The Startup That’s Using Shipping Container Farms to Bring Local Produce to the People

Meghan French Dunbar July 4, 2015
“We put the power into the hands of institutions and individuals who have a need for fresh, healthy, local produce 365 days a year.”

Boston-based Freight Farms is redefining the local food movement by empowering people to grow food anywhere. Using innovative farms housed in 40-foot shipping containers equipped with vertical hydroponics, LED lighting, and climate controls that interface with a smartphone app, the company is providing an opportunity to grow fresh food year-round in any geographic location (or anywhere that has enough room for a shipping container).

Founded in 2010, the company has experienced tremendous growth. The two co-founders, Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara, began experimenting with a beat-up shipping container next to a dumpster and recently opened a new headquarters and training center in South Boston. To date, the company has deployed over two dozen farms in seven states and two countries and recently received a sizable investment from Spark Capital (the same folks behind Twitter, Tumblr, and Foursquare) to help scale the concept. We had the chance to discuss this disruptive innovation with CEO and Co-founder Brad McNamara.

Who is your target market and who has been your “typical” customer so far?

Brad McNamara: We put the power into the hands of institutions and individuals who have a need for fresh, healthy, local produce 365 days a year. Specifically, we are selling to institutional food service providers, restaurants and hospitality groups, wholesale produce distributors, and small-business farmers.

In terms of geography, where are most of the units being sold?

BM: Most of our farms are being deployed in North America, but we will be in various international markets in the near future. The global demand is off the charts and the fight to end food insecurity and cut out the use of herbicides and pesticides is as strong, if not stronger, globally than it is in North America.

What’s the typical payback period for one of the farms?

BM: A point of pride is that we empower our customers to create the outcome that is best for them, whether they are a university campus or a single-farm entrepreneur. The payback we’ve seen from customers is two to five years based on crop, market, business model, and whether the customer is using it to drive profits, drive wellness, or feed the local community.

Freight Farms uses LED lights in its farms. While LEDs are more energy efficient, are there any growing challenges that come with using LEDs over fluorescent lights?

BM: Freight Farms committed to using LED lighting from the start as part of our desire to drive efficiency whenever possible. We’ve spent four years designing our LED lighting to be part of the entire system for optimal performance for the plants. The system is designed to not only take advantage of LEDs’ energy efficiency but also make the most efficient use of space and reduce the number of lights while increasing the number of plants.

How are customers responding to monitoring their farms through an app? Are people excited about that feature?

BM: The response has been great. The connectivity allows someone with no experience to feel confident and run their farm from day one. Our customers don’t get very excited about features but revel in results, so anything that makes it easier for them to produce food, they love. That’s what we’ve found excites our network of growers – the intuitive design and various tools (both hardware and software) that make the technology disappear and allow them to achieve the end goal of local food production.

Your company just got a sizeable investment from Spark Capital. Where does Freight Farms plan to go from here?

BM: Freight Farms released the newest version of our flagship product, the 2015 Leafy Green Machine, in April, plus a new version of the Farmhand app, and we will continue to deploy farms throughout North America and explore various international opportunities. Looking forward, Freight Farms will continue to build hardware and software products that empower local food production and create commercial food production in places where it was never possible before.

Climate Action / Stakeholder Capitalism
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