Country Life in BC

January 2017

Freight Farm feeds local niche

by Tamara Leigh

SAANICH – From inside a refurbished freight container, the future of farming is extremely bright. Ribbons of red and blue LED grow lights hang from the ceiling, super-charging the growth of vertical columns of greens. Welcome to Bright Greens Canada, one of BC’s first so-called ‘freight farms.’

“This is a refurbished 40-foot shipping container that is kitted out as an automated hydroponic farm,” explains Tamara Knott, the owner and operator of Bright Greens Canada. “We grow six different types of lettuce, two types of kale, and flat leaf parsley, and we’re able to do it with 90% less water use than traditional farming, and pesticide-free.”

Knott purchased the unit from Freight Farms, a Boston-based manufacturer that has developed a high-tech vertical farm-in-a-box package that includes basic training, software and equipment, and a built-in community of support from other Freight Farmers across North America. It seemed the perfect transition into farming following her career in project management for the tech sector.

“I wanted something I could get started in that would be physically active instead of sitting 14 hours a day,” she explains. “With our family’s interest in local food and high-quality food, safe, healthy food, food sustainability, and food self-sufficiency on the Island, this seemed like a great fit with my administrative, technical and foodie interests.”

What’s inside the box is an intensive, high-tech hydroponic vertical growing system that maximizes productivity on a tiny footprint. High efficiency LED light strips provide crops with the red and blue light spectrum required for photosynthesis. A closed-loop hydroponic system delivers a nutrient-rich water solution directly to the roots of the plants, using only 10 gallons of water a day. A multi-planed airflow and intercrop aeration system automatically regulates temperature and humidity through a series of sensors and controls. Everything can be monitored remotely using a cell phone app or laptop.

“At any given time, there’s a little over 7,000 plants from seedlings to mature plants growing in here. The automation helps a great deal in that our water quality is continually being assessed by various sensors and nutrients are being added (and) pH adjustments are being made as needed without me having to test them daily, so it saves a lot of time,” Knott explains.

The unit is currently producing 80 pounds of fresh greens each week and Knott hopes to increase that by another 10% to 20% as she finds higher producing varieties and fine-tunes her system. According to Freight Farms, each 40-foot shipping container can grow the equivalent of two acres of field production.

It hasn’t taken long to find a niche in the local market. Less than six months into production, she has been selling out each week. Knott sells to several local restaurants and caterers, as well as local food grocers and a weekly share program. Whatever is left is sold to retail customers that can pop in on Saturday morning.

“One of the things the chefs like is that we have the types of greens they want, they are perfectly clean, and there is no waste,” says Knott, adding the price premium has not proven to be a barrier because of the consistent quality. “Our retail customers love it because they know when they buy it, they will be able to use the whole package.”

Knott’s unit sits on a friend’s acreage in West Saanich but unlike soil-based farms, moving this operation only requires a crane and a flatbed truck.

“All I need is a hose and a plug in and I’m good to go,” she says with a laugh.

The original inspiration behind the design was to bring food production into urban environments to ensure greater access to fresh food. In fact, shipping containers for food production are popping up in old parkades, university campuses and inner-city lots. It’s something that Knott would like to see municipalities in BC consider.

“You can put a Freight Farm on what I call the odd bits, the slivers of land in dense urban settings that nobody is going to develop,” says Knox. “Often, remediation means digging up contaminated soils and moving them somewhere else, contaminating another place. That doesn’t make sense. Pave it, seal it, put these units on top of it and turn it into a farm.”

“I think there’s a lot from a municipal perspective that could be done with zoning to turn those odd bits into something very productive for the community and more attractive as well,” she adds.

While there are hundreds of Freight Farms operating in the United States, Bright Greens Canada is the only one in BC, and one of a very small number across Canada. Knott sees a lot of potential for shipping container-based for the Prairie winters and more remote and northern communities where fresh produce is expensive when it’s available at all.

“It makes a lot of sense to grow these types of very perishable greens in this setting instead of trying to grow them in Mexico and put them on a truck and have them sit on the truck for three weeks until they get here,” she says. “I think as we build the business and expand what we’re doing, it’s going to offer something worthwhile to our community and help make us more self-sufficient in producing better quality food.”elp.

“This may include re-evaluating the effectiveness of Canada’s immigration programs in terms of meeting the needs of the agriculture sector,” writes the Conference Board of Canada in a recent briefing paper, produced with CAHRC’s support. “Without TFWs, we may face the prospect of a significant portion of Canada’s arable land lying fallow. That would be a tragedy.”