Photo: Square Root offices in Brooklyn, NY
As you can tell by now with my feature articles, there has been a pronounced effort on my part to provide CUNY SPS readers with a perspective that can hopefully enhance them once they leave the digital or physical classrooms; and this article stays true to that ethos. I made a trip to Brooklyn to get a hands-on feel for this truly incredible company.
As I navigated through the dark, cold, and rainy Brooklyn streets; I wondered what I would encounter when I arrived. I was greeted by a white non-descript building backed by the skyline of Marcy Houses. I was directed towards the building entrance by a parking attendant and made my way up to the Square Roots office to an ongoing farm tour and what I saw was not what I expected.
There was standing room only as the CEO, Tobias Peggs, adeptly explained the intricacies of the urban farming business in great detail. He also spoke about the underlying technology that they are continually advancing and innovating to produce a better and more cost efficient yield.
At a designated part of the tour, we made our way out of the office space to where the magic happens, a row of shipping containers located in the parking lot next to the office. In each 320 square foot container, the equivalent of two acres of farmland is condensed into this growing space. With technology and temperature control the farm can grow year round, which is an advantage that typical farmers don’t have. All this, running on just about eight gallons of water a day, which is drastically less than outdoor farming.
It almost felt like a magical moment as the shipping container doors opened and we were all bathed in this ethereal pink, neon-tinged light. All that was missing was an angelic chorus for effect. We later learned that the light coloring was not for effect, but an ingenious method to use only the red and blue color spectrum, which plants utilize to grow, and strip out unnecessary light spectrum thus saving energy costs.
At the completion of the tour, I was able to huddle with Ashley Rafalow, my Square Roots point of contact, and a Hunter College alum. I wanted this visit to not just be about an article, but truly be a conduit for CUNY students to pursue this burgeoning field if they are interested.
Rafalow enthusiastically gave me tips to pass on to the CUNY universe regarding getting started in this line of work. “We run a 12-month next gen farmer training program, applications open in the summer for a November start date, and we are in our third season”, Rafalow explained. She continued, “It’s pretty competitive, but what we are looking for is a demonstrated interest in food and farming. We want applicants to be self-motivated and seek out training in places like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden or our Farm Meet Ups which we have here.”
“There is a lot of room for everyone in this field.”Ashley Rafalow, Program Manager, Brooklyn Campus at Square Roots Urban Growers
I pressed a little about what kind of cost students have to shell out for this training course but, to my surprise, I found out that money was not an issue. “We pay farmers an entry level salary to take part in the program, and we offer subsidized benefits and health care, along with two weeks paid time off.”
I wanted to get some information for our entrepreneurial business majors so I asked what it would take if students wanted to start their own venture in vertical farming. “We choose to grow in shipping containers with our technology, but you can technically buy a farm-in-a-box from a handful of companies. The cost can run about one hundred thousand dollars, but you don’t need a tricked out setup to grow your greens.”
After I picked her brain about the possibility of a future with skyscrapers filled with vertical farms, we came to the tail end of our conversation where I wanted to know the kind of majors a company like Square Roots would be looking for. ” My background was in advertising and marketing communications in undergrad, and I studied public health in grad school with a focus on food policy. I never thought anything like [Square Roots] existed a year and a half ago, but then I found this job and thought this was the perfect place for me.”
In closing our conversation, she said something that stuck with me and that we should all take to heart. “There is a lot of room for everyone in this field. I think a lot of tech in Silicon Valley can seem very exclusive, or only for a certain person, with a certain type of background, but I am very passionate about getting the word out about this field because it’s growing at a huge rate and opportunities are going to be opening up for all sorts of backgrounds. You want to have persistence, drive, be interested in working with your hands and problem solving, you have to be diligent and thoughtful, but not necessarily have a specific degree.”
As I maneuvered through the night traffic in Brooklyn, I couldn’t help but hope that this would be a benefit to some of my peers who, like Ashley, may not know that something like this even existed. Instead of chasing after the same type of worn out careers, you can potentially jump into the next revolution in farming. Not in a green field in the middle of Kansas, but in an office building or parking lot in your local city center.