By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff
BOSTON — It’s a muggy summer night and you’re watching the Sox game on TV. During the commercial break, you decide to do a little farming, so reach for your smartphone and tend to 400 heads of lettuce with a few taps.
This is no couch-potato’s fantasy.
The Boston startup, Freight Farms, is making its motto “Grow Food Anywhere” a reality, as it works to turn the industrial food system on its head by employing a unique combination of technology and shipping containers to create high-yield microfarming units, which the company intends to sell to food distributors, businesses and institutions so they can replace imported produce with their own locally grown food.
Freight Farms, whose product is a souped-up shipping-container farm, is entering the first phase of it's official rollout. The company has been working with Katsiroubas Bros. Fruit & Produce, one of the largest distributors of produce in New England. Katsiroubas Bros. has a double-decker unit at their facility. Freight Farms intends to roll out 15-20 more units this summer.
Founded by Jonathan Friedman and Brad McNamara, Freight Farms envisions a food system that is hyperlocal; can deliver maximum crop production in any climate; decrease food miles, production costs and environmental impact of food production; and bring affordable fresh produce to everyone.
“The biggest area in which we can disrupt the food chain globally is with wholesale clients," Friedman said. "If we can shift them towards a sustainable solutions that can have a huge impact globally."
Friedman, who holds a degree in industrial design and has worked for Merck and Proctor & Gamble, said he enjoys thinking about systems and how a product can build an ecosystem around it. In the case of Freight Farms, the product isn’t a tube of toothpaste but a vegetable.
“What most people don’t understand about food is how carbon intensive it is to produce," he said. "We don’t think about the process that goes on behind our food.”
The idea for Freight Farms came when Friedman and McNamara were working together to develop a green rooftop-farming system in Boston, but they encountered so many hurdles in design and scaleability, they decided to look for other solutions to year-round growing.
Enter the humble shipping container.
“The container offered so many solutions we were looking for,"Friedman said. "It is stackable, accessible and dropped the price point from rooftop greenhouse; it’s a plug-play model.”
Freight Farms’ shipping containers have been modified to house hydroponic vertical growing systems, which maximize every cubic foot of space inside.
Employing a soil-less hydroponic system — in which plants’ roots are bathed in nutrient-rich water — Freight Farms built a system that could be housed in a completely sealed environment. No sunlight and no soil required.
An LED-lighting system provides the exact spectrum to replicate a perfect day of summer inside each container. A single unit can plug right into the electricity grid, and uses 16,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year — about as much as a small apartment. Freight Farms is currently working on a solar model.
The entire container farm can be run through a mobile device, so farmer-users can monitor and control their farm from remote. Friedman estimates it takes about 8 hours a week to operate one unit, which has a yield equivalent to a 1-acre traditional farm. A single Freight Farm can yield up to 3,000 plants.
Sales of the container farms will be geared toward businesses, institutions and local farmers who want to extend their growing season. Freight Farms is banking on businesses such as Katsiroubas Bros. to see that raising food locally, near the end consumer, makes sense not just from an environmental standpoint but also from a financial standpoint.
“I like to trick people into accidentally doing good,” Friedman said. “With sustainable projects and anything environmentally facing, it has to be profitable for (businesses) to pick it up. The second you make sustainable and environmentally friendly things the most profitable, then, by accident, businesses are doing good for the world, and the byproduct is a sustainable infrastructure.”