Future of Food

Thinking Inside the Box

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Farm owner Laura Kelly and manager Terrin Ricehill inspect kale growing on vertical towers. (Jim Patrico)

Editor's Note: Vertical farming -- growing crops under a controlled environment -- offers high productivity within a small space. A handful of companies operate the large commercial greenhouses, hydroponic systems, etc. But, increasing concerns about food security and nutrition offer opportunities on a smaller scale at the farm level. This is one example.

Laura Kelly and Terrin Ricehill farm in a sometimes-purple world.

Inside their shipping container farm, in West Des Moines, Iowa, thousands of red and blue LED lights create a purple glow as they shine on a series of 7-foot-tall vertical panels draped with growing plants. Depending on the plants' growth stage and requirements, the lights can be controlled so that only the red diodes glow -- or only the blue. Farm-management software determines which diodes are on and which are off to provide optimum growing conditions. Sometimes, it turns off all the lights to simulate night.

But, all day and all night, the 40 x 8 x 9.5-foot Freight Farm hums with other cutting-edge technologies, some of which originated with NASA research on growing food in harsh environments and outer space. The plants are automatically fed nutrient formulas according to their needs. Temperatures and humidity are kept at ideal levels. Fans circulate air to moderate the atmosphere.

As they enter their farm's self-contained environment today, Kelly and Ricehill tend crops of basil, Red Russian kale, a mix of lettuces, rosemary and oregano. The business partners harvest weekly and sell the products to a supermarket chain, restaurants and retail customers under the brand name 515 Farms.

Ricehill, who is the farm's manager, rhapsodizes about the technological wonders of the box: "the future of farming."

INSIDE THE BOX

The world outside 515 Farms is changing. Climate disruptions bring more frequent droughts. Heat waves and diminished water supplies threaten current food production, especially in areas like Arizona and California, which grow most of the country's leafy crops. Transportation costs are rising. Labor supplies have constricted. Populations expand, and land availability shrinks.

HOW TO FEED THE FUTURE?

Thinking innovatively about food production has become imperative. On a large scale, traditional farmers and equipment manufacturers during the last decade have pioneered advancements ranging from herbicide applicators powered by artificial intelligence to autonomous tractors. And, improved plant genetics have raised yield expectations. Production and efficiency have grown exponentially as a result.

On a smaller scale, technologies for growing food indoors also have exploded in recent years. Costco, for instance, advertises it buys some of its organic vegetables from a 600,000-square-foot indoor hydroponic farm in California. And, just outside many cities, large greenhouses have sprung up to produce local products that don't have to be shipped from farms 1,000 miles away.

In this new farming world, shipping container farms are a viable alternative for growing food locally.

The concept has been around for more than a decade and is rapidly evolving, says Caroline Katsiroubas, a spokesperson for Freight Farms. The Boston-based company in 2011 was one of the first manufacturers to combine so many indoor growing technologies in a shipping container, which is delivered to a customer as a nearly turnkey farm. Today, Freight Farms has placed more than 500 containers both in the U.S. and overseas. It's been successful, and at least a half-dozen competitors have introduced their own farm-in-a-box products.

Technology is advancing quickly. Freight Farms now sells farm-management software called "farmhand," which monitors farming systems and gives owners the ability to control them remotely. The company is now on its third generation of container farms. Its first generation, Leafy Green Machine, went through six iterations before giving way to the Greenery and now the Greenery S.

"Each time, our farms get more efficient," Katsiroubas says.

A Freight Farms Greenery S costs $149,000 plus shipping and installation.

Determining return on investment for shipping-container owners is a tricky proposition. Freight Farms estimates expected production of a container farm at between 2 and 6 tons annually, depending on the crop. Revenue depends, of course, on crops produced. For example, leaf lettuces bring less per unit than herbs. But, revenue also depends on current market price and whether a farmer sells wholesale or retail. For instance, an organic lettuce mix at a Target store in August 2022 cost consumers $5.29 per pound. Fresh basil from Walmart at the same time was $2.77 per ounce ($44.32 per pound). Of course, wholesale prices farmers received were much less.

OHIO ENTREPRENEUR

Fifty-eight-year-old Britton Decker comes from a line of Ohio meatpackers who owned farmland. But, he didn't farm himself until 2020. That's when his new Freight Farms box arrived in downtown Piqua, Ohio, population 25,000.

Decker's previous gig had been manufacturing flavored butter for specialty grocery stores and for Costco. He sold the business for a good profit and pondered his next venture. "I've always been a serial entrepreneur. I did one of the first corn field mazes in the country. I'll do anything to keep from getting a real job," he says with a laugh. "I was looking for something new that would lead to a better lifestyle. This [container farm] seems to be checking all the boxes for me."

The first step was finding a location. At the time, Piqua city fathers were revitalizing a portion of downtown as a state-of-the-art health and technology district. They offered Decker a vacant lot on Main Street. He jumped at the chance and used a Farm Credit loan to buy the container farm.

His business plan included selling locally grown, organic greens to restaurants. By spring of 2022, he was growing seven to eight varieties of lettuces, radishes and watercress for a restaurant. He grows and sells about 3,000 heads of lettuce a month. His online prices for CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscribers are around $3 each for heads of lettuce.

"It took me a little longer to develop the business than I thought," Decker explains. "I don't want to blame it on COVID. But, almost two years later, I have found some wonderful chefs who appreciate the beautiful products we are able to grow on a consistent basis in the container."

Decker Indoor Farms also sells to CSA customers. Living in a rural area far from the choices offered by megasupermarkets, Decker says, "It's nice to be able to supply fresh greens to people who probably don't have access to them otherwise."

Would a container farm work for a traditional farmer looking to diversify or to better utilize employees? "I think it would work wonderfully, because it does not require a tremendous amount of time," Decker says. "Excluding sales, marketing and delivery, you're looking at maybe 20 to 25 hours per week for planting, harvesting and maintenance. That's one of the things I found most attractive about it."

Downsides? "If you are not comfortable out selling to people, it's going to be rough for you," he adds.

URBAN FARMERS

Back in Iowa, Kelly explains that she and Ricehill (both 47 years old) entered the container-farm world two years ago, in part for altruistic reasons. A public-interest lawyer who grew up in Iowa and started her career in Washington, D.C., Kelly says, "My work was the 'save the world' kind."

Ready to move back home and start fresh, the container farm concept appealed to her because, "The sustainability aspect is important to us in terms of our carbon footprint. We are using only 320 square feet and 95% less water for the same crops on a traditional farm."

She also was lured by the burgeoning market for locally sourced food. "Local is the new organic, at least in Iowa."

Ricehill, whose background is in biology, was intrigued by the surge in indoor-farming techniques. "It's a different beast between now and 10 years ago. Since we don't use the sun, electricity is the largest resource we use ($500 per month on average). On the other hand, we don't have to use pesticides, because the environment is controlled."

Kelly was able to buy the container farm, and 515 Farms got a huge marketing break at the beginning. Hy-Vee, a regional supermarket chain based in Iowa, promotes locally grown products. It liked the quality of 515 Farms products and agreed to buy greens from Kelly and Ricehill. The partners also sell to CSA customers. Online, 1-pound packages of mixed lettuces sell for $16.

Two years into the business, the partners are planning an expansion. Not another container farm but instead, they will move into a 3,000-square-foot warehouse and begin growing hydroponic microgreens (young green vegetables 1 to 2 inches tall) using LED lightbars and horizontal trays. The container farm is not going anywhere. It will continue producing fully grown leafy vegetables and herbs.

"This just seems like the future of farming to us," Kelly says.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION:

-- https://515farms.com

-- https://www.freightfarms.com

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Jim Patrico