What inspired the idea to create the farm system in a shipping container?
We got started around 2009, and at the time there were only rooftop greenhouses coming into market, which was exciting. We saw a lot of initial design renderings and articles saying how farming is coming to the city and going to the rooftops. We decided to do some analysis if it was possible, and quickly realized that that was never going to happen.
The structural component—especially in Boston—of those buildings would require you to spend a quarter-million in just structural infrastructure to put it up there and then build on top of it. And these rooftop farms would not only be out of the way of local grocery stores and produce distributors, but also too complicated to implement for the average person. So, we realized that we need to take all the hurdles out of this and make it more accessible for a wider audience.
The first piece was solving structural piece, which is the framing of the greenhouse. By getting into cities, we decided that shipping containers solved all these challenges. For example, you can stack them 16-high—you know, with no load structure problems—and you can also have freezer levels of refrigeration. We realized if we can bring all these systems into this one box, that we have something that is ubiquitous around the world in every port city. There is a surplus of shipping containers not in use because they can't travel across the sea anymore. Now we have a structure that can house an environment that is stackable and modular. People can start with one and then continue to scale up.
Freight Farms started as a company looking to bring hydroponic farming to inner cities. Now it’s looking to the future by bringing freight farming systems to remote locations on the planet—and even to outer space.
Inside the box, you are using different kinds of light waves for your photosynthesis, and you have hydraulic irrigation systems. How are you monitoring and collecting that data?
It's remarkable how much of the basics plants need, and if you’re sensing things like water temperature, electrical conductivity, and PH in the water, just those three alone have so many different variables that you can tune a plant to. If you take that and use the variables in the air like humidity, CO2, and temperature, those six main components create your rubric for different recipes for different crops. Then, take that recipe and tune it to the light with the red blue spectrum, which is the spectrum of light that plants need for photosynthesis. You can control the plant growth. We can adjust the colors to our needs.
For example, we can push more blue light to get a more purple effect from the plant or achieve a more red tip on something like red leaf lettuce. With the different schedules of temperature, humidity, and colors of light, you can increase these plant attributes. This fine tuning is exciting, because the overall goal is to develop these recipes and share them with other farmers. We can start mapping specific farming systems across a shared network, provide performance results, and release updates to everyone so they get the same efficiency.
Freight Farms was founded in Boston, but has expanded beyond the city. The company’s farming shipping containers have reached the rural neighborhoods of Minnesota, where groceries are scarce, and even Caribbean islands where farming imports are costly.
What is your customer demographic? Are they professional farmers looking to downsize or are they people looking to enter the farming world?
I think there’s a romantic half of our customers who had relatives who were farmers who saw their parents get rid of their farm because it wasn’t economical, and others who have kind of made up their own stake in the ground to say, “We’re going to become farmers again.” The majority of people we see already have some type of food connection. They are selling into the market already as distributors—maybe their food supply, or as a food service company for school. They know more than anybody the current struggles of food supply and the dangers of climate change.
In terms of inner city vs. outer city, I have to say it’s probably 50/50. When we started, we only thought this was an urban thing. But then we really notice the marketplaces that are outside the main shipping routes. For example, basil in Minnesota cost $40 a pound, so obviously you should be growing your own basil. These rural folks are making quite a killing because they are supplying chefs in their area something different than just the plain iceberg lettuce.
The water systems in the containers uses the humidity in the air to recycle air. The container uses 10 gallons of water, and five of those are recaptured from the air in the container.
What would you say is probably the coolest technology feature about the container?
I mean, it’s having a built-in music player. Every farmer when they started would stick their iPhone right into the player. I feel like people are religious when it comes to entertaining their plants in some shape or form, so we have a playlist on Spotify you can download that is specifically to plants.
What are the next stages for you advancing this technology forward?
We are working with NASA right now to look at off-grid systems. We’ve got a grant from them to figure out how to reduce the power that a farm requires, to run the whole thing off solar, and take water out of the air to run the system. Our current irrigation system run on 10 gallons, and five of those gallons are taken directly from the air humidity within the container. So, if we can capture more than five gallons, then we’re already across the line, and we’re pretty close to that goal right now.
Which brings us to where we’re going next, which is just growing food without the need for the planet. We know we can do it, and the key factor is the amount of energy we need. We see solar getting better and as a roadmap of how to get there. Our main initiatives are finding ways inside the farm to use heat and light a little bit differently to lower the power consumption. We are also expanding to different regions. We started using containers in island climates because they have to import much of their food, creating a very high price point for products like lettuce. What you should keep in mind is that water is not the same everywhere and so we have to able filtration systems to use any water source—whether it’s municipal or well water.
Lastly there’s a whole wide world of markets that are coming to us, and with that I think there’s a lot of usability challenges. We’re excited to tackle that by bringing in automation and robotics into the farming industry. It is really the next exciting thing for us, to say that we can make local farming the most viable option, but just having to take labor out of the equation. This is possible with several of the techniques and automation processes you see available today.
Have you received any pushback from the farming community about introducing automation processes? This sounds very similar to the conversation that is happening in the automation industry with skilled labor and robotic systems.
I will say that our farm challenge is bigger than robots. It is saying that local is better than a centralized farming system, which is just a giant infrastructure mass. We need to prove not only that local tastes better, but that it’s also more economical for the farmer and the world. Currently labor is the highest cost for people to get started. If we can improve efficiency—that instead of one farm system per farmer, we can increase it to five farmers per farmer—then the rate of adoption will increase.
I understand what you're saying, though, because you know we’re very anti-factory farming, and there's nothing that sounds more factory than a robot doing your farming. There's something about a human touch that sells all of us on food. There needs to be a balance, but I think the process is in the farming system. We can place machines to handle the basic tasks, while the farmers are doing more of the scientific tasks like developing your own unique version of kale or your own unique blend of strawberries. That’s what we want, to get people more into taking the next steps of advancing farming, and not doing the redundant tasks.