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The Leafy Green Machine

BY: Ethan Reynolds, AOS Culinary

Modern hydroponic farming is the practice of growing plants in nutrient-dense water instead of soil. This practice has been in existence since the early 20th century. It’s a true agricultural breakthrough, The idea of producing food in climate-controlled indoor facilities, with no need for soil, opens up a myriad of possibilities for farmers to improve efficiency and to grow any type of food at any time of year.

Commonly, hydroponic farming is organized in a greenhouse-like environment. Natural sunlight provides the plants with the ability to photosynthesize, and these plants are fortified by the nutrient-packed water that immerses their roots. Usually, these plants will be situated on large horizontal beds of water. The water itself is blocked from the sunlight to allow the plants access to light but prevent algal growth beneath the surface of the water.

Freight Farms is a company that has expounded upon this farming technology in a truly unique way. Their idea was this: create a self-contained vertical hydroponic system in a shipping container measuring 320 square feet. This shipping container holds nearly everything needed to produce 4,500 plants simultaneously, yielding the same amount of food as two acres of farmland. This is 270 times more space-efficient, a truly remarkable improvement. The portable farm was fondly dubbed the Leafy Green Machine. Though it can grow many kinds of plants including strawberries and sugar snap peas, these plants do not truly fit the design of the farm. It is best suited for growing leafy greens such as lettuce, herbs, and brassicas such as cabbage or kale.

The structure of the Leafy Green Machine is built around making the most of a tiny space. The incubation area, where plants are grown from seed to sproutling, is housed underneath a functional work table which can be used to organize and pack the mature plants. Instead of a horizontal growing system, the crops are grown vertically, then each mature seedling is placed into a slot on a hollow tower. The roots are fed by a flow of specially enhanced water that flows within the tower, from top to bottom. There are many of these towers in the shipping container, and each is set on a rolling track so that they may be moved towards the work table when it comes time to harvest. The plants will then grow out from the towers instead of up from the ground, which allows much more to be planted in a tiny space.

The farm is almost completely automated. The walls are insulated and the climate is computer-controlled, and the plants are “fed” by red and blue LED lights which turn on and off to regulate photosynthesis as the system determines. Furthermore,  the enhanced water is recycled throughout the system. With this system, the farm needs less than five gallons of water to function for an entire day. Sensors within the farm measure the properties of the environment, and these measurements are used to adjust the climate as needed. The entire system can be controlled via an app, which makes it a practically hands-off operation. The farm needs only about 15-20 hours of labor per week to stay running, which is significantly lower than many farmers today. The isolated nature of the shipping container makes it so that pests are hardly an issue; therefore, pesticides do not need to be used. This makes it far more feasible to grow organically.

Due to the climate-controlled nature of the farming environment, the Leafy Green Machine can grow crops in virtually any part of the world and at any time of year. Each farm sells for the comparatively reasonable price of $85,000, with an added yearly cost of $13,000 in upkeep and supplies. This price point makes it practical for entrepreneurs to buy, and build a business around, one or more of these farms.

A small business owner and Vietnam War veteran by the name of Jerry Martin started a farm aptly named Vet Veggies in Springdale, Arkansas. The company serves as an example and an encouragement for recent veterans to rejoin the workforce in the hydroponic farming industry. Vet Veggies grows butter head lettuce,= which is distributed to several local grocery chains.

In urban East Boston, a couple formed a business around four Leafy Green Machines. Corner Stalk Farm brings forth produce that the couple then sells at their well-loved neighborhood retail shop, Boston Public Market. By building a farm in such an urban environment, they provide their customers with truly locally grown, fresh produce while simultaneously improving their community.

Hydroponics have been at the forefront of the agricultural zeitgeist for some time now, so it’s only a matter of course that the innovative minds of this millennium would apply themselves to revealing the extent of possibilities that exist in soil-less farming. If Freight Farms continues to gain traction as a company, the reach of hydroponic farms can only grow wider and  fresh food could be grown in unfarmable sections of the world, feeding scientists in Antarctica or underprivileged children in the deserts of Kenya.