Urban farmers grow veggies in freight containers

Kara Carlson
The Arizona Republic
Mark Norton of Picked Fresh Farms grow kale and lettuce inside his refitted freight car.

PHOENIX -- The future of urban agriculture might require farmers to think inside the box.

Farmers here are growing vegetables here in converted freight shipping containers equipped with the latest hydroponics and automated systems equipment. They are provided by a Boston-based firm, Freight Farm.

“The farm of the future,” said Mark Norton of Phoenix, whose Picked Fresh Farms grows kale and lettuce in one of the containers.

Freight Farms started in 2010 with the goal of bringing viable, space-efficient farming techniques to all climates and skill levels year-round. It recently expanded to Arizona.

The cars are not cheap. Each container -- the kind commonly seen on trains, trucks or ships -- costs $85,000, not including shipping. Freight Farms calculates annual profit for each container to be an average of $39,000 annually.

Caroline Katsiroubas, marketing director for Freight Farms, said urban areas are the most popular destinations for its equipment and expansion has been nationwide.

Norton of Picked Fresh Farms isn’t what most people would picture as a farmer. The closest anyone has come to farming in his family was his grandfather, who farmed as a child, but that didn’t deter Norton.

“If I can get a better environment, better food, help people with their food, and still help people with their health, that’s where it all fits,” Norton said. “It aligns with my core values.”

He recently had one of his first successful harvests of lettuce, but he’s already looking to the future, with a 10-year goal to expand to 10 containers.

“I was just going to do it as like a hobby, but these things, there’s a need and nobody's really filling it,” Norton said.

Norton is one of only two freight farmers in Arizona, but the thought of competition doesn’t bother him.

“I think there’s enough space to have a bunch of these,” he said.

Heather Szymura, who co-owns Twisted Infusions Farms with her husband Brian, agreed. The Glendale, Ariz., company was the first in the Grand Canyon State to freight farm, and Szymura said she wants to see more of the farms come to Arizona because there is no way her company alone can feed everybody.

Mark Norton, owner of Picked Fresh Farms, locks up his retrofitted Leafy Green machine.

She has been urban farming for 12 years, with gardens and walls of plants in both her front and back yards. The latest edition, the 7½-ton container is nestled on the side of her house.

In a year, the 320-square-foot container can produce the equivalent of a three-acre farm. It also saves water, using five to 10 gallons of water a day, 95% less than traditional farms, Freight Farms said. The water is delivered in a nutrient-rich system based on hydroponics, a method to grow plants without soil.

Growing the leafy greens inside seem unnatural, but the farmers maintain not only is the process natural, it’s optimal.

Norton prides himself in using no GMOs, no pesticides and no herbicides. The environment is controlled, so there’s no reason for it. The container can put out 50 to 100 pounds of lettuce a week.

The farm uses strips of red and blue lights, the spectrums used in photosynthesis, to make it as efficient as possible. Machines automatically dose the plants with water and nutrients. All notifications lead back to an app on phones, which allows farmers to track everything from seeding to harvesting. On average the process takes about seven weeks and, depending on the environment, this can actually be almost twice as fast as a traditional farm, Freight Farms said.

This optimization allows for a greater variety than a grocery store might offer. Katsiroubas of Freight Farms said it allows farmers to focus on the characteristics they want because of the efficiency.

This is an aspect of farming the Szymuras enjoy, and it’s allowed them to be more experimental and try different plants and techniques.

Kale growing inside a temperature-, water- and light-controlled freight car makes the plant sweeter, and softer, Norton said. He said it’s also healthier because it’s traveling less distance and keeping produce local.

The ability to support local is part of what appealed to the Szymuras. They get as much of their farming products and water supplies as possible from local suppliers.

The produce is all sold locally, and the container allows them to easily educate people on urban farming and the seed to harvest process.

Szymura especially enjoys the ability to watch the process from start to finish. Seeding starts in trays kept at optimal light and temperature and then moves to the towers, which contain rows and surround more LED lights.

It’s something her clients like seeing as well. Many of Twisted Infusion’s customers are chefs and caters who come in to see what will be harvested next and appreciate being able to even pick the produce themselves. The caters can have their produce from farm to table in the same day.

The system, and the ability to switch crops easily, also allows chefs to put in specific orders and know it will be ready when they need it.

Norton is focused more on restaurants and individuals through members of Community Supported Agriculture, a subscription-like system that lets customers buy shares of local food. Norton expects most of Picked Fresh Farms' business to come from this, but he also has started to reach out to restaurants with samples of his product.