With new vertical farm, a food tech company looks to grow fresh food for the Twin Cities year-round – Twin Cities

A photo looking over a person's shoulder, as they hold a blurry phone screen in front of a large wall of plants
A Square Roots worker uses the Farmer Toolbelt app on a phone to monitor the growth of crops in one of the company’s vertical farms in this undated photo. Every aspect of crop growth in Square Roots’ cloud-connected farms is variable, from temperature to nutrients to daylight hours to even light wavelengths themselves. (Photo courtesy Square Roots)

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, Dorn Wenninger describes himself as “fanatical about freshness.”

It makes sense — he’s the senior vice president of produce at United Natural Foods, Inc., one of the country’s largest sustainable-food distribution companies and a major wholesale supplier for grocery stores like Whole Foods.

He’s also helping drive a partnership with the vertical farming company Square Roots at UNFI’s large distribution facility in Prescott, Wis., that aims to give the Twin Cities access to fresh, locally grown crops all year long.

Vertically farmed crops, a relatively recent development in agriculture, are grown in futuristic window boxes stacked floor-to-ceiling in specialized indoor spaces. Because these farms are entirely climate-controlled, advocates say this form of farming can produce fresh food year-round, anywhere in the world — and more sustainably than traditional field farming, too.

Minnesota is no stranger to indoor farming operations. Grocery stores around the Twin Cities already stock herbs and leafy greens from places like Urbanize Farm in Edina, Revol Greens in Owatonna and Living Greens Farm in Faribault.

But the Square Roots farm in Prescott will be different, Wenninger said, once it’s up and running by mid-year. Because the farm will be located inside a UNFI warehouse and have direct access to the company’s existing distribution networks, he said, UNFI will ostensibly be able to get produce onto store shelves in the Twin Cities the same day it was harvested — a marked change from the long journeys many other fruits and vegetables take.

Can technology conquer freshness?

When Wenninger talks with customers about produce, he said that they, too, view freshness as the “holy grail.”

But what exactly is freshness?

“As you dig deep into it and ask them to explain,” Wenninger said, “what they are really saying is, ‘I want to buy produce that lasts in my house until I want to use it, and I have a good eating experience when I eat it.’ And they tell you the converse even more: They get very upset when produce goes moldy, when it doesn’t have the shelf life.”

A man in a coat, gloves, and a baseball cap snips leaves off a wall of leafy herbs
A Square Roots farmer harvests herbs in one of the company’s indoor vertical farms in this undated photo. By growing food indoors, Square Roots co-founder Tobias Peggs says the company can grow fresh, local crops no matter the climate. (Photo courtesy Square Roots)

In fact, this ultimate quest for freshness is the animating force behind most of the modern industrialized food distribution system — the tangled global web of refrigerated trucks and preservative gasses and shipping containers and distribution warehouses like UNFI — that transports food from the places it grows best to grocery stores.

The colorful cornucopia of ripe fruits and vegetables we see in stores all year long, even in the dead of winter, “demonstrate(s) technology’s conquest of borders, distance, and seasons,” geographer Susanne Freidberg writes in her book “Fresh: A Perishable History.”

But the long distances these foods must travel, Wenninger pointed out, mean that the whole food system is overly reliant on diminishing resources like fresh water and fossil fuels, and more vulnerable to climate change, labor availability, and international disease pandemics and conflicts.

Eating locally produced food can solve some of these supply chain challenges, Wenninger said, but cold climates and shorter growing seasons in places like the Twin Cities seem to place natural limits on what we can grow at different points in the year.

Unless, that is, technology can conquer the growing season, too.

Tobias Peggs thinks it’s possible.

He co-founded Square Roots, the food tech company that’s running the upcoming vertical farm inside UNFI, in 2016 along with Kimbal Musk, restaurateur and brother of Elon. Inside Square Roots farms, every aspect of crop growth — from temperature to nutrients to daylight hours to even light wavelengths themselves — can be carefully fine-tuned.

All Square Roots farms are linked into a cloud-connected network with one another and the company’s research facility in Brooklyn, New York, so any tweaks can be easily pushed out to the entire system, Peggs said.

A store wants to sell arugula that tastes more peppery? Done. A restaurant wants a crunchier blend of microgreens for a salad? Easy, Peggs said. Crops can be optimized exactly how UNFI wants them.

“Not only will (a product) have great shelf life because it was harvested so recently, but it was harvested in the optimal conditions,” Wenninger said. “Sometimes growing outdoors is growing in optimal conditions — but sometimes it’s not.”

In Prescott, UNFI is carving out 15,000 square feet for Square Roots; half the space will be devoted to growing crops and the other half to packaging and storage infrastructure.

A corner shot of a large green building with SQUARE ROOTS on one side and many windows on the other
Square Roots, launched in 2016 by Tobias Peggs and Kimbal Musk, houses their indoor vertical farms in a variety of spaces, including repurposed shipping containers, such as in this undated photo. In 2023, the company is opening a farm inside the UNFI food distribution warehouse in Prescott, Wisc. (Photo courtesy Square Roots)

The Twin Cities is the first test market for the UNFI-Square Roots collaboration, and both companies say it’s an optimal place to start. In 2018, UNFI bought the then-Eden Prairie-based SuperValu, which had also owned Cub grocery stores since the 1980s. This makes the Twin Cities one of the few places in the country where UNFI has a hand in both food distribution and direct retail, Wenninger said. For its part, Square Roots already has a foothold in the Midwest, with farms in Kenosha, Wis., and Grand Rapids, Mich. — other ideal places to demonstrate the potential of indoor farming, Peggs said.

People working at the farm in Prescott will be employed by Square Roots, not UNFI, and the company plans to hire 75 percent of its workforce from the surrounding communities, Peggs said. Employees at the company’s Brooklyn farm began a unionization push this summer, according to the nonprofit newsroom Civil Eats, which the company has not formally supported nor opposed. UNFI was also the subject of a Teamsters strike over unfair labor practices in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Indiana in 2019.

Concerns also remain about whether indoor growing is truly more sustainable. Square Roots touts lower water usage and a higher production per square foot than traditional outdoor farms. But indoor farms require substantial power to keep lights on and temperatures stable, notes Jonathan Foley, the Minnesota-based director of the global climate group Project Drawdown.

“The environmental benefits are largely washed away by the enormous energy it takes to grow this kind of food,” Foley told Iowa Public Radio this year.

Peggs pitches Square Roots not as a full-on replacement for traditional farms but as a way to supplement the food supply, as the challenges facing farmers become more complex and threatening.

“It certainly becomes more important as climate change means it’s more challenging to consistently produce food grown in a field — whereas, obviously, indoors, you are immune to that climate change,” Peggs said. “Which then results in a very consistent and very predictable level of high-quality food, 365 days a year, whatever the weather outside. Indoors, it’s always peak season.”

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