Is Farming in a Box Viable, or Just a Fad?
May 8, 2017 | Trish Popovitch
Bed in a bag, soup in a jar, cake in a cup and now ‘farm in a box’? As many urban-ag-ers jump on the shipping container farm bandwagon that’s made inroads across the pro-grow community, some are wondering if the farm in a shipping container idea is really as cost effective and sustainable as it may at first appear. Hydroponics has proven a sustainable and reliable method for growing food in the city. Where concrete fields abound, so do vertical towers. Yet some would argue that a successful hydroponics system needs more than an upcycled shipping container to sustain success.
In states with short growing seasons and tumultuous weather, the idea of an indoor, self-contained growing unit employed to produce consistent and plentiful yields and steady revenue streams seems like the ideal solution for spreading sustainability, growing local and decreasing the impact of long established food deserts.Essentially, the typical farm in a box is an upcycled shipping container with approximately 320 square-feet of grow space outfitted with a custom hydroponic kit utilizing vertical growing systems. The farmer, or entrepreneur, who invests anywhere from $70,000 – $125,000 in a single farm unit has the potential to produce hundreds of pounds of leafy greens that he/she can sell to restaurant and wholesale customers, or at the farmers’ market. Some farmers have had success while others have not.
Nate Storey, founder of Bright Agrotech, the world’s leading manufacturer of vertical grow towers, believes in hydroponics and the water saving science that lies behind his highly successful product. Storey is not a fan of putting his growing containers in, well… shipping containers.
“So my opinion is that shipping containers are great for shipping things around the world and a serious compromise for anything else. I believe that container farming is possible, but shipping containers are the wrong way to do it,” says Storey.
Storey has no issue with the idea of a self-contained farm but every business needs room to operate effectively and for this reason, Storey finds freight containers too small.
“I’ve never known anyone with the patience or bankroll to grow in a freight container for more than a few years,” he says. “And given the fact that they depreciate very, very quickly compared to most other farms, shipping containers are a pretty questionable investment.”
As Storey explains, flexibility is a must in the container farmer’s world. Without room to grow, experiment and even expand, the container farmer is limited. “There are folks like Modular Farms selling containers that are larger than shipping containers and fabricated specifically for plant production. I think that those types of farms have a future,” says Storey (Disclosure note: Modular Farms is Canada’s exclusive licensee and manufacturer of Bright Agrotech’s products). “Those are the types of container farms that will ultimately own the container market because they were designed with intent.”
Even with a preference for the larger container on the market, Storey feels warehouse space is still the best option for many. “Most growers growing in warehouses are doing quite well on the other hand, and warehouses are typically more valuable after years of growing/occupancy than they were before. Folks are getting better yields because they have more room to operate and more systems flexibility,” says Storey.
In the world of sustainable agriculture, the desire, often the need, to be as sustainable as possible can cause issues. Repurposing can facilitate startups and demonstrate a commitment to bettering the planet through mindful growing practices. Yet sustainable businesses must be sustainable. If rapid expansion is necessary to facilitate the growth of a business, perhaps a warehouse makes more sense than a row of used shipping containers. If leasing warehouse space is not in the startup budget, perhaps a container farm would provide a temporary platform for a new brand. A chance for short growing season states, like that of Wyoming-based Bright Agrotech, to extend the growing season, farming in shipping containers needs careful planning to insure long-term success.
“Ultimately, I’m excited to see anyone farming locally, but we really need to be discerning about what is worth investing in and what is not,” concludes Storey.