 years is to have Square Roots systems in every U.S. city and to graduate around a thousand new urban food farmers, while continuing to improve the technology. While he’s aware that Square Roots can’t feed America alone, he hopes it’s the start of a vertical revolution with its roots in Boulder.