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Sep 26, 2019

Taking root

Farm-to-table food-grower preps for sustainability, 2020 launch

John Schrock is an engineer who has an idea for how to transform the farm-to-table movement. Having worked on the concept for several years, this summer he plugged into SEA Change, an accelerator program in central Ohio focused on jumpstarting social enterprises.

Roots Up will manufacture and operate systems that enable efficient growing of food, literally in the hallway of a home, the dining room of a restaurant and, at larger scale, in a garage, parking lot or empty urban lot.

We talked with John to see how an accelerator helped and what he hopes Roots Up will become.

What is the problem you are solving? Our food system is already strained and not sustainable, as we expect 25% population growth. Water is scarce, traditional farmland is shrinking, shipping food long distances increases waste and cost. We need to make it more practical and affordable to produce food nearer our homes, workplaces and restaurants.

Sounds like urban farming, which has had limited success. What are you doing differently? The team and I have been able to learn from the initial wave of urban farming the last five years and understand how and why some groups failed, or succeeded, for very different reasons. We are creating a new approach to urban farming, which is why we use the phrase “urban farming re-invented.”

The first differentiator is that we are moving away from “urban gardening,” which is an outdoor and seasonal effort in Ohio, often in low-quality urban soil, usually volunteer-dependent, and with limited access to water. Our approach we call “urban farming,” which is year-round production in an efficient design that saves space, is not dependent on the seasonality of rain and sunlight, and is easy to maintain.

The second differentiator is to provide a range of sizes from food racks of 8 square feet up to 40,000-square-foot systems of multiple 8-foot by 20-foot food containers. We will build to meet the demand of our partners, as compared to some other (vertical or indoor) urban farms that tried to build first and sell later. A chef or restaurant or apartment manager or school or nonprofit knows they want to grow a certain amount of specific vegetables year-round, and we build a custom solution to meet their needs.

The third differentiator is that we are not just growing herbs and greens to focus on high margin growth, but diversifying the portfolio with mushrooms and hearty vegetables.

How did you use the SEA Change accelerator program to develop your concept? SEA Change was very helpful in refining our mission and the social impact that is feasible. This led to better messaging and more productive conversations. We have done macro and micro market research and understand better how to strategize the business growth. We believe we can donate 5 percent of all produce to local charities. It helped us to refine our pitch and, with some financial support from the final pitch, we have some runway to solidify the remaining pieces to get us to an established business.

Who are your ideal customers, what they would be buying from you, and how often? Our ideal customers are successful, professional, consistent businesses with community-focused reputations, such as restaurants, hotels, corporate in-house food services, schools. They have a need for year-round food sourcing and prioritize quality, ethical, local food. For example, one local restaurant group with 10 locations is very interested in sourcing more locally and is currently spending an average of $40,000 per week on produce. We are able to supply them consistent food growth year-round that meets their existing demand, and we can grow with them as they expand.

The food containers would be sized according to the amount of space they have available and the scale of their food needs. Our research has told us that customers would prefer us to locate the units near their locations but for us to operate them. So rather than buy or lease the units, they are essentially subscribing for specific volumes and types of food.

Where are you now in your development and what should we expect to see in the coming months? We have a half-scale, fully operational unit in my garage that customers can tour by contacting info@rootsup.com. We have partnered with COSI to set up a 20-foot food container. It will be on display outside of COSI and grow herbs, greens, microgreens, and mushrooms to provide weekly produce bags. These bags will be sold with a portion donated directly to a community partner.

We will further refine the business model numbers and continue to work with our architects and industrial designers to refine the systems. We look to being on the ground in 2020.

Allen J. Proctor is CEO of SocialVentures. Learn about local social enterprises at socialventurescbus.com/marketplace.