Over the past decade, demand for locally-grown produce has increased exponentially as consumers seek to reduce their carbon footprint and support businesses in their communities. However, the availability of adequate and affordable land for growing food poses a major challenge for local farmers, especially those serving urban areas.
In response to this challenge, shipping container farming has emerged as a popular and effective alternative to traditional agricultural methods, thanks to innovations in technology as well as the trend toward repurposing empty shipping containers for residential and commercial use.
Below, we’ll examine how shipping container farming is changing the agricultural landscape in the U.S. and around the world and look ahead to 2021, when growth in this niche industry is expected to soar.
What is a Shipping Container Farm?
Shipping container farms are a form of controlled environment agriculture (CEA), in which growers work to control the variables that impact plant health to maximize the quantity and quality of the crops they produce. In addition to shipping containers, CEA structures may include greenhouses, warehouses and other indoor environments.
Shipping containers allow farmers to establish optimal growing conditions for the duration of plants’ lifecycle, with the ability to control temperature, light and water levels and other factors while preventing insects and animals from destroying their crops.
Shipping containers also provide a compact environment that can be placed almost anywhere, which means crops can be grown and consumed locally. This not only drives down shipping costs and environmental impact, but also ensures that consumers get the freshest, best-tasting produce possible.
What Factors Can Be Controlled in Shipping Container Farms?
In traditional agriculture, the success or failure of farmers’ crops is largely beyond their control. Climate change, severe weather, drought, insects and other challenges can wipe out a full season’s yield in a matter of hours. On the other hand, shipping container farming provides a tightly-controlled environment in which farmers can create an ideal growing climate mix of the following factors:
- Carbon dioxide: In addition to light, carbon dioxide is an essential component of photosynthesis, the process by which plants create the energy they need to grow. Establishing optimal carbon dioxide levels within the growing environment increases plants’ ability to thrive.
- Humidity: Different plant species require different levels of humidity to survive. Some do well in dry climates, while others need a moist environment to stay healthy. Shipping container farms allow growers to adjust the indoor humidity levels based on the needs of their crops.
- Light: Along with carbon dioxide, plants use light for photosynthesis, and sunlight levels in traditional farming are largely determined by the location of the crops. Shipping container farming relies almost completely on artificial light sources, which can be adjusted based on the ideal spectrum, intensity and duration of light required by the plant species being cultivated inside.
- Nutrients: Shipping container farms allow for precise control of nutrient delivery to plants, with no rainfall or other forces that can wash away nutrients or alter the pH balance of the soil.
- Temperature: Many common crops are sensitive to extreme temperature changes, and an unexpected cold snap or unseasonably warm weather can cut a growing season short. The temperature inside a shipping container, on the other hand, can be controlled to not only prevent drastic extremes but also fine-tune the setting for maximum plant health and growth.
Innovative Methods Used in Shipping Container Farms
Because the environment inside a shipping container is essentially a blank slate for farmers, they are free to incorporate a number of alternative growing methods and approaches, including:
- Hydroponics: This method involves growing plants in water or another medium, such as gravel, instead of soil.
- Aeroponics: In this approach to growing, a hanging plant’s exposed roots are regularly misted with nutrient-enhanced water.
- Vertical farming: While not exclusive to CEA, this growing method uses stacked layers of containers to grow plants in a small space.
- Sustainable farming: This approach focuses on minimizing the environmental impact of farming by using reclaimed water, organic fertilizers and other eco-friendly techniques.
- Cyberfarming: This cutting-edge methodology uses artificial intelligence, machine learning and complex algorithms to identify the ideal conditions for supporting crops or cultivating specific traits within a species.
Advantages of Shipping Container Farms
By controlling the environmental variables of farming, shipping container growers are able to capture unique benefits that can’t consistently be achieved through traditional farming methods:
- Availability: With shipping container farms, farmers are no longer bound to the climate and soil type of their region. With complete control over the growing environment, they can grow virtually any crop during any season, allowing them to select the crops with the greatest demand or the highest profit margin. Shipping container farms make it possible to grow tomatoes in a Chicago parking lot in December or oranges in rural Montana in June.
- Efficiency: Shipping containers are affordable and can be located almost anywhere farmers can find a modest patch of available land. They’re also easy to move if necessary, and they can be stacked and joined in a variety of configurations to add square footage without requiring much additional space.
- Freshness: Shipping container farms make hyperlocal agriculture both feasible and affordable, meaning produce doesn’t have to spend days being shipped over oceans or across the country before it gets to its end user. With the rise of shipping container farms, even residents of urban food deserts have the opportunity to enjoy freshly-picked produce at reasonable prices.
- Productivity: Farming in shipping containers allows for greater productivity per square foot of growing space, especially when vertical farming methods are used. Creating the optimal interior environment for plants also allows farmers to reduce the length of the growing season and boosts the quality of the crop yield.
Costs and Challenges of Shipping Container Farms
Even with the ability to precisely control the growing environment, shipping container farms are not without their challenges and costs. Shipping container farmers have to grapple with the same market variables and economic conditions that traditional farmers do, and other variables—such as location, demand and marketing—can powerfully influence the success of a shipping container farm.
Though land costs are typically much lower for container farms than traditional farms, the capital investment required to launch a shipping container farm is significant. In addition to the cost of the container itself, aspiring farmers will also have to retrofit the interior with lighting and climate-control systems to create an optimal growing environment.
Other expenses include seed, fertilizer, growing containers, soil (in some cases), water and heating and cooling costs. For large operations, labor expenses can also come into play.
Over time, other costs may arise. Shipping containers have a limited lifespan, and deteriorating structural integrity may necessitate repairs or even total replacement. Utility costs may increase based on global fuel prices and regional fluctuations. Changing consumer demand may require farmers to abandon existing crops and devote additional resources to new ones.
While shipping container farming can be lucrative, anyone considering pursuing this agricultural approach should be aware of these potential pitfalls before sinking vast amounts of time and money into the business.
What it Takes to Build a Shipping Container Farm
Though prefabricated shipping container farm kits are available from suppliers like Freight Farms and CropBox, many new farmers opt for the do-it-yourself approach. If this is the route you’re considering, here’s what you’ll need to get your shipping container farm off the ground:
- New or used shipping container
- Atmospheric controls (insulation, heating and air conditioning, ventilation system)
- Lighting system (lights and wiring)
- Irrigation system
- Monitoring system to track humidity, temperature, light levels and the pH of the growing medium
- Growing containers (trays, racks, shelves)
Be sure to compare the costs of both turn-key and DIY container farms before deciding which route to take. Kits can be comparable in price to piecing your shipping container farm together yourself, and the time and energy you’ll save can immediately be directed toward getting growing (and turning a profit).
Research and Development Trends in Shipping Container Farms
The growing popularity and promise of shipping container farming is clearly reflected in the amount of research and development being poured into the trend.
A number of agricultural schools at top universities have added CEA and alternative farming programs to their offerings, including CEA programs at Cornell University and the University of Nebraska; the Vertical Farming Project at Princeton University; the Aquaculture Program at University of the Virgin Islands; and controlled environment agriculture research centers at the University of Arizona and Rutgers University.
Venture capitalists have also recognized the opportunities for significant return on investment in CEA companies, with nearly $1 billion in total raised by startups like:
- Plenty, an indoor vertical farming company whose farms use 99 percent less land and 95 percent less water than traditional farms
- AeroFarms, which develops aeroponic growing technology for vertical farms
- Bowery Farming, a vertical farm company dedicated to delivering local produce to urban areas
- BrightFarms, which finances, designs, builds and operates CEA farms near grocery stores to provide fresh produce for sale.
Given the massive challenges posed by a rapidly expanding global population and the climate change crisis, traditional farming is quickly becoming an obsolete method for delivering food to the nearly 8 billion residents of our planet.
Shipping container farming is one of the most promising alternatives moving forward to fill the void left by old-school agriculture, thanks to a comparatively microscopic physical and environmental footprint that makes it a viable option in virtually any location.
Coupled with innovative approaches to growing like hydroponics and vertical farming, shipping container farming is poised to spread like wildfire in 2021 and beyond. With the enhanced yields and higher quality produced by the tightly-controlled environments of shipping container farms, these compact growing units may well play a critical role in addressing the dual crises of climate change and food scarcity across the globe.