How Elon Musk's brother Kimbal Musk is disrupting farming with 'food revolution'
Kimbal Musk – the brother of Tesla Motors chief executive Elon Musk – is trying to change the way we eat by creating what he calls a “real food revolution”.
For over a decade, he has run two restaurant chains, The Kitchen and Next Door, which serve dishes made strictly with locally sourced meat and veggies.
In 2011, he started a non-profit program that has installed “Learning Gardens” in more than 300 schools, with the intention of teaching kids about agriculture.
His latest food venture delves into the world of local urban farming.
In early November, Musk and fellow entrepreneur Tobias Peggs launched Square Roots, an urban farming incubator program in Brooklyn, New York.
The setup consists of 10 steel shipping container farms where young entrepreneurs work to develop vertical farming startups.
Unlike traditional outdoor farms, vertical farms grow soil-free crops indoors and under LED lights.
Six weeks into the 12-month program, just after the entrepreneurs completed their first harvests, Business Insider got a tour of the farms.
The Square Roots farms sit between an old Pfizer factory and the apartment building where rapper Jay-Z grew up in Brooklyn.
They are vertical farms — everything grows inside 320-square-foot (30 sq m) steel shipping containers. Each container can produce about 50,000 mini-heads of lettuce a year.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave the Square Roots entrepreneurs small loans to cover preliminary operating expenses.
Other investors include Powerplant Ventures, GroundUp, Lightbank, and FoodTech Angels.
On four parallel walls, leafy greens and herbs sprout from soil-free growing beds filled with nutrient-rich water. Instead of sunlight, they rely on hanging blue and pink LED rope lights.
About the size of the standard one-car garage, each shipping container can produce the same amount of crops as two acres of outdoor farmland.
Musk and Peggs chose Square Roots’ first class of 10 young entrepreneurs from over 500 applications.
Peggs says they represent the next generation of farmers — though not all came to NYC with farming experience.
Before Josh Aliber, 24, moved from Boston to Brooklyn to join Square Roots, he had never farmed. Now he’s starting up his own specialty herb business and running a vertical farm.
Last year, while Aliber was recovering from a concussion, he learnt about urban farming from a podcast. He started researching it from his bed, and found out about the Square Roots program.
His shipping container farm runs on 10 gallons of recycled water a day, which is less than the average shower’s worth.
Aliber can monitor everything from the oxygen level to the humidity — which affects the plants’ taste and texture — using “the computer panel” near the door and sensors in the growing beds.
If he wants a tropical or northeastern climate, he can control that too.
Aliber is selling his specialty herbs and basil primarily to upscale Italian and pizza restaurants in NYC.
All the Square Roots farmers sold their first harvests at a recent local farmer’s market. Through the program, he has had the opportunity to work with numerous mentors. Square Roots has 120 mentors so far.
“Yes, I have the ability to make money, but yes, I also have the ability to change the world,” he says.
Another 27-year-old farmer, Electra Jarvis, comes to Square Roots three days a week.
On Wednesdays, she spends four hours meticulously placing 800 seeds inside small troughs.Two weeks later, she transplants them to the walls.
“We should be growing closer to us in cities,” she says.
Aliber, Jarvis, and the other eight entrepreneurs are not just learning how to grow plants, but also how to grow their businesses. A large part of the program is learning about branding and “how to tell our stories”, Jarvis says.
The larger goal of Square Roots, Musk tells Business Insider, is to create “a real food revolution”.
In the late 1990s, following the tech boom, the Musk brothers moved from South Africa to Silicon Valley. They invested in X.com, which later merged with PayPal and was acquired by eBay.
Kimbal Musk has known Peggs, who previously worked on tech start-ups sold to Walmart and Adobe, for a decade.
Before Square Roots, they worked together at The Kitchen, where Peggs served as the “President of Impact” and helped expand the chain to new cities.
When asked how his experience in tech translates to running a vertical farming accelerator, Peggs says the two fields share the same motivation.
“You learn how to execute impossible dreams. This was all just a Powerpoint presentation six months ago,” says Peggs, pointing to the farms behind him.
“Today’s consumer wants to know they are supporting companies that are doing something good for the world,” Peggs says. “This not just a Brooklyn foodie trend.”
Square Roots hopes to expand to 20 cities by 2020.
Vertical farms can grow all year, using significantly less water and space than outdoor farms.
Critics of vertical farms point out that the LEDs drain a lot of electricity. Peggs says Square Roots is exploring how the farmers can switch to solar power in the future, since electricity is the biggest cost for the farms.
Square Roots’ lights are only on in the evening and night, so they don’t run 24-7 like some other vertical farms.
Square Roots will build offices inside the Pfizer factory in the coming months. In its past life, the building produced ammonia, a chemical that’s sprayed on plants and became vital to the industrial food system after WWI.
In 2017 and beyond, sustainable food start-ups will do business there. “It’s an act of poetic justice,” Peggs says.
The story How Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal Musk is disrupting farming with ‘food revolution’ first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.