Freight Farms, a Boston based start-up, it taking refrigerated shipping containers and re-purposing them into Leafy Green Machines — hyper local hydroponic farms that grow organic vegetables and can be located anywhere. The 320 square foot units can grow as much produce as two acres of farmland while using less water per day than the average American needs for a single shower.
Co-founder Brad McNamara tells Think Progress he first got the idea for creating organic vegetable farms in shipping containers while working as a rooftop farm consultant in the Boston area when he was a graduate student. He wanted to see if there was a way to make rooftop hydroponic farming more efficient and cost effective.
“One of the big issues we saw when we were looking at greenhouses and rooftop space was that every project is a unique custom piece of equipment and a very complex system,” McNamara says. Even though there was a wealth of information available on how to do hydroponic gardening, McNamara and his partner were having a hard time figuring out how to recreate those conditions regardless of where the farm was located.
“The big issue was replicating those conditions simply and easily so that someone who is not an engineer, a plumber, an electrician, and a horticulturist would be able to grow those plants,” he said. That’s when they got the idea to use insulated and refrigerated containers.
How appropriate that shipping containers used to carry food all across the globe — burning fossil fuels that contribute to global warming in the process — are now turned into hot spots for the local food movement! “The insulated and refrigerated containers are a big part of the cold food supply chain that has made the global centralization of food production possible, and that’s a big problem,” says McNamara. “But we are able to use them to make local food production possible in any location.”
All Freight Farms units are built in repurposed 40-foot insulated shipping containers. Everything from water to the LED lights in the units are digitally controlled, and each unit is also a Wifi hotspot, connected to the network of Freight Farm units across the country. “Everything is fully contained within the module so that it lands as a turnkey product, ready to grow,” McNamara said. “From day one, people can start seeds and get going.”
Because each container is connected to every other container over the internet, Freight Farms users can control their shipping containers remotely, uploading information to a network that is shared among all users. That means that the system is constantly updating based on the best available data, and constantly adapting to what individual farmers are doing.
“Every farmer that becomes a Freight Farmer now is exponentially better than somebody who started just a few months ago, because they are building on the backs of 40 or 50 people who have been doing it now for a few years,” McNamara said. “Rather than us just conducting research and development back in Boston, we’ll actually work with the network of farmers and see what results they are getting.”
Because the containers are temporary structures and are attractively painted, they may be able to circumvent some local zoning ordinances. Now, a restaurant owner can grow all the fresh vegetables needed in a corner of a parking lot. “The biggest challenge anybody is going to have is trying to find a way to use all of the stuff it grows, because the capacity is really amazing,” says chef Michael Bissanti of Four Burgers in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
To Bissanti, who grew up on a working family farm, the insulated nature of a Freight Farms unit means more than just the ability to keep farming in a blizzard.Iit offers the opportunity to keep farming in a controlled environment even as climate change makes weather increasingly variable. “We are having heat waves and we’ve having droughts and we’re having flooding. That impacts the farmers greatly,” he said. “A system like this, because it’s so contained, because it grows 365-days a year regardless of the weather outside, you’ve created this perfect environment that is completely sheltered from all of that.”
A typical rooftop hydroponic garden can costs between $1 million and $2 million. Each Leafy Green Machine costs $80,000. Freight Farms has about 50 of them in operation. Affordable, sustainable, locally grown organic vegetables. An idea worthy of Ecopreneur gold status!
Photo credits: Freight Farms, Michael Bissanti