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EXCLUSIVE: An Inside Look at Square Roots’ Indoor-Farming Operation

Progressive Grocer visits the company’s Springfield, Ohio, farm
Emily Crowe, Progressive Grocer
Square Roots parsley
Square Roots in Ohio has 20 individual shipping containers to grow herbs and lettuces.

It’s no secret that indoor farming has firmly established itself as the future of agriculture. Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Square Roots, which is at the forefront of that movement, recently invited Progressive Grocer to check out its operation in Springfield, Ohio.

The climate-controlled farm, which is co-located with food distributor Gordon Food Service, is the fourth facility launched through the two companies’ partnership and officially began production last September. The farm itself is made up of 20 self-contained shipping containers, each of which has its own HVAC and exhaust systems, and is controlled through Square Roots’ proprietary smart-farm technology platform.

The facility employs 15 full-time farmers and grows several types of herbs and greens, including basil, dill, cilantro and microgreens. The farm is active 365 days per year and can produce about 2 tons of product each week through both horizontal and vertical operations.

The Journey From Seed to Store

The full growth cycle of each individual plant is meticulously executed, from carefully inspecting grow trays before seeds are planted, to harvesting and packaging the finished product on the same day to ensure optimal freshness.

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Square Roots products
Square Roots produces several types of herbs and lettuces at its Springfield, Ohio, indoor farm.

Square Roots’ technology platform keeps close tabs on all of the farm's watering, lighting and climate systems, as well as the production schedule for each item planted. When a farmer enters a new basil batch into the software system, for example, it churns out all of the necessary information, including when the batch will be seeded, when it’s moved to the nursery, when it’s transplanted and finally, when it’s harvested.

The software can also track which farmer completed each step of the plant’s journey, and a QR code on the finished packaging can show a customer what that looked like. The Springfield farm distributes its products throughout Ohio and western Pennsylvania, in such grocery stores as Fresh Thyme Farmers Market and numerous independent retailers.

A Collective, Sustainable Future 

Square Roots has additional indoor farms in Kenosha, Wis.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Shepherdsville, Ky., and Dave Hartwig, that Springfield’s farm production manager, said that the ability to communicate with those other facilities to troubleshoot issues has been one of the keys to his farm’s success.

“As we learn, we need to document it,” Hartwig explained. “As one facility has success with something, that needs to be communicated to everybody else. It’s so nice to be able to say ‘We’re having a germination issue with our basil,’ and to have three other farms growing it in the exact same setup. That’s a support system that I’ve never had.”

In addition to sharing best practices, Square Roots’ farms are also laser-focused on sustainability. According to Hartwig, the closed-loop irrigation system at each facility uses a similar amount of water to a standard shower each day, and LED lighting results in far less energy usage. The plastic clamshell containers each product is packaged in are also fully recyclable.

Although no other facilities are currently under construction, Square Roots has an ambitious 100-year plan to have one of its urban farms in every major U.S. city. In addition to its work with Grand Rapids-based Gordon, the company has a strategic partnership with United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) to co-locate commercial-scale, climate-controlled indoor farms across the continent.

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