Shipping Containers: The Future of Urban Farming?

The farming industry is evolving rapidly, and shipping containers are one of the catalysts for change

The shipping container has, in no small way, shaped society. Nondescript and unassuming, it has propelled globalization and spurred world trade. As global container traffic grew, ports became wider and larger, changing the face of cities.

Over the years, people found other, more innovative uses for shipping containers: pop-up container shops, portable container homes, eco-container bridges, offices, disaster shelters, even saunas. Now, in the 21st century, the shipping container has once again become an impetus of change, this time in the farming industry.

In an article on The Wall Street Journal, writer Christopher Mims describes a very unlikely scene: Inside a Boston taxi depot, three white shipping containers sit side by side. These refrigerated shipping containers used to transport cold goods, but now they serve an altogether different purpose. LED light spills out of the open door of one shipping container. The air inside the shipping container is warm and humid. The walls are lined with neat rows of green plants growing in the neon light.

As the volume of arable land continues to shrink due to development, farmers are embracing new growing techniques that minimize land use, like hydroponic indoor farming. Shipping containers have proven to be an ideal space to practice this innovative farming technique. In fact, companies like Freight Farms can produce 48,568 mini heads of lettuce in a year from just one shipping container. Others, like Crop Box and Growtrainer, throw in cutting-edge innovations, from smartphone-controlled censors to proprietary vapor pressure deficit systems.

Some traditional farmers have started using portable storage containers as a place to grow produce during the dark and cold winter months. However, most of the farmers using shipping containers are located in urban areas where arable land is simply not available. The demure appearance and compact size of shipping containers make them easy to place in vacant urban areas like underpasses, parking lots, and even alleyways behind the restaurants where the crops are served.

Having on-site access to fresh herbs and vegetables is a game-changer for urban restaurants with farm-to-table philosophies. “We harvest it in the morning, and often it’s in a salad for lunch,” says Bobby Zuker, co-owner of Green Line Growers operating out of the Boston taxi depot, in an interview with Mims. Chefs appreciate the freshness of produce grown and harvested from behind their restaurant – the flavors are much stronger compared to conventional produce that’s been harvested a week earlier.

Shipping containers are not new to the American agricultural industry. In fact, farmers have been using shipping containers to store tools, equipment, fertilizer, seed, and even harvested grain for decades. It is, however, refreshing to see that 60 years after its invention, the shipping container is now serving a new generation of farmers who use it in highly creative ways that are ultimately good for business and the environment.

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