We’ve got to figure out how to grow real food in the city, at scale, as quickly as possible.
Tobias Peggs is an entrepreneur and the CEO of Square Roots, an “urban farming accelerator” launched last summer in a converted Brooklyn factory. Along with Kimbal Musk (brother of Tesla titan Elon Musk), Peggs co-founded Square Roots to support “real food” entrepreneurs as they produce nutritious and GMO-free greens using modular, indoor, state-of-the-art urban farms.
Below, Peggs explains why he believes urban farming today today is an opportunity on the scale of the internet 20 years ago.
As an entrepreneur, why did you make the move into urban farming?
I came over to the US from my native UK in 2003. I have a PhD in AI and have always worked in tech. Through tech, I first met Kimbal Musk. I joined him in 2006, so I’ve known him for over a decade now, and all through that time he’s been working on a mission to “bring real food to everyone.” He had a restaurant called The Kitchen (in Boulder, Colorado) that sourced food from local farmers and made farm-to-table dining accessible in terms of menu and price point.
In 2009, while we were both working at OneRiot, he had a skiing accident and broke his neck. Realizing life can be short, he decided then and there to focus on this idea of bringing real food to everyone. So he left OneRiot to focus on The Kitchen, which is now a family of restaurants across Chicago, Boulder, Denver, Memphis and other cities.
After Kimbal’s ski accident, I became CEO of OneRiot, which was acquired by Walmart in 2011. I ended up at Walmart running mobile commerce for international markets. I learned a lot about the industrial food system there—working with huge data sets of the groceries people were buying across the globe, and researching where those foods were being grown. I began to visualize food being shipped across the world, thousands of miles before consumers bought it. That is industrial food.
I left Walmart a year later and became CEO of an NYC photo editing software startup called Aviary. But I couldn’t get this map of the industrial food system out of my head. When Aviary was acquired by Adobe in 2014, I re-joined Kimbal at The Kitchen and we started developing the idea for Square Roots.
What we saw was that millions of people, especially those in our biggest cities, were at the mercy of industrial food. This is high-calorie, low-nutrient food, shipped in from thousands of miles away. It leaves people disconnected from their food and the people who grow it. And the results are awful—from childhood obesity to adult diabetes, to a total loss of community around food. (Not to mention environmental factors like chemical fertilizers and greenhouse gases).
What we also saw was these people were losing trust in the industrial food system and wanted what we call “real food.” This is food you can trust to nourish your body, the planet, the farmer and the community. Essentially, this is local food—where you know your farmer.
The industrial food system is not going to solve this problem. Instead, this presents an extraordinary opportunity for a new generation of entrepreneurs—those who understand urban agriculture, community, and the power of real, local food.
So we set up Square Roots as a platform to empower the next generation to become entrepreneurial leaders in this real food revolution. With Square Roots we can work alongside them to tackle this internet-sized opportunity.
What is the state of the urban farming industry right now?
I recently wrote a blog on this titled “Urban Farming Today Is Like the Internet More Than 20 Years Ago.” I think urban farming is inevitable. By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on the planet, and 70% will live in cities. These people will need to eat—and they will want local food. We have to figure out how to grow real food in the city at scale, as quickly as possible.
Urban farming will happen because it is being driven by consumer demand. That consumer demand will catalyze technology improvements—in growing systems, lighting, and data insights, for example—helping to drive down costs and increase the yield of tasty local food. However, that’s not all the industry needs. It also needs an army of smart, passionate entrepreneurs who understand local food systems and how to build and engage with local communities of loyal customers.
What are some of the biggest challenges with vertical farming?
It’s hard work right now. but the consumer response is so incredible. People respond to fresh, tasty, locally grown food, made available all year round, where you can buy it directly from a local farmer. It inspires them to keep pushing towards the future.
What innovations are you exploring at Square Roots that might one day apply to other urban farming platforms?
We’re a platform to empower the next generation to become real food entrepreneurs, as our cofounder Kimbal explained in his initial blog post about the company. Of course, we sit “on top” of some interesting farming technology. And we’re working with a variety of vendors to push that to the next level. We’re also building innovate software to deliver data insights (leveraging my AI background) that can help the farmers grow tastier food.
How has the surrounding community reacted to Square Roots? Are there any unique programs within Square Roots that you’d like to highlight?
The reaction has been incredible. For example, we run farm tours every month and have had several hundred visitors to date. We run farmers markets in cool restaurants like Egg Shop and will get people to show up on a cold Monday night to meet the farmers, buy the food, and get involved in conversations about food systems.
We’ve just launched a new program called “Farm to Local,” which is a new way to get freshly harvested greens delivered directly to your desk. This is all driven by the community wanting more ways to get the food. The back story here is illustrative of how Square Roots works:
In January, after their first harvest, the entrepreneurs experimented with a number of different go-to-market initiatives. Some distributed to chefs, others ran farmers markets, and others gave samples directly to consumers while they were at work. All of these have turned into business models, but listening to the customer feedback was incredibly instructive.
What the farmers heard time and time again was that a lot of people in New York wanted local food, and wanted to play their part in the real food revolution, but they only ate at home a once or twice per week. (This matches a national trend where for the first time in 2015, more dollars were spent on dining out than grocery shopping). These people loved the idea of the classic CSA farm share box, but the reality was, with their lifestyle, they would waste most of the food.
So Square Roots farmer-entrepreneurs developed a handy-size grab bag of greens—and then saw that people would eat them at work “like a bag of chips” (a phrase we heard over and over). And so the “Farm to Local” program was born: a new way to get freshly harvested greens delivered directly to your desk. They’re a perfect snack, or the basis of a healthy, tasty, single-portion meal. Because the greens are grown hyper-locally, the farmer-entrepreneurs can offer same-day harvest and delivery, meaning that when the greens arrive they are super fresh and taste amazing.
In other words, it was all driven by the entrepreneurs—we just built a back end to support their process. It speaks to how the Square Roots platform exists to empower and assist the entrepreneurs.