Shipping Containers Are Having a Second Life as Mini Farms

These tech-enabled farms can grow a whole lot of food in a small space with few inputs.

(Photo: Courtesy Freight Farms)

May 23, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

For the curious crafter looking to dip her toe into the world of, say, denim-bedazzling, the market is crowded with beginner kits: everything you need all in one adorable, unintimidating package with a sticker-shock-free price tag. Now, would-be farmers have their own kind of agricultural start-up kit.

Built out of repurposed shipping containers, the new plug-and-play mini farms are the newest means of retooling industrial waste. Sure, you could set one down beside a super-hip shipping container restaurant and have diners watch the baby kale, herbs, strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers take root. But a number of companies want to think bigger: They hope these shipping container farms can democratize urban agriculture.

When Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara began to consult on agricultural projects in Boston, they noticed a theme: Whether their clients were in food distribution, a restaurant looking to amp up its fresh on-site offerings, or a school wanting to use its produce in the cafeteria, the array of options for how to get started began to bog them down.

(Photo: Courtesy Freight Farms)

“People wanted a greenhouse. People didn’t want to build a greenhouse,” Friedman said. “They wanted to be farmers. They didn’t want to build a farm.”

Overcome that decision fatigue and the cost still managed to arrest development before projects got off the ground. Working on rooftops—which on old Boston buildings presented their own set of variables, Friedman said—the two determined that anything under 10,000 square feet wasn’t going to pay off. They found themselves advising potential clients against building greenhouses.

(Photo: Courtesy Freight Farms)

“We were like, ‘Don’t do it, it’s not a good investment. It’s a showpiece.’”

While flashy facilities that demonstrate dedication to fresh, locally grown produce have their place, when it comes to doing the seeds-in, harvest-out work of growing food, Friedman and McNamara figured there had to be a better way. How could they create a system with fewer variables and a stable, replicable infrastructure? In 2010, Freight Farms—as close to “set it and forget it” as farming may ever get—was born.

“You gotta make the good choice the easy choice,” Friedman said.

(Photo: Courtesy Freight Farms)

“Easy” is not a word often associated with the long hours and low pay of farming, but linking one of the world’s oldest industries to one of the newest may make it more so—and give farmers their long-awaited vacations. Freight Farms offers insulated shipping container farms outfitted with hydroponic systems, LED growing lights, heating and cooling systems, and a mobile software system for operating it all. Each shipping container can grow more than an acre’s worth of food using 90 percent less water than the conventional means to achieve that yield.

“The amount of human capital and knowledge to operate a farm is crazy. This is as dumbed down as farming could get,” said Ben Greene. In 2009, he designed a plan for repurposing shipping containers into hydroponic farms as part of his master’s thesis in industrial design at North Carolina State University. His grand plan, The Farmery, is months away from becoming a reality in cities in North Carolina and Colorado. Each location will combine a shipping container farm with a grocery store and a café in a bid to provide both farm-to-table and farm-to-shopping-bag transparency.

While the good choice might be easy, it’s not exactly cheap. A competitor, Cropbox, rings up at $49,000, and the 2015 Freight Farm starts at $76,000. But both companies see far-reaching potential for the container farms, and both are selling their products to commercial operations and beginning farmers.

In Florida, a hotel chain is using Cropboxes to supply its kitchens. Williamson said restaurants have cut out windows from the walls of their Cropbox and placed them next to the back patio so diners can peep inside. Friedman counted retired teachers as some of Freight Farms’ clients who want to farm as a way to continue to engage with and give back to their communities. Stacked on top of each other like Legos, the containers scale to create a profitable agricultural business, even in a crowded city center where space is at a premium. It’s all a way to reenvision the way agriculture works on the local scale, and to adapt to a climate that’s changing faster than farming can keep up with and raising food prices at a rate that outpaces inflation.

Placed in extreme or remote environments, such as deserts or northern climes like Greenland (where a head of lettuce can go for $12, Friedman said), a Cropbox or Freight Farm has the capacity to be enormously profitable, both companies pointed out. But they also have the ability to disrupt a centralized supply chain that relies on food from only a few areas of production.

In other words, ship a man his food from drought-beleaguered California and he’ll eat for a day (at a premium); send him a shipping container farm and a smartphone, and he’ll farm for life.