Paul Philpott and Wendy McGuinness

Paul Philpott is one of the ten farmer/entrepreneurs of Square Roots: an initiative bringing fresh, real greens to the people of New York City. The initiative is an attempt to address the shortcomings of an industrialised food system by delivering locally grown, nutrient-dense and, most importantly, tasty produce directly to the people who want it. The greens are grown in vertical farms located in shipping containers and delivered by the farmer who grew them, fostering a sense of community and connection as well as contributing to the real food revolution.

Paul himself is a New York native and is passionate about parkour and progression. He specialises in growing bright lights chard and rhubarb chard. Wendy and Mark McGuinness spoke to Paul about the future of farming in big cities. The following is based on a transcript of their conversation.

Q1: What do you think is the future of farming, farming in containers and farming in general?
I actually do see these getting a lot bigger and being more normal. I think it’s in Jersey, there is a big warehouse where they have this – not vertical farms or horizontal farms but this big hydroponic system inside a warehouse and they can produce tonnes and tonnes of produce. Now, with the fact that you’re able to control the environment, you know you’re optimising the climate for the crops on top of directly introducing the nutrients. So you are guaranteeing that everything is nutrient-dense; it’s healthy for you. There are no pesticides or anything in these farms, no chemicals in this farm at all.

Q2: What are the most profitable crops?
Salad mixes, because they yield a lot and take up only a little bit of space. To have full grown crops, like kale or collards growing to their full size – with only about 6–8 inches from the lights – they can grow to their full size but that requires there to be fewer plants in a tower. But lettuce and salad mixes are a smaller crop so you can have 20–25 plants per tower. Whereas, if you want something to grow to their full size with the big crops you’ll ideally have 6, no more than 8 per tower.

Q3: What is the most likely economic model; will it be people renting a container, buying a container or just doing it themselves?
With these containers it’s actually really great with the hires. They are really expensive just because of the electricity cost because powering all of this and having the lights on for hours and days to replicate the sun – that is an expensive cost. Then again, we will also have outlets with solar panels, wind turbines and stuff like that, that definitely does reduce the cost. We don’t have those yet but that is something we are hoping to have in the future. But in my opinion, I’ve worked on a lot of solar-based farms and worked with a lot of non-profits that have aquaponics and hydroponics, but they don’t necessarily use lights, they have it in a greenhouse and use natural light more. Natural light is always the good way to go, but with these it’s having that control of everything. The one thing about having a greenhouse: if we have cloudy days like we’ve had for the last few days, that’s less sun, that’s your crops hampered, that’s something that is not really affected in here so it’s kind of a give or take. You can deal with the fact that you pay for even more electricity for the lights or you can deal with the fact that you can’t guarantee how much light your crops are getting because mother nature is unknowable. That’s kind of a give or take trap. But, with that being said, having this system here, you have full control; almost about 80–90% draws on its exact environment. If you were able to go on a tour, Tobias, the CEO (he’s the one who does the tours), one thing that he always mentions and I like to tell people is, say that you went to Italy and had the best pesto pizza that you’ve ever had in your life, because the chef actually harvested that basil from his backyard that day; I could look up the day that he harvested it and see the temperature that was around, the nutrient levels in the earth that day, everything, and recreate that system right here on these farms and grow that exact same pesto that you had.

Square Roots vertical farm

Q4: Would people pay a premium for hydroponic plants grown locally?
Yeah, they definitely do. The main thing is that with our crops, our crops taste phenomenal. I hear from all my customers ‘oh this is better than Trader Joe’s, this is better than Whole Foods’. I know someone, I actually got in contact with a lady out in North Carolina and she’s coming up here next week to meet with me and buy some of our ingredients. She wants to taste them and see how it is and she wants to recreate the system in North Carolina because she does a lot with local businesses and she doesn’t want to go into Whole Foods and stuff like that because their food is, a lot of it is locally grown but still, the taste quality is not always as high quality as the stuff we have here. Kale is something that a lot of people like and a lot of people get in to but there is a big group of people who just hate it. One great thing about this is I can control how my climate is, when you allow your nights to get cooler, it helps the plants to get sweeter – it has to do with the starch and sugars and everything. So what I do is my daytimes go up to about 70–75 [°F], and my nights drop to as a low as 50, so that allows them to get sweeter. I go and see people and they are like ‘no I hate kale, I can’t take that taste’ and I’m like ‘just try it once more’, and they try it and go ‘whoa, ok I can live with this, this tastes pretty good’ and I’m like ‘yeah, see?’ It’s the being able to control it and to make it more optimal, not just for the crops themselves but for the people you sell to. So you can see it definitely grows a lot, it’s not just about the work; it’s about the quality that it has. So that definitely makes it more of a premium product.

Q5: If you wanted to set up your own farm and be profitable in the long term, how many containers would you need; one, four, ten…?
Truthfully, well one of these shipping containers is really pricey to buy right out. But honestly if you wanted to start off small and build, you can then build off of one. We are all ten entrepreneurs starting out with one shipping container and building up our own business. So for me to say one container is not economically plausible, that would kind of be redundant because that’s exactly what I am doing. But these have the potential to yield up to about to two acres of land. If you space everything out, get everything right, you can potentially yield a lot every week. I harvest at least 20–30 pounds every week and that’s still like 15 pounds more than I need every week, and I’m still not harvesting at the capacity that I can.

Q6: Are you selling all that produce?
Well my model, my business is slightly different from a lot of the other entrepreneurs. I come from a low-income community and before this I was working at a non-profit that built and managed soil-based farms and local housing. And I’m from one of the New York City Housing Authority developments. So a lot of the stuff I do with the excess is I go to my building and I either sell it for a reduced price or I give them out for free. And we also, me and a few of the other entrepreneurs with our excess will drop it off at food banks and shelters and stuff like that. 

Q7: How many hours a week would you need to spend in a container farm?
Well see that’s difficult to say because I started to realise it definitely does depend on the person. Me personally, I could spend less than 20 hours a week in this farm: I can do most of my farm work within about 12–16 hours in one day and I’ve done that a few times before – it’s a crazy day. But it’s something that is definitely doable because other farmers could spend close to 30–40 hours a week on their farm, but I have a lot of background experience in agriculture. The thing is that I spend a lot of time in here, mainly because I like to be in here sometimes. We have Bluetooth speakers, I play my music, sit outside, turn it into a club – and you see I have these drawings up here; my guests, my volunteers, they draw all over the walls. It’s like a community I have here; people say so all the time – that it is like a club. So it’s something that I actually like, to spend the time here, being close to nature, especially being in the city.

Q8: Are hydroponic plants different from soil based plants in terms of nutrients?
I won’t say that they have less nutrients because these here, these are our dosers, so this is how we regulate what’s – well this is not how we regulate, these are the nutrients itself, the pH, because soil is what holds the nutrients and the pH and everything. I have always been a soil-based farmer and I love soil-based farming: it’s a source of nature. So with that, these are live plants: they grow in soil naturally. Keeping them as natural to their environment as you can is always the ideal thing. But in these systems you are the one introducing the nutrients directly to the plants so you can definitely show that these crops are nutrient-dense, I know that for a fact because I introduced them. We have sensors, these sticks here, these are sensors that monitor at all times, what my pH is in my water. You see nutrient levels in the water, so I know that my crops are getting, when they are watered, they are getting the nutrients that they need. I’ve definitely seen and I have the receipts to prove how much nutrients I buy every month. At least until they go down. And, because a lot of stuff is automated, I do more towards manual so I know directly how much nutrients I am going through within a week. 

Q9: In what way are hydroponic plants dependent on the farmer?
Well all farms will depend on the farmer. Well hydroponics, the good thing about it, because this is a high-tech farm, this makes it all easier. If someone were to start a business off these, these systems are great because they work pretty well. You actually don’t have to worry about being here the majority of the time. And there is a webcam that takes pictures every few minutes. So you can actually see in here, the sensors and everything. I can actually pull it up on my phone and figure out all that’s going on. I can turn my lights on and off through my phone – I can still control it partially through my phone. So as a business owner, starting my business and having to go out to the farm, I get alerts – okay so something’s not right, I can shut something off or turn something on to correct the situation. So that’s a great thing, like economically-wise that means that’s less time I physically need to be here, not doing stuff hands-on, because say I have to do deliveries and I have to do to a couple of those a day – I came from a company out in Midtown. For me to be over there, and then if I was to get a notification – oh it’s getting way too hot, I need to turn off my lights. I can’t physically come all the way to Brooklyn to turn off the lights and then go all the way back. But yeah just turning it off through my phone and having that control allows me actually really to maximise my time. I can maximise my time through my phone and then travel out and build on my business. 

Q10: If you look forward ten years, what do you see as the future for plant-based food in America?
I feel that systems like this will be used because every day is being innovative. Out of all ten farmers several of us figure out things that generally don’t grow in the systems that we can grow, and figure out how to up the yields every week. These are really great for experimentation and seeing how everything grows within a short amount of time. The best part about it is we can potentially yield a lot in a small space, so with that ability, with feeding the masses, I feel hydroponics and indoor farming is going to grow even more so than it already is now, just so that we have enough to supply everyone, so pretty much break down industrial forces that we have now. I feel that it won’t overshadow soil-based farms and traditional farming that we have, but I feel that these will definitely have a bigger impact because it’s slightly easier to maintain when it comes to pests and everything like that, just because it is a closed environment. We are still susceptible to pests but it’s less likely – I don’t have pests in here. It’s hard, we have to close the doors to keep things out, we take different measures to prevent pests from wanting to come in here. I even want to – see these planters and stuff up there – I want to start planting dill, marigold and stuff like that which repels – like natural things. I guess one thing about the way my farm grows, all these towers – actually I just cleaned a lot of it out but before you wouldn’t have been able to look down past two towers because everything grew so big. But I always let them grow crazy because you can’t control nature. Just because we’re in here, I let them grow as crazy and as wild as they want, as long as I still get to harvest them and they’ve still got the nutrients, they’ve still got the good taste, they are still doing it. But allowing that to keep it as close to natural as possible in this unnatural environment for them, it’s good. That’s why I want to start introducing flowers into my farm that help repel pests, but at the same time it is giving them [the plants] those relationships; they do need to be around pollen and other sorts of stuff that they don’t get because they’re inside of this box. But having that also does help to make everything else – like plants are living things, its like talking to plants –

Q11: Do you feel differently about plants now than when you first started getting involved?
Not really differently, it’s – I probably feel more connected with plants. Because I’ve been a farmer for about a year now. Even talking about before this programme, I was a farmer for a non-profit. Before that I was doing landscaping in South Carolina with my grandfather and I was doing community gardening with my grandmother when I was a child, so I always had a connection with plants. It’s kind of just brought back and strengthened my relationship that I have with plants. And it’s like, just – this is mine, these are all my babies and everything and it builds on the connection that I have with them.