Buy a farm in a box
By Brandy Harrison
CORNWALL Its a winter-weary farmers daydream: selling freshly-harvested leafy greens year-round about an acres worth a month for only about 15 hours of sweat equity per week while never having to battle Mother Nature. You dont even have to move to sunny California.
The twist? The “farm” is a 320 sq. ft. shipping container. The hydroponic, tower-based design also has a hefty price tag: US$85,000.
“Its always fun to see when people come in for the first time. They just stand in awe,” says Eric Bergeron, who bought the shipping container-turned-farm last year with Smart Greens co-founder Eric Amyot and plunked it down in the middle of Cornwall.
Heres the gist: Inside the container, seedlings started in peat moss are transplanted into a recycled plastic medium in 256 floor-to-ceiling towers. The plants grow horizontally out the sides and every nine minutes a nutrient-rich solution is piped directly to each plant from a drip irrigation system mounted near the ceiling. Ultraviolet LED lights shine for 18 hours per day. At full capacity, the space-saving design packs in about 3,500 mature plants in a 40-ft. long shipping container that produces 50 to 75 pounds of greens each week for same-day delivery.
The precisely-timed planting and harvesting schedule takes roughly 15 hours per week for Bergerons wife, Allison, including packaging. But from there, everything from nutrient levels to temperature is controlled and monitored with cameras and sensors through a smartphone, iPad, and desktop computer app.
The container arrived in July and planting started in August. By the end of February, they were growing basil, kale, arugula, and lettuce, selling out of kale for three months straight. Theyve landed grocery contracts for basil and do direct sales in addition to 12 weekly customers, including restaurants, grocery stores, and the kale-loving gym-goers next door.
“One of the restaurants wants to switch all their salads to kale,” says Bergeron, who, after only six months, has a second container on order and is getting the money together for three more.
Bergeron first saw the system on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website where people short on cash ask the general public to fund their idea. Boston-based Freight Farms Inc., the company which patented the container farm, has now sold at least two dozen in the United States.
“I instantly wanted in on it. It kills me that I dont drive an electric car,” says Bergeron, who wanted to invest in food security and sustainability after 15 years in Internet marketing. “The main reason Im involved isnt to grow kale in Cornwall. Its to change the way we look at growing food locally.”
With the rights to distribute the technology in Canada, Smart Greens is betting others will buy in.
The container farms sell for US$85,000 with operating costs pegged at $10,000 to $15,000 annually. A basil-based container can pay for itself within a year but growing arugula or kale can mean a three-year payback, estimates Bergeron.
Theyre working on a franchise model with a monthly fee to use their brand. The big-sky goal is a 100-container network across the country.
Interest is already heating up. Bergeron says he fielded a deluge of calls from Yellowknife to Cape Breton and even South Korea after national media picked up the story last fall. They already have at least 15 serious buyers across Ontario.
“It all came at once. We werent expecting it but its a great problem to have.”