Two Acres of Urban Farming in One Freight Crate
The United States imports more than $100 billion of food every year from farms across the globe, often in the big metal shipping containers you see on cargo ships. Now, entrepreneurs are using those shipping containers to grow local produce. In these containers, urban farmers can grow a large yield in small spaces.
The gray lot under the I-93 overpass in downtown Boston didn’t have much to draw in pedestrians or foodies. It was empty, like so many other urban spaces orphaned by America’s lust for highways.
Now it has a farm. Not a tilled field—there’s not a ton of sunlight down there, and the exhaust fumes wouldn’t be great for human consumption. Instead, a refrigerated shipping container called a Leafy Green Machine sits in the newly redeveloped lot, churning out fresh produce even during cold New England winters.
That container is the brainchild of Freight Farms. Cofounder Brad McNamara had been consulting on rooftop greenhouse construction for several years, driven both by a love for good produce and for activating underutilized city spaces. But those projects can take a couple years, with the permitting and design, and the specific needs of each site make them hard to replicate. As a result, commercial-scale urban greenhouses require significant capital—a New York Times article on rooftop greenhouses reports they can cost between $1.2 million and $2 million, all told. That’s why McNamara and company started looking for a different approach. They soon found one, in the shipping container.
“There was this available envelope that had been perfectly engineered to withstand extreme temperatures and hold an internal climate, and also had an infrastructure ready to transport them,” McNamara says.
Refrigerated shipping containers made it possible to transport fresh and frozen produce throughout the world. Freight Farms outfits these containers with a vertical hydroponic grow system and LED lights, all of which are digitized to give the farmer detailed data on water flow, temperature, and lighting. They sell for about $80,000 each. McNamara says they’ve sold 50 this year, with customers in 16 states and a few Canadian provinces.
Farmer Scott DeLuca (right) stands outside his new shipping container farm, nestled underneath I-93 near Boston's South End. (Freight Farms)
The slim profile makes it easy to slip a farm into a city’s in-between spaces: the strips of field wedged between buildings, parking lots that never fill up, undeveloped side lots. Despite its small footprint, a 320-square-foot container can match the yield of a two acre plot of land, the company says, thanks to the highly efficient vertical hydroponics.
A majority of the customers come with no farming experience, McNamara says. They’re retired schoolteachers, former accountants, young people who want to run their own businesses—people who are passionate about growing food but don’t want to leave the city to do it. The company offers them an intensive “Farm Camp” training, and then sells the seeds, nutrients, and tools needed to get things up and running. “Their success is our success,” McNamara says. “Freight Farms goes nowhere if we sell something and people don’t succeed.”
But they also get customers in massive food services companies like Sodexo and Aramark, who want to supply their campus food contracts with fresh and locally grown fruits and vegetables. Other buyers are wholesale distributers, the companies that carry produce the last mile to local grocery stores and restaurants.
These leafy greens are growing up in a shipping container farm. (Freight Farms)