Sustainability

That's One Really Big Box of Lettuce

This alum is building microfarms in shipping containers. Come take a tour.

By Magdalena Hernandez
Co-founder Brad McNamara inside a Freight Farm with hydroponic leafy greens.

Co-founder Brad McNamara inside a Freight Farm with hydroponic leafy greens.

As the world’s population migrates to urban areas yet desires locally sourced produce, the agriculture industry is struggling to find novel ways to address our changing needs. Enter Freight Farms.

Founded in 2010 by Brad McNamara, AS’03, and John Friedman, Freight Farms uses repurposed shipping containers, automation, and the power of networks to transform city slickers into organic farmers. The Boston-based company uses high-efficiency LED lighting and hydroponic growing techniques to create turnkey microfarms that can be set up just about anywhere—rooftops, alleys, vacant lots, fallow fields—creating a 365-day growing season.

The company has the potential to become a key piece of the movement to create a more sustainable food system. To date, it has sold more than 100 of its microfarms across the U.S. and in several countries. It’s one of the growing number of startups in the “agtech” space—companies that want to revolutionize agriculture as we know it.

With automatic watering and fertilizing technology, Freight Farms makes farming virtually foolproof. An app controls humidity and temperature remotely, turning the container into an insulated envelope impervious to extreme outdoor temperatures. LED light strips automatically cycle on and off, mimicking sunlight. The result is that novices can grow a wide assortment of fruits, vegetables, and herbs—even in cramped and sunless urban spaces.

Inside each Freight Farms unit, produce is grown hydroponically with technology to control the climate, an irrigation system, and LED lights.Inside each Freight Farms unit, produce is grown hydroponically with technology to control the climate, an irrigation system, and LED lights.

The company also offers its users an online community to share tips and ideas, which means customers are constantly learning from each other. “We’ve found that each farmer is exponentially better than earlier farmers because of information sharing,” says McNamara.

The idea for Freight Farms sprouted from personal interests. “After I started doing endurance racing, I was looking at the food that was going into my body,” he says. “I was growing lettuces hydroponically, and my roommates were going to kill me.”

He soon connected with Friedman, a friend and fellow hydroponics fan, and they started consulting on the food business in 2010. They founded Freight Farms that same year, hoping to get people to rethink spaces for growing food in their own communities.

The biggest hurdle for newbie farmers? “People can get overwhelmed by their success,” notes McNamara. “Suddenly, they have a thousand pounds of lettuce a week.” It’s a good problem to have, because farmers sell to local restaurateurs who snap up the top-quality, organic veggies.

“We give people the expertise,” says McNamara. “Anyone can use this to start their own business.”

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