Freight Farms helped invent the now-thriving farm-in-a-container market, where companies build vertical farms inside old shipping containers to grow pesticide-free produce throughout the year. But now that vertical farming companies are sprouting up almost as fast as the leafy greens they grow, the Boston, MA-based startup wants to completely rebuild the shipping container concept.
Its new product, The Greenery, which the company just announced today, isn’t a reiteration of its existing Leafy Green Machine (LGM). Instead, it’s a complete re-imagining of the shipping container concept that enables just about anyone to farm a large variety of crops. Or in the words of Freight Farms cofounder Brad McNamara, they’re “rearchitecting the whole vertical farm concept.”
To do that, McNamara and fellow cofounder Jon Friedman kept the foundational basics in play: farming still takes place inside a 40-foot shipping container and still involves the usual mix of hydroponics, LEDs, and software to control things like plant nutrients, temperature, and light levels. But inside the walls of that 40-foot container, Freight Farms has introduced some major changes.
One of the biggest tweaks is also one of the simplest: the inclusion of a racking system that’s actually movable. Since its founding in 2010, Freight Farms has used stainless steel vertical towers arranged in rows inside the shipping containers for growing. (SF-based Plenty employs a similar structure to its farms.) While this allows for much more growing space than in most vertical farms — which actually use horizontal rows of shelves — McNamara and Friedman saw a way to make the space inside the container even more productive by enabling customization.
With The Greenery, both the grow racks and the panels that hold the LEDs are now movable, so farmers can customize the layout inside the container based on the type and number of plants they grow. “In order to accommodate a larger variety of crops, rows can expand and contract,” Friedman explains of these mobile racks. For example, some plants are rooted, some grow on vines, and some simply need more space (e.g., tomatoes). Rather than having to grow plants according to what the space inside a container dictates, Greenery allows farmers to change the space based on what they need to grow.
A big impact on growth and yield is lights — that is, LEDs. But more LED power equals more electricity, which is financially constraining on companies and just all-around bad for sustainability. “Indoor agriculture has always struggled because you’re replacing the free resource of sun with lighting,” McNamara explains.
With The Greenery, Freight Farms addressed the lighting issue by redesigning the ropes of LEDs into panels that, according to the company, triples access to light and keep light energy from being wasted. McNamara and Friedman explained to me that the new lighting design produces a light intensity that’s 3x more powerful than its predecessor (the LGM) but doesn’t incur a 3x energy increase.
Arguably, though, the biggest improvement Freight Farms has made with The Greenery isn’t any one piece of technology, but the decision to bring all the tech in-house and build it themselves.
The typical vertical farm takes various off-the-shelf technologies, such as sensors, lighting, and hydroponics, and strings them together. The result is a farm that runs off fairly siloed elements that weren’t necessarily built to “talk” to one another, which can lead to interoperability issues, higher costs, and more time spent making sure these various systems work together. By contrast, the pieces at work in The Greenery were built with interoperability in mind, which in theory at least means a more reliable system and better control over the whole operation. Freight Farms also says it’s easier to automate the farming process with all the tech in-house, thereby making it simpler for anyone to use.
“It’s a turnkey offering in that no matter where you are in the world you can just pick up the instructions and go,” says Friedman. And because of that ease and lower costs, more populations can reap the benefits of vertical farming, including underserved ones most in need of easier access to fresh food. “This platform allows us the opportunity to not only feed a demographic and teach them how to farm,” says McNamara.
And while this vertically integrated vertical farm is a fairly new concept, Freight Farms isn’t the only one trying its hand at the idea. Over in the UK, the Future Farming Hub is attempting a similar one-stop-shop indoor farm, though their project doesn’t officially kick off until April of 2019. Even so, I expect we’ll see more companies in future exploring and offering vertically integrated systems.
Freight Farms currently operates in over 15 countries, including the Everlane factory in Vietnam and a Wendy’s location in Guam. According to Friedman, The Greenery will sell initially for $104,000. The company, meanwhile, plans to expand into new markets, particularly around the non-profit sector in order to help individuals and companies give back to their communities by making it easier and faster to get healthy, locally grown food.