Know Your Indoor Farmer: Square Roots, Techno-Local Food, and Transparency as Publicity

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27 Scopus citations


Advocates of indoor vertical farming have pitched the enterprise as key to the future of food, an opportunity to use technological innovation to increase local food production, bolster urban sustainability, and create a world in which there is “real food” for everyone. At the same time, critics have raised concerns about the costs, energy usage, social impacts, and overall agricultural viability of these efforts, with some insisting that existing low-tech and community-based solutions of the “good food movement” offer a better path forward. Drawing from a mix of participant observation and other qualitative methods, this article examines the work of Square Roots, a Brooklyn-based indoor vertical farming company cofounded by entrepreneur Kimbal Musk and technology CEO Tobias Peggs. In an effort to create a market for what I refer to as “techno-local food,” Square Roots pitches its products as simultaneously “real” and technologically optimized. As a way to build trust in these novel products and better connect consumers with producers, Square Roots leans on transparency as a publicity tool. The company’s Transparency Timeline, for instance, uses photos and a narrative account of a product’s life-cycle to tell its story “from seed-to-store,” allowing potential customers to “know their farmer.” The information Square Roots shares, however, offers a narrow peek into its operations, limiting the view of operational dynamics that could help determine whether the company is actually living up to its promise. The research provides a clear case study of an organization using transparency–publicity as market strategy, illustrating the positive possibilities that such an approach can bring to consumer engagement, while also demonstrating how the tactic can distract from a company’s stated social responsibility goals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1588-1606
Number of pages19
JournalAmerican Behavioral Scientist
Issue number11
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences


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