Since the arrival from the plow thousands of years ago, technology made farming easier. Now farmers big and small have access to advanced robots, automated plants, self-driving tractors and pollinator drones. The technology can also empower ordinary people to grow their own vegetables and herbs, as app-enabled home systems like Click & Grow and Lettuce Grow Farmstand have blurred the line between farmer and hobbyist. It’s a phenomenon – and a market – that companies have become keen to capitalize on.
“Everyone walks out the door trying something new, and some work, and some don’t,” says Thomas Graham, an environmental science researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “It’s still a bit of the Wild West, and the creativity is at its peak. This is a good thing.
For years, proponents have hailed indoor growing techniques such as hydroponics (growing plants in nutrient-rich water rather than soil) and vertical farming (packing rows of plants under garden lights). growing inside a retrofitted warehouse, basement or shipping container) as ways to “democratize farming” for anyone who wants to try their hand at growing, whether whether or not they have fertile land. And the indoor farming industry is booming. In January, commercial farming company Square Roots opened its fourth container farm shipping facility in Wisconsin. The company says that the container collection is capable of producing a few million packets of plants – leafy greens like lettuce and herbs – per year.Walmart got into the indoor farming game in January when it invested ti in Plenty, another commercial vertical agricultural enterprise. Some companies have even positioned themselves as one-stop shops for agricultural production, all grouped together in a single unit.
Boston-based Freight Farms builds farms in shipping containers for customers who want to feed a small community or run a business. In 10 years, it has gone from a Kickstarter campaign to cultivating food for Google’s office lunches. Freight’s newest offering, the Greenery S, is a system that packs rows of vertical grow shelves into an 8ft by 40ft shipping container. It is controlled by a companion app called Farmhand which allows growers to monitor data collected by sensors inside the container. With it, growers can remotely adjust a garden’s temperature, humidity, lighting and CO2 levels from their desk or phone. Users can tap sliders to adjust light and water controls and monitor camera feeds to keep tabs on things inside the sealed, stable environment. If something is wrong with the conditions around the plants, the app will send a notification about what is wrong.
“I could be sitting in the farm, I could be sitting in my office away from my farm, I could be sitting on the beach 500 miles from my farm, and I can just see what’s going on,” says Erich Ludwig, a product manager at Freight Farms.
This ease of access does not come cheap. The Greenery S container costs $149,000 and a subscription to the Farmhand app costs $2,400 per year. (There are also bound to be additional equipment and maintenance costs, depending on how growers run things.) That’s less than buying a plot of land to grow a farm in most places, sure, but not exactly pocket change. Nonetheless, Freight Farms wants to appeal to a wide range of customers, from aspiring business owners to educators and hobbyists. Freight Farms CEO Rick Vanzura estimates that 80% of the company’s customers have no previous farming experience.