Container Farms: A New Type of Agriculture

Forklift picks up container at Freight Farms production facility
A forklift truck picks up a container at the Freight Farms production facility. (Freight Farms)

Innovators within the produce industry are breaking the boundaries of food production — by growing crops not in fields, but in recycled shipping containers.

This modern twist on farming is designed to bypass some of the challenges and restrictions that farmers traditionally have faced, such as extreme weather, pests and limited growing seasons.

By overcoming these limitations, farming operations are capable of producing more food and growing certain crops in regions that other­wise would have had to import them.

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By growing this food locally, suppliers are able to cut out the long travel distances often necessary to transport these foods to certain markets.

According to Jeff Moore, vice president of sales at produce supplier Tom Lange Co., shorter ­travel distances provide numerous benefits, such as fresher product, reduced transportation costs, less waste and fewer empty shelves at markets.

The use of innovative farming methods also is being pushed in Canada. Grocery retailer Loblaw Companies Ltd. announced plans to spend $150 million more each year with Canadian farmers by 2025. As part of that effort, the company pledged to help farmers implement growing techniques that will enable them to produce fruits and vegetables in Canada that the country has traditionally imported.

Freight Farms and Tiger Corner Farms are two companies that are growing produce in shipping containers through the use of hydroponics and aeroponics — methods of growing plants without the use of soil.


Freight Farms is working with NASA to find ways to grow produce in space. (Freight Farms)

Both companies use nutrient-rich water as a substitute for soil, but beyond that, their container farms are quite different.

Tiger Corner Farms’ farming units consist of five shipping containers; four are used for farming and the fifth one is used as a working station where the plants germinate and as a post-harvest station.

Tiger Corner Farms, based out of Summerville, S.C., is a family company that began with the combined interest of Stefanie Swackhamer, the general manager, and her dad, Don Taylor.

Through Grow Food Carolina, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving farming in South Carolina, Tiger Corner Farms has partnered with two other companies: Vertical Roots and Boxcar Central. Tiger Corner Farms manufactures farming units from recycled shipping containers, Boxcar Central works on the automation of the hardware and software used for these container farms, and Vertical Roots deals with the production of the produce.

With Tiger Corner Farms’ shipping container farms, Vertical Roots can increase food production. Having 13 farms in total, Vertical Roots is able to produce about 40,000 heads of lettuce in about half the time it would take a traditional farm.

Vertical Roots sells its produce to grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Harris Teeter.


Vertical Roots says it can produce 40,000 heads of lettuce in about half the time of a traditional farm. (Tiger Corner Farms)

For Vertical Roots, founded by Andrew Hare and Matt Daniels, working with Tiger Corner Farms was a no-brainer.

“Providing cleaner, fresher, better access to food was something all four of us were wanting to do. They wanted to provide jobs and educate people on the importance of sustainable agriculture, and we wanted to do the same thing,” said Hare, Vertical Roots’ gen­eral manager. “We wanted to bring transparency and education and empowering our com­munity in knowing where their food comes from and how important the freshness and quality is.”

Meanwhile, Boston-based Freight Farms offers a hydroponic “farm in a box,” dubbed the Leafy Green Machine, built entirely inside a single 40-foot shipping container.

The company, founded in 2010 by Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman, also offers a farming service and mobile app, Farmhand, to aid farmers in monitoring their farms.

Freight Farms’ customers range from individual farmers to universities and corporations.

One of those customers is Kim Curren of Shaggy Bear Farm in Bozeman, Mont., which provides local restaurants with leafy greens that aren’t grown in the region.

Someday, hydroponic farming might even play a role in space exploration and colonization.

Freight Farms is working with NASA and Clemson University to improve the efficiency of its farming units in the hopes of eventually using them in space.

Joshua Summers is one of the professors at Clemson that worked on the project. Professors Cameron Turner and John Wagner and students Doug Chickarello, Malena Agyemang and Amaninder Singh Gill also worked on the project.


Lettuce grows inside a climate-controlled container farm from Tiger Corner Farms. (Tiger Corner Farms)

In order to enable the farming units to work in space, the Clemson team is focusing on making it a closed-loop system by looking at thermal and electrical loads of the LED lights as well as the heating, ventilation and air conditioning unit.

While working on this project, there is one major issue that Summers said needs to be taken into consideration.

“One of the major issues in moving into space is gravity. As you move away from gravity, a lot of their growing patterns are based on plants growing in a specific way,” Summers said. “Now you don’t know exactly how they are going to grow, so it’s going to be a bit more random, so we have to change some of the geometric layout to make it more efficient in terms of volume.”

Clemson, NASA and Freight Farms are working on a new proposal to continue this project.

Through its work with individual farmers as well as organizations such as NASA, Freight Farms is taking steps toward its goal of empowering anyone to grow food anywhere.