BOSTON (CBS) – Picture this: a restaurant in the middle of Downtown Boston growing all of its produce right on site. Oh, and it’s the dead of winter. That’s impossible, right?
In urban communities, where fresh veggies and produce are in high demand but space and proper soil is hard to come by, Massachusetts-based start-up Freight Farms is aiming to change things.
The company’s goal is to make it so that major food distributors, as well as city gardening fanatics who dream of growing their own produce, will be able to grow produce just about anywhere.
Freight Farms has designed a stand-alone food production method using recycled, insulated shipping containers as the base for a hydroponic system of cultivation. They claim the self-contained system is efficient and works in any environment.
“Hydroponics uses 80-90% less water than traditional agriculture and our system uses no pesticides or herbicides to grow the produce,” said Brad McNamara, founder of Freight Farms. “An acre of Freight Farms can yield 65 times the produce of an acre of traditional agriculture.”
Freight Farms’ creators say one stackable 40-foot long containers can churn out as many as 480 heads of lettuce in a week.
And with the growing trend toward fresh ingredients, perhaps it’s no surprise that Freight Farms was chosen as one of 125 finalists in this year’s MassChallenge competition, a privately-funded contest that awards promising entrepreneurs with world-class mentorship, free office space, access to funding, media and more. Finalists participate in a three-month accelerator program that started in late June. At the end, 10 to 20 startups are chosen to split $1 million in cash awards.
McNamara and his business partner Jon Friedman came up with the idea for Freight Farms while studying urban rooftop greenhouse food production over the past few years. Their high-tech design combines hydroponic growing, LED lighting, climate controls, digital monitoring and networking systems.
“Each unit maximizes the efficient use of space to grow local food on a commercial scale,” said McNamara.
The units are also connected via the internet to a harvest expert, which allows for constant monitoring, advice to optimize growth, and troubleshooting, which basically means you don’t need a green thumb to sign up.
Aside from the lettuce crop, the units are equipped to grow a variety of herbs. Containers for growing vine crops like tomatoes and peppers are expected to hit the market in early 2013.
At a cost of $60,000 a piece, the units don’t come cheap.
Freight Farms is now in the process of constructing its first commercial container in Worcester.
Freight Farms will own and operate the container, and will be selling the produce to local outlets affiliated with Clark University, including Sodexo Food Service the new student-run Clark Food Co-op.
In Boston, the Katsiroubas Brothers Fruit and Produce in NewMarket Square recently purchased a unit from Freight Farms. They will be growing and selling a variety of basil starting in the Fall.
Moving forward, Freight Farms plans to target small businesses and entrepreneurs looking for an economic solution to supply fresh food.
In the future, they also hope to help in disaster relief operations.
Tommy Boudreau is a Suffolk University student interning with the CBS Boston Digital media team. You can follow him on Twitter @Tommy_Beee