Indoor farm using refurbished containers, hydroponics

KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — A new indoor farm has opened in Kenosha, continuing a growing trend of hydroponic farming in Wisconsin.

Square Roots is an indoor farming company that started in New York in 2016. Their Kenosha location will be their fourth climate-controlled farm and was built in partnership with distributor Gordon Food Service. Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Tobias Peggs, co-founder and CEO of Square Roots, said the company uses hydroponic systems built into refurbished shipping containers to grow herbs and salad mixes year-round. The systems are controlled by software to optimize the amount of energy and water used.

“We’re really trying to create the perfect climate to grow a certain culture,” Peggs said. “Take the example of lettuce… About 90% of the lettuce consumed by American consumers is grown in California and Arizona and then shipped across the country. So rather than shipping food across the country, what we’re essentially doing is shipping climate data. »

He said building the farm on Gordon Food Service’s existing site in Kenosha will allow them to easily distribute their products locally and in the Milwaukee and Chicago areas. Square Roots already has two farms at the distributor’s sites in Michigan.

The Kenosha farm will be the company’s largest site to date and will have the capacity to produce more than 2.4 million product packages per year.

As the country’s population continues to grow in urban areas, Peggs said Square Roots sees its new cropping systems as a complement to existing local farms rather than competition.

“Even though our techniques are very different, we all try to produce local foods that are better for people, better for the planet,” Peggs said.

And some local farm advocates agree. Tina Hinchley is a Dane County dairy farmer who represents southeastern Wisconsin producers for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. She said it’s exciting to see innovative ways of growing local foods popping up in increasingly urban areas.

“Personally, I think there is room for all of us. I don’t think we have enough local fruit and vegetable growers or (community supported farms). I think that’s pretty rare and throughout this COVID pandemic local communities have been reaching out,” Hinchley said. “The possibilities of what farmers are now offering are limitless.”

She said hydroponic systems also represent an opportunity for the next generation of growers to get started without needing access to as much land or capital.

Bryan Ernst owns Ernessi Farms, one of the largest indoor vertical farms in the state located in Ripon. He said the industry had grown tremendously since his company was founded in 2014 and was largely driven by consumer demand.

“I think it’s great that companies, wholesalers, and commodity buyers are really starting to see the benefits of vertical farming and urban farming,” Ernst said. “We are able to supply safe, locally grown produce to shoppers all year round, regardless of the weather outside.”

He said the growing number of lettuce recalls in recent years has also helped direct more customers to hydroponic products, which aren’t exposed to contaminants that can be found in soil.

Ernst said Square Roots’ move to Wisconsin would add competition to his business, which grows herbs, microgreens and mushrooms. But he said there was no shortage of demand.

“You think about the number of schools, the number of grocery stores, the number of produce wholesalers and the number of restaurants in the state and there is simply no way that one grower or even two or three growers can produce enough of products to satisfy all this demand. “, Ernst said.

Square Roots hopes to harvest its first crops in Kenosha this spring. Peggs said the company plans to hire 25 people at the new site, including entry-level growers through their Next Generation Farmer Training Program.

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