Beyond Freight: Startup Transforms Shipping Container into Turnkey Solution for Hydroponic Farming
December 6, 2013 | Mitchell Hagney
Mitch Hagney is Chief Executive Officer of LocalSprout, a hydroponic farm based in San Antonio, Texas.
When a hydroponic farm grows a head of lettuce, the story doesn’t start with a seed.
Every part of the environment has to be provided for the seeds before they germinate, including everything that nature usually gives away for free.
To make a plant’s conditions ideal, the farmer must also be a plumber, an electrician, an engineer, and a chemist. Even those growers with lots of experience often lack the construction expertise that building a hydroponic farm requires, so they turn to those whose sole business is building.
When I became a hydroponic farmer, I didn’t also become an architect. I found one, with Freight Farms.
Freight Farms creates a way to grow locally by retrofitting the same containers that ship food halfway across the planet. In addition to selling the farms themselves, the company sends monthly packages containing growing materials to simplify material logistics for the grower. I liked their design and their style, so I bought one.
With ten sold and working units, and multiple different versions and customers, the company has refined their business plan since Seedstock’s 2011 article. Their units are operational hydroponic farms outfitted inside shipping containers and their business plan is to “do everything besides farm for you.”
The turnkey model makes hydroponic farming accessible; in addition to conventional entrepreneurs like me, they’ve sold to schools, hotels, and distribution companies.
“The customer is anyone who wants to make food their business,” says co-founder Jon Friedman. “Newcomers who want to get involved can utilize it, or long-time farmers who are looking to stay in the food system have a way now. A man told us recently, ‘My grandfather was a farmer, my father was a farmer, and now I can be one too.’ That’s huge.”
Freight Farm’s current model is called the Leafy Green Machine, built to produce salad greens and herbs. It can be customized to grow a variety of crops and can be modified to give produce certain characteristics like high antioxidants or spiciness.
The team is working on units that can grow a wider scope of produce, some of which will be released next year. Most Freight Farms units can be found close to the company’s headquarters in Boston, but units range as far as Minnesota and Texas. My farm, named LocalSprout, is in downtown San Antonio.
Reasons for growing hydroponically are as diverse as the crops that can be grown. In Boston and Minnesota, fresh produce during the wintertime is the emphasis. In San Antonio, we face droughts from population growth and climate change, and LocalSprout can use less than 1 percent of what conventional farms use. According to a recent study by the Nature Conservancy, saving just 5 percent of agricultural irrigation can satisfy San Antonio’s water needs because 90 percent of freshwater extraction is for crop irrigation. Hydroponic farming also allows us to avoid using pesticides that are hurting bee populations, prevent the fertilizer run-off destroying Texas’s coastal ecosystems, and eliminate nearly all of the emissions for transportation.
Regardless of each farmer’s reasons, the technical similarities between farms utilizing the Leafy Green Machine mean that troubleshooting and boosting yields can be a phone call away rather than the product of individual trial and error.
“This industry is small enough that the people working it can all sit in a room and say, let’s dominate; let’s go in it together and make this thing a reality,” says Friedman.