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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

‘Freight Farms’ Grow Local Flavor, Year-Round

photo
Jon Friedman (left) and Brad McNamara (right) are the co-founders of Freight Farms.Freight Farms can grow food anywhere. (Courtesy of Freight Farms)Freight Farms can grow lettuces, brassicas, and herbs. (Courtesy of Freight Farms)Freight Farms can grow food anywhere. These two are in a lot in East Boston. (Jeremy Hobson)The inside of one of the Freight Farms. (Jeremy Hobson)Freight Farms can grow lettuces, brassicas, and herbs. (Courtesy of Freight Farms)Seedlings growing in a Freight Farm. (Freight Farms)

The United States imports over $100 billion of food every year from farms across the globe, often in the big metal shipping containers you see on cargo ships. Now, two entrepreneurs are using those shipping containers to grow local produce.

Freight Farms” are modified shipping containers for growing stacks of hydroponically-grown plants and vegetables. It’s a new way for small-time farmers to grow crops year-round in a computer-controlled environment, even in the middle of the city.

Shawn and Connie Cooney are two customers putting the technology into action with their own small business.

“In a city, you can grow enough produce using this technology to make a scaleable business. So you can sell wholesale as well as retail and have a real business,” Shawn told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.

The couple is currently growing greens including kale, cilantro, mustard greens and wild mint. Like a library of plants, the greens are neatly organized in towers of leafy green. Mustard greens, with their wasabi-like finish are something that restaurants request.

Sean and Connie Cooney are two customers who have turned their own Freight Farms into real businesses. (Jeremy Hobson)

Shawn and Connie Cooney are two customers who have turned their own Freight Farms into real businesses. (Jeremy Hobson)

“We’re at the point where we’re asking what the restaurants want,” said Connie. “Most of our produce we sell to restaurants.”

With a 365 day growing season, the Cooneys are always in business. Their four freight containers produce as much produce as four acres of land, and they say the Freight Farm produce grows faster that produce on a traditional farm.

“If you give them the right nutrients, they taste as good, or better, as they would coming out of a dirt farm,” said Shawn.

But these containers are a far cry from plowing acres of a ‘dirt farm.’ The freights are computer controlled, a digital mother nature. Watering, lighting and the addition of nutrients are all automatic, but that’s not to say Shawn and Connie are not real farmers.

“There’s still a lot of farm work going on,” said Shawn. “Even though a lot of the stuff is automatic, you still have to come in and take care of the plants.”

At this point, their business is breaking even. Now that they have a handle on the farming aspects, they can tailor their produce to what people want and focus on profit. Once Freight Farm customers, now Shawn and Connie have their own startup to manage.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson also spoke with Freight Farms co-founders Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara.

Interview Highlights: Jon Friedman And Brad McNamara

What is a Freight Farm?

Brad: “It’s an insulated shipping container that we retrofit into farms that we can bring all over the world and to places that don’t have access to food.”

Freight Farm employee Caroline Katsiroubas harvests her dinner from the office live wall. (Caroline Katsiroubas)

Freight Farm employee Caroline Katsiroubas harvests her dinner from the office live wall. (Caroline Katsiroubas)

Jon: “We actually don’t run heat elements in our farms because it is a sealed, insulated container. So the system actually balances intake and exhaust with the ambient excess heat created by the pumps and the lights.”

Brad: “Each farm is a WiFi-enabled hotspot, so your farm gets put down, it’s plugged in and it’s immediately on the web. And all of our farms are connected to our network so that our farmers use our farm-to-hand mobile app to monitor their farms 24/7. They can set alerts. They can set alarms… So if you’re at home and it’s really cold outside, your farm’s covered in snow, you don’t actually have to leave your house to go check on things. So you can peek in, see how your nutrients are doing, see how your pH levels are doing, as well as peek into live video in the farm.”

On how Freight Farms started

Brad: “Jon and I actually got together in 2009 around the idea of urban rooftop development focused on greenhouse production and hydroponics and realized that there was a much larger opportunity to empower more people in different spaces than just your unused roof space.”

On the future of the company

Jon: “We see a lot of potential in a lot of other countries besides the U.S. who don’t have access to food, who either have a large urban sprawl or just don’t have the distribution system that we have in the U.S.”

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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