Freight Farms Sows Seeds and Technology

A Boston startup thinks its tech-infused approach can make urban farmers far more productive.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
May 12, 2015

Urban farms are not an insignificant source of global food production. In a recent article published in Ensia magazine, Elizabeth Royte wrote, "The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that 800 million people worldwide grow vegetables or fruits or raise animals in cities, producing what the Worldwatch Institute reports to be an astonishing 15 to 20 percent of the world's food." As the local food movement has taken root in the United States, urban farms here are adding more to the bounty.

But this type of farming must scale up if it is to become a viable means of feeding a growing population—as well as sating the growing demand for local food in cities. Boston startup Freight Farms is working to give urban farmers the tools they need to do so. The company provides former refrigerated shipping containers converted into hydroponic farms that can each produce up to 50,000 heads of leafy greens annually (the containers can be run all year, so there is no growing "season"). Inside each container is an LED lighting system that mimics sunlight (and dims during night hours), optimized for uniform plant growth.

The interior of a container: The red light wavelengths are used for growing, and the individual is holding a vertical Zipgrow frame.
The company, which launched in 2010, built its first Leafy Green Machine (LGM) in 2012 and has since sold 35 units across North America, where individual farmers, produce distributors and restaurant owners are growing herbs and lettuce in parking lots and alleyways. It recently upgraded to cloud-based management software and added Internet connectivity via Wi-Fi or Ethernet (cellular connectivity, for users outside urban centers, is in the works) to the containers. This means Freight Farms can now offer farmers the ability to check on the status of the environment within a container remotely, using the company's farmhand mobile app. By installing Internet-connected video cameras in and around the containers, users can also log into the app to ensure that their farm is secure.

Inside the container, a series of sensors are used to control the climate and ensure that the water quality and filtration systems are working properly. Freight Farms' head of farm technology, Kyle Seaman, says the company uses 12 discrete, wired sensors that track the water's electrical conductivity, pH and nutrient levels, as well as ambient humidity, temperature and carbon-dioxide levels.

Farmers can set parameters for inputs (light, temperature and so forth), and receive alerts from the farmhand app if any sensor readings exceed those parameters. By accessing the cloud-based software via a Web browser, users can change settings inside the container remotely. Soon, users will be able to adjust settings through the farmhand app as well. Currently, they can use the app to receive notifications in the event that any settings fall outside a set range.

Freight Farms offers guidelines for air and water settings, but each user might chose to tweak these and experiment with various crops, in order to determine whether he or she can improve yields. One benefit of streaming the data from environmental controls inside each container to Freight Farms' cloud-based software, according to Seaman and co-founder Jon Friedman, is that now Freight Farms can aggregate data across all of the units it has sold, in order to search for patterns or anomalies related to specific crops or locations, and to help its customers learn from others.

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