An ambitious attempt to change the way we eat is playing out in a shipping container plopped in a parking lot in Minneapolis.
Ryan Sweeney, who owns the container, isn’t your typical farmer. He relies on LED lights, not sunlight. He monitors his crops on his smartphone. He doesn’t used pesticides or soil. But he’s growing basil year round with a healthy profit margin.
Sweeney had no farming experience when a Kickstarter video about hydroponic farming inside a refrigerated shipping container caught his eye in 2012. Sweeney engrossed himself in research on hydroponic farming, and then took the plunge. There were early hiccups. He had to redesign the irrigation system on his Freight Farm, which arrived that spring.
Initially he sold basil in bulk to wholesalers for $8 a pound. Now he sells for $40 a pound straight to co-op groceries. He says he has a 50 percent profit margin before interest, amortization and taxes.
“Every single one I went into, I just showed them the basil and they’re like, ‘Yeah we’ll take a case of it next week.’ I have a 100 percent closing rate,” he said with laugh. “I don’t really think that’s on me, I think that’s on the basil.”
Sweeney produces 40 to 50 pounds of basil a week.
Usually on Monday and Thursday he starts harvesting at 6 a.m. and is done by 9 a.m. By 11 a.m., he has completed his deliveries to the six co-ops in the Twin Cities. None of the co-ops are farther than 10 miles from his farm. Sweeney is a believer that over the next 10 to 20 years, we will revert to local food supplies.
“The big commercial food industry and more specifically the mono-cropping and whatnot, it’s just not sustainable,” Sweeney said. “A perfect example is out in California and all the water restrictions, the ridiculous drought and the amount of water they have to pump into the desert to grow the country’s produce.”
The agriculture industry uses 80 percent of the water consumed in the United States.
Sweeney says he uses 33 to 50 gallons of water a week, depending on the season. (He uses more water in winter because of condensation.) He has ordered another shipping container from FreightFarms to expand his operation and plans to take on an intern. He occasionally works odd jobs, but subsides mostly on the earnings from his basil sales.
Sweeney is a promising example for Freight Farms, a Boston-based start-up that modifies the shipping containers so they’re fit for farming. At the end of April, 35 FrightFarms will be scattered around the United States and Canada.
Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman co-founded Freight Farms with hopes of letting anyone become an urban farmer. The idea is to produce fresh local produce year round. They looked into rooftop farming and greenhouses before concluding that refurbishing refrigerated shipping containers was better.
While traditional farmers plant one or two plants per square foot, a Freight Farm can allow for 240 plants per square foot. Growing in a shipping container, where the light and water can be controlled exactly, allows farmers to deliver a consistent product no matter the season or city.
This spring they’re releasing their third-generation product, the Leafy Green Machine. Its starting price is $76,000 and costs an estimated $13,000 a year to operate before labor and insurance. There’s actually a stereo system built into the shipping container.
Freight Farms says it includes room for 4,500 plants, and would use only 10 gallons of water a day. It would need 20,000 to 30,000 kilowatt hours of energy a year.
McNamara and Friedman view the agriculture industry as old, slow and not fully embracing technology.
“If we can find a way to shift that in another direction and make it still easy for people to live healthy, adopt local, that’s really what we’re going for,” Friedman said.
Shawn and Connie Cooney run four FreightFarms out of a towing company’s parking lot in Boston. Shawn had sold his latest software company and was looking for a new adventure. They grow 20,000 to 30,000 plants a month, mostly lettuce, and sell through wholesalers. The Cooneys say they’re just passing the point of break even into profitability. They will soon being selling in a public market, which they say should boost profits.