Inside the Effort to Unionize Square Roots, Kimbal Musk’s Vertical Farming Company
In a parking lot off a busy street in Brooklyn, a team of urban farmers weaves in and out of a dozen nondescript shipping containers. Inside, a handful of workers move gingerly through vertical towers growing herbs such as basil and cilantro in climate-controlled conditions, lit by pink LED lights. Workers wheel boxes of packaged herbs around the asphalt, from the repurposed buildings to delivery vehicles, disappearing behind the white units. Nearby, a fleet of bright blue Tesla Revels, intended for ride-sharing, gleams in the sun.
This is the Brooklyn operation of Square Roots, a venture capital-backed vertical farming company founded by Kimbal Musk—a techno-optimist like his older brother, Tesla CEO Elon Musk—who has aimed for optimal growing conditions in the high-tech facilities of Square Roots. But despite his ability to provide the best climate for crops, he hasn’t had the same outcome with the people he employs; six months ago, Square Roots workers announced they would be petitioning to form a union.
The 14 farm employees at the Brooklyn site manage everything on the farm from facilities maintenance to growing, packing, and delivering the fresh herbs. After a few turbulent years, disrupted by the pandemic and safety concerns, those workers want a bigger say in how the company is run. Over the course of the past six months, Civil Eats spoke to three current and former Square Roots employees about why they petitioned to form a union; we granted them anonymity to protect them from potential retaliation. Over a period of four months, Square Roots declined repeated requests to comment for this article.
Asked why they were unionizing, one employee said, “we wanted to have a voice [in decision-making].” They added, “people who work on the farm all the time, instead of being consulted about decisions that will affect production, are just informed about them.”
The union drive—which is seeking recognition from the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB)—is part of a nationwide labor movement that has taken shape during the pandemic, following a decades-long decline in union membership. From Starbucks to Kellogg’s factories, and from farmworkers to fast food employees, workers in every part of the food system have staged strikes, walkouts, and organized their workplaces for the first time.
If the employees at Square Roots are successful—and results will come in after they hold an election later this year—it will be the first company in the Musk extended universe to unionize. While Kimbal hasn’t vocally condemned organized labor, Elon has repeatedly expressed explicitly anti-union views, and both brothers have suppressed labor activity in their own enterprises.
If Square Roots workers formally unionize, they will become the second farmworker union in New York State history, following the establishment of a union at Pindar Vineyards in 2021. As Square Roots approaches a major expansion, this represents a pivotal moment for the company. It also raises larger questions about a whole class of workers in today’s rapidly expanding indoor-farming industry.
Growing relatively local food in reused shipping containers on the outskirts of cities and selling to a high-end clientele has become a tempting business model for investors. In a 2020 interview with CNN, Square Roots CEO Tobias Peggs announced that “a lot of smart money and capital is entering the space.” And a lot of money has entered the indoor farming industry—after four previous funding rounds, Square Roots received an additional $25 million in March 2021, their biggest yet.
Even so, compared to other indoor farming operations, Square Roots is still quite small. Plenty made headlines earlier this year with a $400 million fundraising round that brought Walmart to its board of directors; Netherlands-based InFarm is valued at $1 billion; and Bowery, the largest vertical farming operation in the U.S., topped a $2 billion valuation in 2021.
Square Roots’ Brooklyn site is one of three locations; the company also has a facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and in January opened a new location in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The employees with whom Civil Eats spoke are part of the Brooklyn farm team, a crew of growers, packers, delivery workers, and facilities employees who manage the operations. The company’s central team—made up of business directors, HR personnel, engineering staff, and other administrators—works mostly remotely. The efforts to unionize were driven by tensions between the farm team and the central team: employees that Civil Eats spoke to explained that they often felt like their voices were not heard—and that by ignoring their field-level expertise, Square Roots was hindering its own success.
Multiple sources referred to an incident where the company’s central team didn’t accept an employee’s design suggestions. The employee had rerouted and shortened piping to prevent the spread of plant disease, a problem that the farm team had worked hard to solve, but their designs were ultimately not implemented. In another example, employees said the central team was considering reducing the size of their packaging for the herbs, a move that increased the amount of time packers would have to spend on their tasks. After fielding the packers’ concerns, the worker said the business team did it anyway, and the farm team believes that it may have backfired, slowing workflow and potentially reducing sales.
Employees also say they have felt pressure to grow more than is reasonable. “Farm management level and people on the business side have meetings [that we’re not in] and set yield targets for all of our crops,” says one employee. Several employees said some of those goals were simply unattainable because they were limited by the plants’ growth and space, “we found that their expectations were [set] without evidence,” the employee added.
It was doubly frustrating for the farm team when they felt systems weren’t efficient. One employee described their day-to-day: growing, harvesting, and packing herbs for deliveries that are negotiated on a weekly basis with local supermarkets. But only produce that is sold in advance leaves the farm; what’s not sold is left in a storage area, either to be donated or composted by the farm team—a visible reminder of inefficiencies on the business side, they said. When we spoke to this employee, they said “not everything we grow even gets sold, a lot gets donated, but the pressure is still on us.”