By HOPE KIRWAN
Wisconsin Public Radio
KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — A new indoor farm in Kenosha is furthering an ongoing trend of hydroponic agriculture in Wisconsin.
Square Roots, an indoor farming company that started in New York City in 2016, has come to Kenosha for its fourth climate-controlled farm built in partnership with the distributor Gordon Food Service, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.
Tobias Peggs, CEO and a founder 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 that can determine the optimal amount of energy and water to use.
“We’re really trying to create the perfect climate to grow a certain crop,” Peggs said. “Let’s take lettuce as an example … About 90% of the lettuce that American consumers eat is grown in California and Arizona and then shipped across the country. So rather than shipping the food across the country, what we essentially do is ship the climate data.”
He said building the farm at Gordon Food Service’s existing site in Kenosha will allow him and his partners to easily distribute their products both locally and in the Milwaukee and Chicago areas. Square Roots already has two farms at Gordon Food sites in Michigan.
The Kenosha farm will constitute the company’s largest operation to date and will be capable of producing more than 2.4 million packages of produce annually.
As the country’s population continues to grow in urban places, Peggs and his partners see Square Roots as a complement to existing farms rather than competition.
“Even though our techniques are very different, we’re all trying to produce local food that is better for people, better for the planet,” Peggs said.
And some local farm advocates agree. Tina Hinchley is a dairy farmer in Dane County who represents producers in southeastern Wisconsin for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. She said it’s good to see innovative ways of growing local food coming to places that are becoming increasingly urban.
“Personally, I feel there’s room for all of us. I don’t think that we have enough local fruit and vegetable growers or (community-supported agriculture operations). I think that that is pretty sparse and during this whole COVID pandemic, local communities were reaching out,” Hinchley said. “The possibilities of what farmers are coming up with now are limitless.”
She said hydroponic systems also present novice growers with an opportunity to get started without needing a great deal of land or capital.
Bryan Ernst is owner of Ernessi Farms in Ripon, one of the state’s largest indoor vertical farms located. He said the industry has grown immensely since his company started in 2014. Much of that has been driven by consumer demand.
“I think it’s great that companies and wholesalers and produce buyers are really starting to see the benefits of vertical farming and urban agriculture,” Ernst said. “We’re able to provide safe, locally-grown produce to buyers throughout the state year round, regardless of what the weather is doing outside.”
He said the spate of lettuce recalls of recent years has also helped turn more customers to hydroponic products, which aren’t exposed to the sorts of contaminants that can be found in soil.
Ernst said Square Roots’ moving to Wisconsin will bring additional competition to his business, which grows herbs, microgreens and mushrooms. But, he said, there’s no shortage of demand.
“You think about how many schools, how many grocery stores, how many produce wholesalers and how many restaurants there are in the state and there’s just no way any one producer or even two or three producers can grow enough produce to satisfy all of that demand,” Ernst said.
Square Roots hopes to harvest its first crops from the Kenosha site this spring. Peggs his the company plans to hire 25 people there.