How Freight Farms is taking off from Boston to Canada
Freight Farms sell a solution where 40’ x 8’ x 9.5’ shipping containers are outfitted innovative tools and technologies to produce consistent, high-volume harvests of leafy greens, herbs and a number of other select crops 365 days per year. Based in South Boston, this highly innovative idea was derived by co-founders Jon Friedman and Ben McNamara partly when they discovered that New England, despite its wealth and prosperity, relied on imports from outside the region for close to 90% of its food, while nearly 15% of all households reported not having enough to eat.
Using solar energy to provide the majority of the electricity required to grow crops, the containers are designed to be self-sustaining and are sold to individuals, not necessarily farmers by trade, but people who want to grow food for themselves and/or their community. The freight farm containers are small enough to be squeezed between buildings, placed at the end of parking lots, or almost anywhere in urban terrains.
The Freight Farm equipment set offers a hydroponic system, which they call the Leafy Green Machine, a soil-free growing method that utilised recirculated water with nutrient levels to grow plants. LED lights are optimised for each growing cycle, while a smartphone app called Farmhand allows the container owners to manage conditions remotely and connect with live cameras to monitor the plants.
The idea was simple. Give individuals a base and template to enable a distributed food growing network in cities. Boston may not be the obvious ‘hub’ for farming activity, but Freight Farms has spread across the north-east USA and into Canada, and there are now more than 100 of the company’s containers operating in the US alone.
Investing and owning a Leafy Green Machine isn’t an inexpensive proposition, rather it’s an entrepreneurial investment opportunity. Purchasing one of the containers reportedly costs a business up to $85,000, while annual operating costs may reach $13,000. However, in a New England context where demand for locally grown food is increasing (close to 150 farmer markets operate in the state of Massachusetts alone), which offers significant business potential for new local growers, especially if they can run on low operating costs with minimal demand for land, water and chemical fertilisers.
In Boston in particular, enabling policy support has been a factor, where a recent mayor legally expanded zoning laws within the city to allow farming in freights, on rooftops and in other specific ground-level open spaces. One of the most overt examples the city’s positive stance on urban farming is at the iconic Fenway Park, where Green City Growers run the 5000-sq ft Fenway Farms above the iconic home of the Boston Red Sox.
There are legitimate questions about the role of urban farming, in particular hydroponic techniques, in the future of food. Will urban farming ever be able to grow the volume and variety needed to account for a significant percentage of the consumption of the city’s inhabitants? The answer to that question is, at best, unknown. However, there’s no doubt that hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic urban farming methods are gaining traction because they speak to a new way of thinking about how food is grown, distributed and consumed. In a context where land and water is scarce, and where people are increasingly inquisitive for information about what they eat, it seems increasingly likely that at least some portion of the food consumed within urban areas will be grown by a distributed network across the city in containers, warehouses and rooftops. The story of Freight Farms, and their growth across the north-east USA and Canada is just another hint in that direction.