Philippe Hohlfeld was eating a banana one day when he wondered where the tropical fruit was grown. He discovered that many bananas travel in shipping containers from Asia throughout the world—and that the containers return home empty.
“I found that shipping containers, almost single-handedly, enabled the modern age of globalization,” says Hohlfeld on the website of the James Dyson Award, a design prize Hohlfeld won as a student at London’s Royal College of Art. “Knowing how fundamental shipping is to our society, I wanted to look into how I could improve it further.”
Hohlfeld says about 13 million containers travel empty every year. So he designed the Grow Frame, a collapsible hydroponic system that can be stored in a container filled with goods, but expanded to grow vegetables when the containers are empty.
Other companies have turned to the humble shipping container as well. Williamson Greenhouses of North Carolina created the CropBox, a farming system that serves as an affordable season extender for small-scale farmers. “We are in no way, shape or form trying to replace traditional farming, but rather make farming something that can be done by people who may otherwise not be able to do so,” says Williamson sales rep Oren Cockman.
The CropBox is not affected by weather, pests, heating prices or water, explains Cockman. Up to 3,000 plants fit in each container, which can be stacked up to five high, within a growing space of only 320 square feet. “The greatest advantage to containerized farming is the ability to completely control the climate,” Cockman says.
Advanced farming comes with new technology. Water usage averages 90% lower than field-irrigated crops and the computerized monitoring system can be controlled from a smartphone.
Two prototypes for another system, the Growtainer, serve as classrooms at the Texas A&M Agrilife Research Center in Dallas. Growtainers have 8-foot aluminum racks that can be adjusted depending on the type of produce being grown. The units conform to recognized greenhouse standards.
Farm from a Box grew out of a development project. “We were building a youth empowerment center in Kenya, using modified shipping containers to provide basic resources in education, health and sport,” says Brandi DiCarli, a founding partner. “But accessing fresh, nutritious food was a problem.” The group then decided to outfit the containers “with the infrastructure needed to support reliable and sustainable crop production. We saw that this approach could make a big difference in not only healthy food access but also help build local economies.”
Their system provides hand tools and technology to grow a complete farm on land around the container. Each unit runs on solar energy, which powers a drip irrigation system. Additional stored energy is used for power plug-ins, Wi-Fi, internal cold storage and lighting, and sensors that monitor everything from irrigation efficiency to soil conditions. “If nutrition is the goal it can support fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins. If income generation is the goal it can support whatever high-value crops suit the local market,” says DiCarli.
Cockman sees container farming as a creative farming option. “One of the biggest challenges we as a country are faced with is being able to grow more and more food, feed more and more people, and do it on less and less farmland,” he says. “We have to look to new and innovative ways of farming if we want our children and grandchildren to eat.”
That same desire for a sustainable future drives Farm from a Box.
“We want to see healthy, sustainably grown food be available to everyone; where clean, efficient technologies power a food system that is more productive, less wasteful and profitable,” DiCarli says. “These technologies already exist to make this possible; it’s about creating broader access to them and strengthening local food production.
“We want to be a part of that shift,” Dicarli notes, “by enabling people to grow their own nutritious food, earn a good livelihood from it and do it in a manner that is ecologically sound.”