Freight container farms are popping up in cities around the world. Are they the best bet for food security in all climates?
by Quinn MacDonald
ON FAIR VANCOUVER ISLE, we often brag about farming and golfing year-round. But that gloating came back to bite us this year. It was a long, hard winter on the West Coast—at least by West Coast standards. According to a March 22 Check News article, Victoria averaged 2.7°C, two degrees below the 4.6°C average and the ninth coldest winter on record. The prolonged frozen ground killed crops and meant a late start for planting.
The winter weather caused trouble for regions more acclimated to the cold, too. While the Island’s three-day supply of food is a much-discussed concern, the same is true for rural B.C. communities. When severe weather closed highways, cutting the Lower Mainland off from the rest of the province, it only took a day for grocery stores in places like Prince George and Terrace to run low on produce. Meanwhile, a recent blizzard in Manitoba isolated the northern town of Churchill for a week, creating a mini food crisis.
A solution is popping up in towns and cities around the continent: a two-acre farm inside a converted shipping container. Several companies now deliver the custom container growing set-ups to farming entrepreneurs, along with a business plan and access to a supportive community.
The first container farm in B.C. touched down in Brentwood Bay. Tamara Knott purchased a “Leafy Green Machine” (LGM) from Boston-based Freight Farms last summer, and founded Bright Greens Farm.
Originally from Edmonton, Knott has lived in Victoria for 15 years with her husband and two children, a daughter, 19, and a son, 11. With short, tightly curled brown hair and a ready laugh, she often emphasizes her points by doubling up her adjectives. She is really, really happy with how the first eight months have gone. “Every day, it’s just a little miracle,” says Knott about watching the plants grow. “It feels good to know that people are enjoying what we’re growing and that they value it and what we’re doing is worthwhile.”
A DAY IN THE FARM
Inside the container, the low-energy LED lights run for 18 hours a day, starting at two or three p.m. and turning off around the same time as Knott arrives in the morning. Two days a week, she transplants 400 seedlings and then plants their replacements into moulded peat moss plugs. The seeds come “pelleted” in clay, which primes them and increases the germination to Knott’s current rate of nearly 100 per cent.
Wednesdays though Fridays are spent preparing orders for restaurants. Her current roster includes Brentwood Bay Resort, Truffles Catering, Artisan Bistro, Part and Parcel, Marina Restaurant, Sooke Harbour House, and Saveur. Bagged salad mixes go to nearby Carnivore Meats & More so customers can “grab some greens” to round out their meal. Restaurants often keep the lettuce heads still rooted in the plug so they stay fresh even longer. Any discarded plugs and root systems feed the resident chickens.
Leafy greens and delicate cool-weather crops do best with container technology. Knott currently grows Tuscan kale, flat-leaf parsley, and six to eight different types of specialty lettuce. To add variety, Knott converted the suite in her house into a second indoor growing location. This warmer and less humid spot works better for basil and microgreens. “It’s nice to have something different for customers every week,” she says.
Besides the restaurants, Bright Greens Farm also participates in the Esquimalt Farmers’ Market and has farm-share customers—a segment she hopes to grow for the next year.
ALL THE RIGHT TECH
Knott has a background in information technology, but didn’t want to return to a desk job after some time off. “At my age, it’s not a healthy thing to be sitting for 14 hours a day,” says Knott. She gardened when she was growing up and knew there was a strong market for her fresh produce in the Victoria area. “It came together in terms of all the things that I enjoy,” she says. “I love technology as well, and of course you can see this thing is full of gadgets and computers and neat stuff. For me, it was a really good fit.”
Knott explains how the Leafy Green Machine works as she deftly moves around inside the 40’ x 8’ x 9.5’ space. The smaller area near the door has shelves and a workstation, while the rest houses 265 hanging towers of greens. A long walkway runs down the middle. Recirculating pumps pass water sensors from each of the tanks, which check the pH, temperature, and nutrient levels. Below the main counter, the seedling tray has its own tank, which floods the tray every eight hours. The 550L main water tank sits underneath the “farm.” For 15 minutes every hour and a half, it pumps water to the top of the towers, which then runs down the inside, through the peat moss plugs, and into the gutters, where it gets filtered back into the tank. This system waters all 7,000 plants with only 38 litres per day, about 90 per cent less than would be needed for the same amount in a field setting. This efficiency makes container farming a good choice for areas where fresh water is scarce.
The towers unhook and slide to allow for quick planting and seeding. The main controller, or “brain,” is mounted on the wall by the door and controls the settings for irrigation, lighting, and climate; the container is cooled by an air conditioner. The LGM is web-enabled, so Knott can check and change the settings from anywhere via her smartphone—a handy option when windstorms knock out power on the peninsula. If that does happen, the plants are well watered and safe for a day or so inside the insulated container. The high-tech connectivity extends to the four high-quality Bluetooth speakers, through which Knott listens to TED Talks while she works.
Bright Greens’ seeds and imports are all organic and don’t need any chemical pesticides or herbicides. Knott cleans the inside of the LGM with vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Despite this process, Bright Greens cannot be certified organic in Canada, since it’s a hydroponic grower. “There’s a whole bunch of politics around that and I was just not going there,” says Knott, who says it doesn’t matter to her customers, many of whom have visited her set-up. “I know what I’m growing and how I’m growing it, and we’re really satisfied with that and know it’s safe.”
While all this technology may seem intimidating, Knott says it’s pretty easy to use and comes with an active support network. Beyond a manual, new Freight Farmers fly to Boston for training. Then someone from headquarters comes to help them launch when the container is delivered, staying until the freight farmer feels comfortable. “Plus, they’re only a text or an email away,” says Knott. “We have ongoing support and they’re always checking in on us. With online forums and places we can go for information and support, it was a really, really good process.”
Along with Freight Farms, there is Brampton, Ontario-based Modular Farms, Atlanta’s Pod Ponics, and Vertical Harvest Hydroponics, located in balmy Anchorage, Alaska. Vertical Harvest Hydroponics describes its “Containerized Growing Systems” as “arctic ready.” According to its website, the Vertical Harvest founders were inspired to create the business after finding a $18 head of lettuce in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in 2011: “At VHH, we are all about creating an designing smart farming opportunities for the north and remote areas.”
Knott has her own Arctic connection. After grad school, Knott worked as an economic development manager in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. She met her husband, who was working as an accountant in Yellowknife, when he got stormed into the Inlet. “He’s my souvenir,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a very harsh place to live,” she continues, her tone turning serious. “Socially and climactically, it’s very challenging, but great to learn about.”
Knott says she and her husband experienced something similar to B.C.’s stranded highway situation—except long-term—when they had to wait for the Mackenzie River to thaw in the spring or freeze in the fall. “We’d have very, very little fresh produce, or it would have to be flown in, which is a tremendous expense, and also extremely wasteful,” says Knott. “A lot of northern communities would definitely benefit from this.”
Knott doesn’t think her model would work for entrepreneurs in remote locations, because of the steep energy costs that come with using diesel, but could be a way for hamlets and towns to supply their residents. Alternatively, container farming in cities like Yellowknife and Whitehorse could ship to the surrounding regions for cheaper than it would be to fly fresh vegetables from the south.
And how did the Leafy Green Machine do with Victoria’s comparatively-mild-but-still-cold winter? “It pretty much ran as normal. It’s very well insulated because these are refrigerator containers,” says Knott. She again points to the Freight Farm network and says she talks to other owners in much colder areas of Canada and the United States. “So far we’re the only ones in B.C. with this technology, but I see that it has tremendous potential. I’d love to see more,” say Knott.
“I think here on Vancouver Island, more indoor hydroponic farming would really only displace off-Island imports,” Knott continues. “It ends up being a much healthier and fresher product with a lot less waste.” She mentions the clear plastic clamshells of greens from California. “[You] bring them home and it’s half slimy in the middle already and have to huck it out, and whether or not you huck it out in the garbage or in the green bin, it’s still so wasteful.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
With the two locations, Bright Greens Farm makes up a full-time job for Knott, though her husband occasionally helps with the seeding. While she says she’s found demand for more product, she’s reluctant to add another farm as she would need to hire someone—landing her back at a desk doing payroll and admin work. “We’re going to run for another six months and see what our next step is going to be,” she says.
If Knott did want to expand, the decision might come down to where the second container could go. Bright Greens sits on a friend’s 30-acre property off West Saanich Road in Brentwood Bay. Since the property is within the ALR, it was easy to set up and the LGM counts as a farm building (like a greenhouse). But this wasn’t her first choice. Knott first approached Victoria and then Saanich, but ran up against restrictive municipal rules and regulations.
Knott would have had to spend $6,000 to bring a specialist engineer from Vancouver to provide the District of Saanich with letters of assurance certifying the container. She decided it wasn’t worth the cost.
“For example, we have a door, it has a door knob, and hinges, and it works like a door, so they wanted engineer letters for that,” says Knott. Officials also needed to know if it had sufficient air changes, to keep people from suffocating—it does 22 air changes an hour and there are 7,000 plants pumping out oxygen—and they wanted it certified for wind and snow load. “They’re engineered to be stacked nine high on barges in heavy seas, fully loaded with heavy stuff,” she says. “So yeah, I don’t think there’s anything Victoria could throw at it that it’s going to notice.”
According to City of Victoria foods systems coordinator Virginie Lavallée-Picard, shipping-container farms would need to follow the Zoning Regulation Bylaw. If the chosen zone did not allow for the shipping container, farmers would need to work with development services to find a solution, such as a variance or rezoning.
Farmers would also need permits. A building permit for constructing or installing anything over 10 square meters. An electrical permit to install, alter, repair or maintain electrical equipment. A plumbing permit to construct, extend, or repair any plumbing system, or to connect to any sewer system. (Knott claims all she needs to set up somewhere is “a plug-in and a hose.”) And, of course, a sign permit to install permanent or temporary signs over 0.185 sq. meters or two square feet.
Oh, and those looking to sell their products will need a business licence for on- and off-site sales. Despite the City’s support for small-scale food production, Lavallée-Picard says there are no plans to change the regulations because of the small lot sizes and the possible impacts on neighbours.
Knott says the newness of the technology is a challenge for Canadian municipalities. She was surprised by Victoria’s red tape as she had always considered the city pro-food and farming.
“They’re quite happy to sell residents $100 business licences to sell some peas or whatever in a little stand in front of their house in James Bay, but really, honestly, this is proven technology,” she says. “You go to Boston and they’ve got them tucked on the cement under underpasses, all kinds of those unproductive spots, and you can turn it into two acres of land and farm it. So easy, so simple.”