Shipping Containers Grow Food Anywhere

Boxed farms could be placed in alleys, abandoned lots or parking lots to grow crops.

The food tech startup Freight Farms is giving new life to old shipping containers, and at the same time giving impetus to locally grown food.

At the Collision technology conference in Las Vegas, the company showed off its basil sprouts nurtured in a used cargo container equipped to let crops flourish just about anywhere.

"Our mission is to create a more connected and sustainable food system," Caroline Katsiroubas of Freight Farms told AFP at the event.

"Everyone wants to be more local, know where their food comes from and have a relationship with people growing their food."

Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara founded the Boston-based startup in 2010 with a vision of outfitting used shipping containers with sophisticated hydroponics equipment to turn them into boxed farms that could be placed in alleys, abandoned lots, parking lots or any other location where agriculture would typically be out of the question.

There is a massive supply of old insulated containers once used to ship refrigerated goods around the world on cargo ships, according to Katsiroubas. Evidently, it is cheaper to buy new containers than to repair old units.

"These containers all had past lives," she said with a gesture. "We clean them up and retrofit them."

Freight Farms installs equipment that controls environmental factors ranging from temperature and carbon dioxide levels to air flow and nutrients in water fed to crops.

Seeds in "grow trays" sprout under blue light ideally suited for young plants. They are transferred to take root in an artificial soil of sorts made of recycled plastic soda bottles in "zip grow towers" that stand upright. The effect is like plants growing along the sides of columns.

Flexible strings of lights hanging from the container ceiling simulate the necessary sunshine.

All the nutrients needed by plants are in water fed through the pseudo-soil. Each container produces as much crop as about 1.8 acres (0.7 hectares) of traditional farmland, and uses about 90 percent less water in the process, according to Katsiroubas.

There is even an application that lets container farms be completely monitored and controlled from afar.

Each container uses about 30,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, roughly the equivalent of that used by two US households, but less than a greenhouse producing the same amount of crop.

Going solar for electricity is not yet an option, since it would take more solar cells than could fit atop a container, according to Katsiroubas.

Freight Farms modifies equipment to be more energy efficient and hopes that, along with advances in solar cell efficiency, containers will one day be self-sufficient when it comes to power.

"The electricity we are pulling is definitely a pain point," Katsiroubas said. "It would be great if we were completely off the grid, but at the moment we have to be plugged in."

Freight Farms reasons that crop-growing energy use is offset to some degree by decreases in resources devoted to transporting produce long distances and less spoilage.

Crops can be ready for harvest in six to eight weeks depending on what is being grown, and restaurants have taken to paying premium prices for high-quality produce that is locally sourced, according to Freight Farms.

Urban farmers can even find out what is in demand at restaurants or markets and pick those crops to plant, since climate, weather and soil are not concerns.

"We have these wild visions of cities being self-sustaining and every school operating one," Katsiroubas said. "We are absolutely not trying to take out traditional farming."

Freight Farms systems have a starting price of $76,000, and about three dozen have been sold in North America, according to Katsiroubas.

Flourishing green skyscrapers are sprouting up, both literally and conceptually, around the world. With the world’s population on target to grow by some 2.5 billion people by 2050, according to the United Nations, 80 percent of those people will reside in cities, which will challenge agriculturalists and designers alike to accommodate the increasing need for vertical epicenters. We are used to offices and apartments going up, but in the future, we could also see farms. Some of the most innovative developments tout everything from special LED lighting to so-called farmscrapers that simultaneously nurture crops and clean smog.

New Jersey, the Garden State, is about to live up to its nickname. A new $30 million vertical farm is being built as part of a ‘Makers Village’ redevelopment project underway in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood. Once built, the 69,000-square-foot facility will not only serve as the headquarters for the agricultural firm AeroFarms, but it will also be the world's largest indoor farm, capable of growing two million pounds of soil-free leafy greens and herbs each year. The farm will run partly on solar power, use recycled water, zero pesticides and fertilizers and create about 80 jobs.

The world’s largest indoor farm in Japan produces 100 times more vegetables per square foot than other farms. Shigeharu Shimamura, the designer of the vertical farm and founder of his company Mirai, which means “future” in Japanese, worked in collaboration with General Electric to develop a special LED lighting system. Mirai then implemented towering rows of thin soil trays. The facility uses exact measurements for temperatures, humidity, light and darkness and cuts food waste by 30 to 40 percent.

A conceptual future is filled with flourishing green skyscrapers to help clean smog from the air. Paris City Hall commissioned Vincent Callebaut Architectures to devise a plan for Paris in the year 2050 that would reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75 percent. The project, called Paris Futuristic 2050 Paris Smart City has farmscrapers” made of vegetable towers that filter the air and encourage food production to happen locally.

Jackson, Wyo., is on a path to become home to three-story farm. A company called Vertical Harvest has unveiled plans to create a greenhouses filled with microgreens and tomatoes. The plants will move throughout each greenhouse floor on a conveyer belt, getting an equal amount of time in natural light on the south side of the building.

Imagine an office where you can visit “sky gardens” and planting stations for a quick breather, or better yet, to harvest your own food while putting in long working hours? Interior designers Sean Cassidy and Joe Wilson’s innovative vertical farm concept called Organic Grid+ features just that, along with wearable technology to track individuals’ health and suggest appropriate meals to improve morale, concentration and productivity. The concept recently took top honors in the Workplace of the Future 2.0 competition.

Green Sense Farms, based in Portage, Ind., grows microgreens, leafy greens and herbs in 25-foot-tall carousels. Light from 7,000 LEDs, provided by Dutch technology firm Royal Philips, gives the plants energy. Because of the efficiency of the LEDs, Robert Colangelo, founding farmer and president of Green Sense Farms, and his team are able to plant crops in closer proximity than if they were grown outside.

In another concept created by Vincent Callebaut, this urban farm was designed with New York City’s Roosevelt Island in mind. The vertical farm concept called Dragonfly would accommodate 28 different agricultural fields to produce fruit and vegetables, along with meat, dairy and grains.

To help support local food production in China, Spanish firm JAPA Architects proposed a concept called Dynamic Vertical Networks, or Dyv-Net, that would be located close to city centers and would produce crops vertically year-round.

Designed for Linkoping, Sweden, this 177-foot vertical farm features crops grown on spirals that run down the building. Crops move downward over the course of two to three months and are then harvested at the bottom.

Vancouver-based VertiCrop loads plastic trays with up to 50 varieties of leafy green vegetables to produce as much food in a 50' x 75' area as a 16-acre farm would. The technology requires only 8 percent of the normal water consumption used to irrigate field crops.