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Kimbal Musk Defends His Container Farming Accelerator

Dan Barber of Blue Hill fame took Musk’s Square Roots project to task during Fast Company’s Innovation Festival.

In 2016, Kimbal Musk cofounded Square Roots, an accelerator that teaches farmers how to raise crops with LED lighting in climate-controlled shipping containers. He quickly received more than 500 applications for 10 spots.

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This year, that number more than doubled to 1,100.

“It’s extraordinary how much interest there is in farming among young people,” the food-tech entrepreneur said during a Fast Company Innovation Festival panel about remaking the U.S.’s food system. “But I can’t get them to go to Iowa.”

Musk’s solution is simple, if a tad controversial: The accelerator’s first yearlong field experiment did away with the need for a field entirely. Instead, its 10 farming containers are located in a Brooklyn-based parking lot. “So far, we’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm if you can bring the farm to the farmer,” Musk added.

Kimbal Musk

Square Roots’s vertical farms prize the idea of growing locally in small but incredibly bountiful little biodomes as a way to cut food miles and production costs–and encourage year-round access to healthier food. That’s something he has championed in a different way at his upscale Colorado restaurant, The Kitchen, and in his growing base of Next Door restaurants, which are more affordable. Both of these restaurants source their ingredients heavily from local farmers.

There’s no silver bullet to fix America’s food production problem, which involves agricultural, manufacturing, and even restaurant systems designed  to create cheap, calorie-dense, and highly processed stuff to eat. But Musk can afford to take risks and stray from conventional models: He made millions in the late ’90s by selling an online city guide service that he cofounded alongside his brother, Elon.

As the New York Times recently reported, however, Kimbal Musk’s swashbuckling entrance into hydroponics has upset some farm-to-table chefs and sustainable farming advocates, who see his approach as Silicon Valley-style industrialization. Growing plants in a sci-fi-like way–in Musk’s method, there’s no soil required–might scale quickly, delivering certain foods more cheaply to grocery stores, restaurants, and people in need. At the same time, the container method doesn’t address rising concerns from environmentalists about how to fix the U.S.’s reliance on resource-intensive and pollution-causing commodity cropland. Or how to create farms with the sort of wide-variety of offerings that can remain resilient if weather shifts, or more apocalyptically, the power cuts out.

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At the Innovation Festival, Musk’s fellow panelist, Dan Barber, one of the food world’s most prominent local and sustainable eating advocates, echoed those concerns. “The future of produce from a container, whether or not it’s next door to Jay-Z, doesn’t make me [excited],” countered Barber, after Musk playfully noted that Square Roots was located in the rapper’s old Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Barber is concerned that the rise of container farming could lead to new-age produce with inferior flavor and potentially lower nutrient content, depending on what seeds and conditions future farmers simulate to grow their compartment-based foods. At the same time, Barber told the crowd, he worries that Musk’s smart sales pitch might steal both funding and mindshare from other viable agricultural options. There are plenty of nonprofit farmer training programs that offer education to encourage more back-to-the-landers to just get started and adopt more holistic farming methods.

Dan Barber (right)

“[Take] your whatever square footage of kale,” Barber said to Musk. “On a half acre, we could do the same thing, but we could also grow a cover crop, we could grow tomatoes, we could grow a series of grains from which to make bread and porridge, and probably run some cattle over to graze, and have a whole cuisine on that half acre versus just producing the kale.”

Musk, defending his practice, talked about solving the “salad in January” problem. Currently, Next Door restaurants located in cold-winter climates have to source greens from as far off as California or even Australia, which results in a higher carbon footprint for the meals he serves in his establishments. That might change if Square Roots graduates–or others entering the container farming space, and there are many–can create closer, more available substitutions.

Of course, his restaurants could also just stop serving salad in January, but Musk isn’t into that idea. At Next Door, he argued, having a salad consistently on the menu is important–it’s a gateway to healthier eating in general. “I also don’t know if not eating a salad in January is the right answer, because I like a salad in January,” he said.

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That get-it-when-I-want it mentality is widespread among consumers, at the expense of a variety of seasonal alternatives like Brussels sprouts or winter squashes. Meanwhile, container farming  operations are increasingly efficient. A year ago, it was possible to grow about 50 pounds of kale per week in a shipping container, Musk noted. Today, with upgraded lighting and the right light recipe, he suspects you could theoretically produce 300 pounds of kale in the same time period. “Or you could say, I’m going to really make this super delicious and make 150 pounds of kale,” he said, an acknowledgement that at scale, there are always trade-offs when it comes to food quality.

Ultimately, it will be up to the next wave of farmers to help decide what kind of harvest they’re supplying to their customers.

As Fast Company has reported, Square Roots has already received $5.4 million in seed funding to take their concept to other cities. That’s not a lot of money for a hot startup backed by an established entrepreneur, but each entrant represents a future business owner. And Musk is already planting his own potential vendors in those places. Musk announced, on Medium in January, plans to open 50 Next Door eateries across the country by 2020.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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