We want to know where our food comes from. The evidence is seen on foods labeled organic, in the rise of farmer’s markets, even in Ikea products. Our shifting attitudes are reshaping the business of growing food, and Freight Farms is rethinking the way we produce our produce. Founder Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman are selling hydroponics farms built from old shipping containers that growers can monitor through an app. They want to provide communities, neighborhoods, and schools an alternative way to grow food and know where it comes from.
Founded in 2011, Freight Farms has sold roughly 60 farms worldwide, 20 in the United States. Of those, McNamara says nearly 30 have been sold to food startups. At Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY, students use a freight farm to produce food for roughly 1,000 students at least once a week. A Boston husband-wife team purchased four freight farms in 2013, and now sell produce at local farmer markets for a living.
For $82,000, plus another $20,000 of annual operating costs, a freight farm can grow up to 800 heads of lettuce at a time. The 40-foot long, eight-foot wide containers, dubbed “Leafy Green Machines,” are essentially year-round farms capable of producing the same amount of produce as an acre of farmland on just 10 gallons of water a day. The company claims its mobile farms can create access to food in areas where the climate cannot support traditional farming methods. “When you start to look at the food system as a whole,” McNamara says, “there’s just so much to it. There are so many different ways to attack this problem. It’s an exciting space between technology, design, community, and empowerment.”
McNamara and Friedman came up with the idea due to a lack of growing options in urban areas,Spot as well as demand for locally sourced, healthy food options. Not only has Freight Farms brought growing potential to urbanites, it’s done it in a relevant way. Pretty much everything — from indoor air temperature to watering — can be controlled from anywhere in the world through the Farmhand app. “Small business might not always be there but need to know what’s going on,” McNamara explains. “They might be across the world but they need to know their Thai basil is doing well.”
It’s definitely not urban foodie types who are backing the AgTech startup. Freight Farms has raised nearly $5 million in venture capital from Techstars, Spark Capital, Morningside Group, and Rothenberg Ventures, among others. In 2015, Freight Farms claims it grew revenue eight times over the previous year. It also sold six times more Farms in 2015 than it did in 2014.
As for continuing to attract someone or a group of people to pay $82,000 for a massive container, McNamara isn’t concerned. “Everyone has to eat,” he says. — Nathan Allen