Urban Agriculture From Seed to Tart – Growing Basil Indoors at Square Roots

In two weeks, I start my first classes in NYU’s Masters of Food Studies program (true). I’ve got my backpack (true – I already own this), notebook (someone buy this for me), and pens (can I have this too?). I’ve done my summer reading (true) and I’ve sourced the most sustainable, artisanal, local, and organic apples to bring to my teachers (false – I’m not THAT big of a nerd).

Today I visited Square Roots, an urban agriculture incubator in Brooklyn founded in part by Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk’s brother. Square Roots has an office in the old Pfizer building at 630 Flushing Ave in Bushwick, home to many of your favorite artisan NYC food brands like McClure’s Pickles, People’s Pops, Cinnamon Snail, Joe’s Pizza, and the list goes on…

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Can you find Maple? (RIP )

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Josh and his farm

The bulk of Square Roots’ operation takes place in the parking lot inside large shipping containers that house indoor vertical hydroponic farms. Myself and another volunteer met up with Josh Aliber, one of the 10 entrepreneurs currently in an intense year-long entrepreneurship program with Square Roots. We helped him harvest, package, and plant new basil crops.

Fun facts about indoor vertical farming:

  • You can control everything about the climate of an indoor farm including temperature, humidity, and lighting, so the produce is extremely high quality and farmers aren’t at the will of the weather gods for earning their livelihood.
  • This method of farming uses a lot less water, but still uses a lot of electricity. Since it’s a relatively young technology, there’s a lot of room to grow in efficiency and automation. We harvested the basil plants, removed the leaves from the stems, packaged, and seeded new plants by hand.
  • It takes about 7 weeks from seed to harvest for a basil plant grown this way, which is less time than a traditional outdoor farm.
  • A lot of the advancements in hydroponic farming thus far have come from one of the early adopters of the technology: the marijuana industry. Thanks dude bros!

So what do you do with all this super high quality basil? Josh sells it direct to local grocery stores and restaurants. What did I do? I made the most beautiful fucking tart and sprinkled fresh basil all over it like a dog on their favorite fire hydrant:

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This tart was made with heirloom tomatoes and cipollini onions from the farmers market, fresh mozzarella from BKLYN Larder, and genovese sweet basil from Josh’s 8/23 harvest. I HAVE REACHED PEAK BROOKLYN. (Recipe adapted from Taming of the Spoon.)

Learn more about Square Roots here: Kimbal Musk — Elon’s brother — just opened a shipping container farm compound in New York City