Food Service & Agriculture

Tech farming is making its way to GR

Partnering with Gordon Food Service, Square Roots aims to train young people in indoor urban farming.

June 21, 2019
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Square Roots NextGen
Jacque Kirila and Em Helle harvest sage at a Square Roots indoor farm, which is comprised of repurposed shipping containers. Courtesy Square Roots

One company is hoping to shake up the landscape of farming.

Square Roots, an urban indoor farming company, will bring its Next-Gen Farmer Training Program to Grand Rapids in September. The goal of the program is to train young people in indoor urban farming and grow localized food and herbs year-round in technology-driven environments.

The company will partner with Gordon Food Service to distribute food that is grown by farmers enrolled in the training program to its consumers and retailers across the country.

“Customers want an assortment of fresh, locally grown food all year-round,” said Rich Wolowski, CEO of Gordon Food Service. “We are on a path to do that at scale with Square Roots and are excited to be the first in the industry to offer this unique solution to our customers.”

According to Square Roots, 10 full-time farmers will be chosen through an application process to learn all aspects of farming, from the planting of the seeds to the selling of the produce. They will receive a wage, subsidized health care coverage and other benefits.

The year-long program enables farmers to study the molecular level of the plant as it grows, get hands-on experience with the business side of farming so they can pursue a start-up indoor urban farm and get involved with the community.

Square Roots’ training program was created with advice from experts in farmer education, controlled environment agriculture, regenerative agriculture and urban agriculture, including Glynwood, New York University, Cornell University and the University of Arizona. There will be guest lecturers who will talk about farming and entrepreneurship. There also will be workshops, which will cover a variety of topics, such as pest management practices to real food entrepreneurship frameworks.

The farmers will work in indoor vertical farms that are constructed in 10 specially designed Square Roots shipping containers that will occupy less than 2 acres of Gordon Food Service’s 50-acre headquarters site in Grand Rapids, but it is expected to produce more than 50,000 pounds of herbs annually. Each container will have its own controlled climate that is optimized for growing certain crops. The cloud-connected modular farms will have hydroponic growing systems to water the plants.

“Because we grow in a completely closed environment, we have full control over each climate parameter — from CO2 in the air to the number of hours of light,” Square Roots officials said. “We research the best natural climate for a certain variety of plant, recreate it inside the farm and grow the best tasting produce 365 days a year.”

Gordon Food Service will not only provide a place for urban indoor farms, but farmers from the training program will work with the food service company. The farmers are expected to grow food on a consistent basis to meet the standard of Gordan Food Service and the demand of its consumers.

Additionally, Next-Gen farmers will have the opportunity to represent Square Roots at customer-focused engagements, marketing activities and community events, where farmers can connect directly with customers.

The Next-Gen Farmer Training Program was started in Brooklyn, New York, in 2016. So far, 16 farmers have completed the program, according to Square Roots. Some farmers in the program have either started their own urban farming businesses, taken jobs at companies in urban agriculture or moved into permanent positions on the Square Roots team.

According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the food and agriculture industry contributes $104.7 billion annually to the state’s economy and accounts for about 22% of the state’s employment.

Square Roots said its end goal is to be a pathway for future farmers in the urban farming industry in cities around the world. More information can be found at squarerootsgrow.com/program.

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