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Container farming breaks boundaries of food production

A vertical, hydroponic farm offers complete control over the growing cycle.

Any farmer will tell you the most limiting factor in crop yield is weather and, more holistically, climate. For some areas of the world, climate is unrealistic for crop development.

Freight Farms, headquartered in Boston, has developed a solution that takes a standard 40-foot shipping container and converts it into the perfect growing environment year-round — where the weather is always warm, and the sun never sets.

As a result, plants can thrive inside the container regardless of the external environment — harsh climates, tight urban centers and extreme weather conditions have no effect on the plants growing inside.

A shipping container can be placed anywhere on flat, stable ground with access to power and water. 

The company was founded in 2011 and developed the first prototype in 2013. Now, it has sold 350 container farms worldwide, in 48 U.S. states and 32 countries across five continents.

Inside the automated, insulated, custom-built shipping container is a vertical, hydroponic farm, where plants obtain all their nutrition from water and their light energy from powerful LEDs.

When powered up, the lights look purple. “We optimize the color spectra to be blue and red because it’s the colors plants most easily process for photosynthesis,” Freight Farms marketing manager Rebecca Shamritsky explains.

The container’s shell has a U.S. Department of Energy insulation rating of R-28, which means it can maintain an average internal temperature of 70 degrees F in extreme climates ranging from minus 40 degrees to 130 degrees.

“The farm is especially efficient in cold climates,” says Shamritsky, who notes that a container in Wyoming has functioned at minus 50 degrees. “In warmer climates, the units are cooled with an HVAC system, but in cold climates, the LEDs are giving both light and heating the environment."

In addition to climate control for optimum growing conditions, Freight Farms seeks to address issues such as urban land scarcity, traceability and the need for hyperlocal solutions with speed to market, she adds.

It’s certainly not a replacement for conventional agriculture, but it does fit the need of some wanting to either enter or expand their presence in the ag industry quickly.

Jake Felser, head of engineering and automation and robotics specialist, says, “It’s a complete controlled environment that includes light, but also carbon dioxide and humidity, unlike most greenhouses. It’s precision agriculture — everything is controlled. Lettuce produced in February is exactly like that in July. Because it’s a container, it’s highly modular, it can be set down, and a grower can walk in and get started. Many of our customers have never operated a farm before.”

Common crops grown include leafy greens, herbs, root crops — like radishes — and microgreens.

The software Farmhand relays data to a phone or desktop, providing the operator with remote monitoring and control for all components. “We wanted to build a farm anyone can operate,” Felser says. “We wanted to make it as autonomous as possible, and that means just a click to calibrate sensors if necessary.”

The container features a precision CO2 regulator with a safety shut-off feature, providing plants with the CO2 needed for photosynthesis by feeding it directly into the airflow ducts.

The vertical plant panels can house more than 8,000 living plants at once, creating a dense canopy of fresh crops. Four rows of panels combine to create more than a linear half-mile of growing space.

Operators can leverage different planting techniques to maximize growing potential.

The unit can arrive by truck, train or boat, and cranes often are used to lift them into urban settings. “We have shipped them all over the world,” Felser adds.

Basic units start around $130,000. “We expect farmers operating at capacity to have a return on investment within two years, producing 1,000 heads of high-quality lettuce per week for $3 a head,” he says.

“We work with our customers both pre- and post-purchase to make sure they're as successful and profitable as possible,” Shamritsky adds. Before COVID-19, Freight Farms offered in-person training at its Boston farm, but it has since gone virtual with instructional videos and many resources online.

The value in technology is most significantly represented in extreme weather conditions such as the Alaskan tundra or the deserts of the Middle East, but that’s not to say growers aren’t finding uses, value and profits in areas where traditional agriculture thrives.

American Agriculturist caught up with two container growers, one from New York and the other from Ohio, who have specialized their containers and operations to meet specific markets.

Container farming full time in Long Island

Ryan McGann envisions a big-box grocer with a few container farms in the front parking lot. “Customers can drive by and see their produce being grown,” he says. “It’s hyperlocal for the store, and that's going to drive some additional traffic.”

It’s a long-term vision to own a 100-plus container business, but for now, McGann has three container farms on property he owns in Long Island, N.Y.

With a background in mechanical engineering, he’s spent the past 12 years running tech startups across the world. “I was traveling a lot and never home,” he says. “With three small children, it wasn’t working, and I was looking for a home-based business.”

The high degree of automation in the growing system attracted McGann, 36, to the idea of container farming. He jumped in with both feet and mainly sells his greens to restaurants.

“My wife [Aneta] grew up on a farm in rural Poland and with my background in engineering, this was a good combination of both of our skills,” McGann says.

He established his markets through individual visits with chefs and restaurant owners, who like consistent, high-quality products. “And then it just spread word of mouth,” says McGann, who harvests every week and sells completely out. Another reason chefs like hydroponics, he says, is because the risk posed by soil contamination and the resulting foodborne illnesses is removed.

He hopes to eventually expand into retail stores and is building a large barn that includes a farm stand for direct-to-consumer sales.

Getting started

The McGanns ordered the systems in January 2020, but because of COVID-19, they didn’t take delivery until September, with their first deliveries of produce in November.

“What is really great is they drop them down, you assemble them and can get started right away with year-round production — it’s turnkey,” says McGann, who is monocropping in each of the containers with leafy greens (such as kale), lettuce and herbs. He is considering converting his leafy green farm into a hemp farm.

The seeding and transplanting are offset by one week, so he is harvesting weekly — 800 to 1,000 heads of lettuce and 50 pounds of basil.

The economics of the containers, he says, really take off when you have three or more units. “With one, it’s like a hobby or weekend job; when you have two, you’re getting there. But with three, it’s full time, and it becomes a much more viable business operation,” he says.

McGann used a low-interest USDA Farm Service Agency loan for financing. “It’s the same loan you would take to buy a tractor or any other ag equipment because the container is equipment,” he says.

He's had no pushback from officials in his county of Suffolk, which has a strong history of supporting agriculture.

Being a proponent of sustainability, his containers use hydroelectric power (200 amps for all three containers), but he hopes to convert it to solar power in the future. He also wants to build a robotics system to automate the harvesting and transplanting.

For now, McGann is doing the deliveries, which also helps to build one-on-one relationships with restaurants and chefs.

“I love to see them create new dishes with the produce, and because the crops are grown vertically, they are a little different than traditional romaine,” he says. “It looks more like a blooming flower, and the chefs who are super creative find unique ways to use the product besides just chopping it. Some will just cut the root ball off and place it on the plate, and it looks amazing. I just get really excited to interact with the chefs, what they want and adjusting temperature, nutrients and lighting to create different flavor profiles.”

Container farming is the future, McGann says. “Not only for people like me, but I think it’s an option for traditional farmers that may want to supplement and diversify with a different type of agriculture to have production throughout the year.”

Ohio farmer sells container produce direct to consumer

Britton Decker calls himself a serial entrepreneur, and he was looking for a new challenge when he stumbled across container farming on the internet. At 57, he was looking for a rewarding endeavor that would complement the traditional 170-acre grain farm in Piqua, Ohio, that he runs with two siblings.

Partnering with his sister Laura Decker Jackson, they forged ahead during the summer of COVID-19 with plans for a new path. “I know there's much less expensive ways to get into the hydroponic business, but I thought by starting with a Freight Farm, it would be a way of moving up the learning curve very quickly," he says.

They took delivery of their container farm in late July and are growing six varieties of lettuce, 50 heads each, for 300 a week total. They also grow Swiss chard, three varieties of kale and microgreens, and sell using a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model where orders are placed on their website.

“We do have a restaurant that's coming on board next month, and we sell to some caterers, but we have not sold to grocery stores yet,” Decker says. “The county also has a virtual farmers market where we drop orders at one location. We developed a nice clientele looking for beautiful greens all winter long — we’re sold out every week.”

Depending on the variety, it takes 45 to 55 days for lettuce to go from a seed to harvest. Radishes are ready in 30 days, while microgreens take 10 days.

Decker and Jackson are trying new products all the time. “We've tested flowers; we're doing herbs right now,” he says.

Using an online service called Barn to Door, a website was developed for customers to place product orders and CSA subscriptions. “It was great to start off having all our customers in one place so we can email news and promotions, and they can easily see what we have available on any given week,” Decker says.

Pickups at the farm are during a two-hour window on Wednesdays, and delivery is free within a 5-mile radius.

Community support

The container is not on farm in Piqua, but rather in the city on Main Street. As you can imagine, it gets a certain amount of attention, Decker says. “The city very much wanted us to be there as part of its new innovation district,” he explains. “There's a historical building that's being redone, that when completed, we will have a storefront inside. It’s nice to see some of these old buildings get new life, and people coming in with new ideas and new businesses — seeing people thrive.”

The Farmhand software for management is great, he says, but sometimes you need to verify the information. “For instance, early on we had the whole farm filled with plants, and we thought everything was going great — our CO2 levels, our water — everything was good,” Decker says. “But when we opened the door, the plants were literally just hanging there. We had gotten a bubble in our pump. It said the pump was running, but no water was getting to the plant. We got the pump fixed and the crops were stunted a little, but they recovered. We learned our lesson to check in.”

One time they dumped too many nutrients into the water. “We had to drain the water, but if you pay attention and do what you're supposed to do, I think things go pretty smoothly,” Decker says.

Not including marketing, Decker says the container requires about 15 hours of attention a week, including planting, transferring and harvesting.

While Decker and Jackson focus on making a profit, they have a friend in Cincinnati who is taking an entirely different business approach with her container farm. She donates 20% of what she grows to food pantries, and then sells the rest to donate to nonprofits. Schools also are container customers.

Looking to the future, Decker and Jackson may purchase more containers and expand into new markets such as Louisville and Lexington, Ky.

TAGS: Crops
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