I know what you are thinking, am I out of my mind?
Agriculture exclusively in shipping containers, seriously? Maybe yes, maybe no, but there may come a time when many crops will be grown in these containers. Crops like corn, and some of the other tall growing plants that are rigid could be a problem. That would require a much bigger solution such as an old warehouse with multiple floors. Another way would be using a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) that would grow shorter but still produce the same amount of corn. Obviously we do not recommend, nor condone such measures, but that could be one way to make larger crops grow in small spaces. So are shipping containers the agricultural future?
While this movement is in it’s infancy, three is only one example of an organic gardening system that is grown in a shipping container, but it does not appear to have as large an output that is being described in the video below. It is important to note the output levels claimed by the video are suspect, as I will explain later and is thoroughly explained in the 2nd video below.
First here is a link to the site urbanorganicgardener.com that comes up with a garden being grown organically in a shipping container. Disclaimer, it is not clear if this is using organic gardening principals or if the crops are actually certified organic.
Why would you want to try this?
You would have several advantages, the concept is relatively simple, growing in shipping containers is economical, they are portable, and can be stacked. They biggest feature is that the containers can be located close to the area that they are providing food for distributors, restaurants, grocery stores, etc. Facilities that can buildings such as abandoned warehouses in the middle of cities, outside of distribution centers, etc. (reducing transportation costs, and damaged produce)
While there are many location advantages (listed above), there is also the following points; disease is less likely as the crops are protected from insects, and the elements. Pesticides are not needed as the insects cannot get in as easily. You can grow crops year around. The primary way this is being done is with hydroponics, which may or may not be able to match a vegetable that is grown organically in soil. According to this NYTimes.com blog post they can if the nutrient solution for the hydroponic garden is right. It appears to be possible to add nutrients to the water to compensate for what the plants do not get from the water. (hydroponics is not my area of expertise) Test on the plants indicate the same levels of nutrients in hydroponic systems or a little better vs soil grown plants (the growing style, organic or conventional, was not indicated in the article, so it is probably safe to guess that it is conventional growing).
Growing in Shipping Containers Really?
Yeah they are fully enclosed greenhouses with hydroponic systems, led grow lights and insulated walls and temperature control. As a side note, one study I read, the key to controlling growth is the temperature of the roots, an Israeli study found that cooling plant roots in a desert environment (using pipes with cold water) worked well and that the surface temperature did not matter. The point being maybe all you need to control is the water temperature…
So far there are some real positives to this attempt at agriculture.
But can they really make money?
The video below claims that the average head of lettuce travels 1,800 miles from California (where most of the lettuce is grown) to its final destination. Now if your lettuce is grown in an old warehouse downtown, and shipped directly to the store or restaurant, there could be a significant cost savings. While this company is claiming to be able to grow 5 acres of food in one container, it seems improbable as you are comparing 400 square feet to 217,800 square feet, (5 acres). Normally the measurement for produce is tons per acre, and from most farms that is about 24 tons or 48 thousand pounds of lettuce per acre. Now most of the containers they are getting 2-4 tons, in 1% of the area, which is impressive, but not equivalent to five acres… 120 tons of lettuce. (for a full explanation see the second video)
As you can see there is definitely an advantages to container farming, in the overall yield. 5 acres of storage containers would definitely out strip 5 acres of soil production.
Other advantages to container growing.
One major advantage to the containers is they can be stacked. Not sure how high, but I have seen them at least stacked 4 high personally, and higher still in photos and videos. The stacking could have a limit. The higher you stack things the more expensive the engineering becomes, and the related construction. If you stacked one acre of containers 8 high, you would need to build a serious set of stairs and walkways that would be required to access the upper containers. Additionally the containers would have to anchored in such a way that they are safe from high winds, earth quakes etc. This stacking with stair or elevator access would allow you to grow acres worth of food on one acre, so the cost could be worth while. (there may be an update later when there is some free time to dive into the math).
So a quick summary of shipping containers used for agricultural growing
- Crops can be grown anywhere
- Hydroponics uses less water
- Less loss of produce due to transportation damage
- Crops are able to be grown year around
- Yields per square foot are significantly higher than crops grown in soil
- Less energy used as produce is not transported as far
- Less trucks on long haul routes
- If done correctly can be as nutritious as soil grown
- No pesticides
- No fertilizers spread all over acres of lands with related run off
- Could create pasture land for grazing cattle, pig raising, etc that is more humane and sustainable
- Reduce cost of vegetables and fruits
- Less loss due to long range transportation
- Cheaper that constructing a new building and possibly renovating an existing building.
- The USDA has determined that hydroponic crops can be certified Organic.
- They change the way farmers grow crops costing family businesses
- Gardening in soil, which connects you to the earth is shown to be good for your health
- It is good for your health to be outside in nature
Well maybe this does have more upside than down… so are shipping containers the agricultural future?
They could be, but we still maintain it is best to grow your own crops, for all of the cons listed above.