Your average institution, be it a schools, company, hospital, or university, typically doesn’t have the space or cash to consider an indoor farming initiative, even if it would mean putting fresher, more local greens into cafeterias and dining halls. That’s an issue Freight Farms looks to solve with the release of its new service Grown, which was just announced today.
The Boston, MA-based company is already known for its Leafy Green Machines, which are 40-square-foot shipping containers that hold vertical farms. These farms are climate controlled and use LEDs as well as a closed-loop hydroponic irrigation system to nurture crops throughout their entire lifecycle. Like most other vertical farming systems, the technology platform powering Freight Farms’ containers automates much of the work (and guesswork) of growing and harvesting greens.
Grown, unveiled today, is less product than service, as Freight Farms installs the Leafy Green Machine then manages the lifecycle of crops on an ongoing basis. Once the Machine, aka the shipping container with the farm inside, is installed, the customer doesn’t have to do much besides decide which crops to grow and what to do with the produce once its harvested (e.g., serve it in the company cafeteria). No additional staff (or land, for that matter) is needed, as Freight Farms monitors climate, water usage, and all other aspects of the indoor farming process. (This is different from, say, Freight Farms’ relationship with vertical farming startup Square Roots, who use the Leafy Green Machine but have their own farmers to care for the greens.)
The Grown package starts at $5,000/month, and includes replenishing supplies, maintenance, cleaning, 24/7 farm monitoring, and all farming operations, including seeding, transplanting, and harvesting. Customers can also add, for an extra fee, services like marketing and branding as well as on-campus educational programs.
Freight Farms already counts a few universities and several small-business farmers among its customers, and also has a presence in Europe. But they’re one of many in the indoor agriculture space, each with a slightly different focus. Agrylist raised $1.5 million earlier this year, though it’s focus is on larger farms (10,000 square feet up to five acres). Farmshelf brings smaller setups directly into restaurants and retail outlets. Crop One and Emirates Flight Catering are in the midst of building what they claim will be the world’s largest vertical farm.
The Grown service could really set Freight Farms apart, though, particularly if it manages to bring vertical farming and fresh greens into places it might not otherwise go, like schools or smaller companies. In fact, Freight Farms told The Spoon that a major focus right now is “the existing interest in on-site, year-round local sourcing methods especially in the school dining/university education sector.” So there’s also a real opportunity for a vertical farming company to align itself with a mission that’s about more than selling products at farmers markets to those with disposable income.
Consider the current initiatives to get more local, fresh produce into NYC public schools: Thanks to a non-profit called GrowNYC, over 50 percent of those public schools now have gardens. But accessing and using them depends in part on the weather, and as any New Yorker knows, the weather out here is horrible about half the time. By working with programs like GrowNYC, Freight Farms could theoretically expose an entirely new audience to vertical farming, not to mention provide them with year-round greens.
The company is already thinking in that direction. In the K–12 and higher education sectors, Freight Farms said they’ve seen a 63 percent increase “from those who strongly want to integrate the farms (to provide hyper-local produce for meals, as well as provide a great platform for education around nutrition and sustainability) – but haven’t had the capacity to do so.”
The launch of Grown has at least set on the discussion table the idea that we can expand our thinking around where and when everyone, not just tech employees, can get their hands on the kind of nutrition they need.