Could the Future of Farming be Urban?

How can design hack the world’s oldest profession?

Despite what some wits would tell you, agriculture is the world’s oldest real profession:  over 10,000 years old. But how can an industry so crucial to human civilization update itself for an urban, disaster prone, high-risk  globalised 21st century? 

It’s the distance your food has to travel to your plate- sometimes tens of thousands of miles- which adds costs, adds risk and reduces the quality of the food itself. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, roughly a third of food produced for human consumption is lost either through pesticides, bad weather, transportation, and various other factors. 

One way of eliminating much of this waste is grow food in much cleaner conditions much nearer to where the vendor or customer might be. This is where shipping container farming comes in. Yes, it’s really a farm in a shipping container. Contained within a 40ft-shipping container, these farms can fit anywhere, making them an ideal solution for individuals and communities in hostile or urban environments to produce fresh, healthy food.

“These guys are ready,” said Deanna Kennemer of GP Solutions, referring to a row of vegetables grown vertically inside a shipping container.

Container farming has been on the rise and with good reason.  Food is grown intensively within a clean container and precisely fed with water nutrients and light. The result is much less waste.  It takes less land, less water and by using artificial light, farmers can grow year-round. 

Each farm utilizes either hydroponics or  soil-based platforms along with proprietary air and water filtration systems, to create the perfect environment for growing food virtually anywhere, in any season or climate.

“These greens are called fusion romaine and we planted them about eight weeks ago,” said Dennemer. “They’re ready to be harvested today.”

Cultivated inside modular and stackable shipping containers, these grow pods are designed with the backyard farmer and local restaurant in mind.  Food can be grown a block away from a city superstore and as demand rises, additional containers can easily beaded. With much of our food harvested outside of the country and transported hundreds of miles, urban farming can provide locally sourced organic food to city centers as well as deserts, disaster areas, icecaps or anywhere with space for a container and access to electricity and some water.

“Okay, it’s all ready to go. Back in its slot,” said Dennemer as she fitted a slot of vegetables under a water drip.

Farming could be as easy as plug and play. “This is a soil-based pod,” said Shannon Illingworth as he showed us around an urban farm fitted for organic farming instead of hydroponics.

He got interested in urban farming when he was infected with E. coli after eating at a restaurant. Not knowing where the food came from, he decided to create a system where the origin of food can be traced with an app on your phone.

“What you see here today is really evolving indoor growing environments to a soil-based product that’s already nutrient enriched,” said Illingworth. “So new growers and existing growers can make it real simple.”

With no need for sun or seasons, pesticides or manure, this changes the game for agriculture.

“As you can see, the plants love it,” said Illingworth.

A modular farm is almost literally a farm in a box. Technically you can grow almost anything in the towers within the shipping container units. Everything from corn to peppers and quinoa, mini pumpkins and cucumbers—it all depends on what you’re using the container farm for, and what your business expectations are. Kale and herbs and lettuce are typical high-return, low-labor crops for modular farms. Fruits such as strawberries, raspberries and cherry tomatoes can also work, but require slightly more labor. The same tradeoffs apply to other crops: hops, wasabi, and peas and even medicinal cannabis.

Within each module, light water and atmosphere are tightly controlled. The module is hermetically sealed to protect against the outside so there is no need for pesticide, insecticide or herbicide. More than organic, this is close to surgically clean food. Often, there may not even be a need for soil as its also a hydroponic farm. The produce is fully traceable and trackable after harvest, keeping it clean from pathogens such as  E Coli and listeria.

The next big application for shipping containers could be the hot trend for microgreens. These are tiny edible plants, harvested at the peak of tenderness. They may be small but they deliver intense bursts of flavour and nutritional content. Microgreens make a profitable commercial crop, well-suited to soilless production methods and hydroponic systems to deliver a high-quality, high-density, clean and grit-free product. And, of course these could be grown anywhere.

Farming in the future is looking bright.

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