Growing Where No Farm Has Grown Before

Kimbal Musk wants millennials to seize an Internet-sized opportunity: local food.

By Nicole Davis

There are a handful of commercial urban farms in New York City, but not one is growing tiger collards and heirloom romaine the way Square Roots does. For starters, its 70-plus crops of leafy greens and herbs are not growing in raised beds—or even soil—but inside shipping containers tended by millennials who look more like coders than farmers. Each manages a vertical hydroponic farm in the middle of a Brooklyn parking lot that can grow the equivalent of two acres of produce using less water a day than your average shower. It’s farming at its most high tech. So it makes sense that its roots go back to Silicon Valley and a South African man who knows a thing or two about disruption: Kimbal Musk.

Kimbal Musk planting a Learning Garden with a student at a Los Angeles High School

Kimbal may not be as well-known as his brother Elon, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, but he was by his brother’s side at the start of the ’90s tech boom. A thin, towering 6-foot-4 man, he seems like an intimidating figure at first glance, until you hear him speak like a no-nonsense truck driver in his sweet South African lilt. He applied his charisma to marketing and raising money for Elon’s first venture, Zip2, a precursor to Google Maps, then invested in, known as PayPal by the time eBay acquired it for $1.5 billion. Before he joined his next startup, he took a slight detour to New York City, where he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute.

Though it sounds like a lark—using his dot-com earnings to dabble in food—it was really a return to Musk’s passion for cooking. “As you can imagine, I have a pretty intense family who was always really busy,” he says. “Whenever I cooked, my mother and father would insist that we sit down as a family together to enjoy the food I made for them.” He looks back on these meals as some of the most enjoyable moments of his childhood. Shortly after graduating in 2001, he spent six weeks as a volunteer chef cooking for an even tougher crowd: firefighters who were clearing Ground Zero in the wake of 9/11. Creating a sense of community through food had a powerful impact on him that has informed his work ever since.

This is not the set of a sci-fi film. The pink light emitted inside each Square Roots farm comes from the red and blue spectra of light primarily used by plants to grow.

Musk’s first commercial food venture was The Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant he co-founded with chef Hugo Matheson in Denver in 2004. He left its helm briefly for a tech opportunity until a near-death skiing accident gave him time to rethink his future. Once again, he decided to return to food, only this time with the clear mission of gathering folks together around our need to eat.

Today, The Kitchen has grown into 10 interconnected eateries in six cities, with offerings ranging from high-end Kitchen bistros to an affordable fast-casual chain called Next Door to their grab-and-go concept, The Kitchenette. Five more restaurants, including a new brand, Hedge Row, are on the way. All play off each other’s menus purposely—a burger at Next Door, for instance, could come from the same cow that supplies the dry-aged steak at the Kitchen. This is not just about creating cost efficiency; it’s part of Musk’s greater vision to increase our local food supply.

Each one of Musk’s restaurants serves what he calls “real food,” primarily grown by local farmers. He weaves this phrase throughout his menus and TED Talks, often in reference to his “real food revolution” and often while wearing a striking white cowboy hat, as if to show he’s the good guy in this picture. It sounds like a catchy hashtag, but it speaks to the fact that the overwhelming majority of farms in America grow government-subsidized crops like corn and soybeans for ethanol and animal feed. Growing local food for people sustainably is a riskier proposition. So Musk makes it a safe bet. He provides farmers a guaranteed market for their carrots, squash and cattle at his restaurants—which feed about a million people annually—and paves the way for them to grow for even bigger chains like Whole Foods. The impact is real as the largest buyer of local food in Colorado, Musk’s restaurants have helped expand the local food economy from $4 million to $20 million over the past 12 years.

Square Roots CEO/Co-founder Tobias Peggs(left) with Musk

Square Roots is the newest, most high-tech expression of Musk’s mission to bring healthy food closer to everyone. Founded last fall, it’s the first start-up to emerge from The Kitchen’s venture arm funding “real food” business models that opt out of the industrial food system. As CEO and co-founder Tobias Peggs explains, “We kept seeing the same patterns all over the country: people want local, real food, and people are moving to the city. At the same time, 60 percent of rural farmland is owned by people over 75 years old.”

Another huge part of this epic demographic shift? By 2050, an estimated 9 billion people will live on the planet—and 70 percent of them will be living in cities. Square Roots is a way to feed a growing, space-starved planet. Each of its climate-controlled containers in Brooklyn has the potential to grow 50 pounds of GMO- and pesticide-free leafy greens a week year-round. The more energy-efficient the technology becomes, the more massive the produce—think berries and tomatoes—each farm can grow.

“My vision is real food for everyone,” says Musk. “That means pursuing initiatives across America that impact the future generation.” As a father of three, it’s obvious he would want a healthier world for his own children. But Musk is actively improving the food options for all children, especially those in the underserved Memphis neighborhood—home to the latest Kitchen outpost as well as a “Learning Gardens” school which his ex-wife Jen Lewin designed.

“I hope to inspire as many young people as I can to be farmers who will grow nutritious, delicious food,” says Musk. For now, he’s focused on growing the next generation of “real food” leaders at his first Square Roots campus. Out of 500 applicants for their first 12-month training program, 10 farmer-entrepreneurs made the cut, some fresh out of college and AmeriCorps-like programs. Through the Square Roots network of mentors and experts in farming, marketing, finance and sales, these “farmpreneurs” have learned not just how to grow heirloom greens, but also how to run a food tech business. Each is responsible for selling their crops, primarily through a “Farm to Local” program that delivers bags of Square Roots chard, kale and lettuces to offices around New York City, from the New York Times in Midtown to the Tesla showroom in Brooklyn. Once their year is up, some will continue on as mentors or go on to found their own ingenious food start-ups, and a new crop of food tech pioneers will take their place.

“Food is the new Internet” is another of Musk’s catchphrases. From his vantage point, the opportunities to reimagine our food system look like the possibilities the Internet promised when he began his career 20 years ago. “I encourage anyone who is interested in pursuing food as a career to get into it now,” says Musk, “because change is coming and it’s coming fast.”


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