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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Boston-based Startup Freight Farms Aims to Reduce Food Miles in Used Shipping Containers

December 12, 2011 |

Nearly three years ago, Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara left their careers in marketing to research the pressing issue of food miles, or the distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer. “It seemed crazy that we were shipping in lettuce from California. We figured there had to be a better way,” said Friedman. To address this issue, Friedman and McNamara launched Boston-based Freight Farms, a company that aims to convert used shipping containers into modular, portable crop production units toward the end of transforming urban surroundings into a sustainable food source, increasing access to fresh local food in any environment, and creating local economies.

From Rooftops to Shipping Containers

Initially, Friedman and McNamara sought to address the issue of food mile by launching a company that would place greenhouses on the roofs of local office and school buildings. However, they encountered numerous hurdles to executing this strategy, as Boston’s older buildings required prohibitively expensive structural changes to accommodate the greenhouses. The company also found that even green advocates with deep pockets wanted to see a decent return on their substantial investment.  “We just couldn’t find a profitable way to build a business out of it,” said Friedman.

Undeterred, the pair began to experiment with the shipping containers that dotted their port city.  What they discovered was that when outfitted with insulation, the containers offered an ideal environment for hydroponic farming. They determined that the containers themselves could be sealed and left untouched by farmers for up to a week, and be equipped with sensors to enable the remote monitoring of carbon dioxide and nutrient levels. Encouraged by their research, the pair formed Freight Farms.

The Freight Farm

While still in the product research and development phase, Friedman said that the company has made a lot of progress as related to the unique technology that the freights will employ. The company has developed proprietary monitoring software as well as LED lights, which can be placed very close to the plant in the container without burning delicate leaves in the way that earlier hydroponics lights did. The units will also possess solar panels to reduce electricity costs.


There are few physical restrictions on where the containers can be placed. A customer could choose to install one on a rooftop by easily snapping it into a building’s i-beam, or else it could be located in an alleyway next to a restaurant or market; the units need only be placed on a stable surface with access to water and electricity.

At launch, the company plans to grow leafy greens and vine plants that thrive in hydroponic systems. Friedman said that each 40’ x 8’ standard shipping container would yield 400 heads of lettuce per week following a 3-month startup period.  At this rate, a container would break even in 26 weeks according to Freight Farms, while providing customers with a sustainable local source of fresh produce even in winter.

Unit Cost

Freight Farms plans to offer a ‘plug and play’ container, complete with a year’s “farming supplies” (nutrients, fertilizer, PH balanced starter sponges), for $25,000-$30,000, said Friedman.  This includes setup and instruction from Freight Farms’ master gardener on how to get the most out of the unit. The company also plans to offer complete management packages as well as help with the sale of any surplus produce for those customers who need it. “Some potential customers love the idea of a stable local food supply, but don’t see themselves as farmers,” said Friedman.

Customers

Potential purchasers of Freight Farms include wholesalers, restaurants, grocery stores and fast food chains with the crop mix adapted to the customer. For example, “a high end restaurant might want a reliable source of local micro-greens and heirloom tomatoes year round,” said Friedman. From research and interviews, the company has found that prospective customers would want more than one Freight Farm unit on their site. Friedman says that one future customer has already pre-signed for the output of 15 containers even though production on the units has not yet commenced.

Funding

To fund Freight Farms, Friedman and McNamara turned to Kickstarter, “the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects,” and a leader in crowd-funding.  In doing so, the pair posted a brief video and asked for contributions from the Kickstarter community.  “It was nerve wracking to let others see an idea that we’d been working on for so long,” conceded Friedman.

(updated 05/01) The Company ultimately raised $30,974 from 479 backers via Kickstarter. The funding will be used to build the pilot Freight Farms unit, and allow the company to further experiment with and develop methods to improve yields and diversify crop mix.

Beyond the Kickstarter funding, Freight Farms believes that it will need to raise a further $150,000 to scale the business. Eventually, Friedman would like to see his containers next to every restaurant and grocery store across the country, even if they’re only providing a portion of the outlet’s total produce needs. “We’d like them to become as ubiquitous and as much of a status symbol as solar panels are today,” he said.

Nicola Kerslake is a real assets investor, entrepreneur & advocate and maintains the blog, Real Assets Junkie.

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