This is the best guide to shipping container farming and agriculture, without question. It isn’t a short article, but it’s extremely comprehensive and educational. Not only do we explain what container farms are and what problems they solve, but we also share over 20 companies involved in container farming, and even discuss the option of building your own.
Let’s begin by saying that shipping container agriculture is one example in a long list of interesting applications for cargo boxes. And while the most common type of container agriculture is crop farming, there are several options for non-plant agriculture like fish or even protein-rich insects!
The point is that containers offer a way to provide a tightly managed ecosystem for whatever plant or animal species you’re hoping to grow or raise. Just like you probably find yourself being most effective and productive when you have good lighting, the right air temperature, and the perfect background music.
Agriculture is really no different. Plants and animals can certainly survive in many environments, but they grow best in specific conditions. And a shipping container is one tool that can be used to help create those ideal environments.
But before we get too deep in the details of how shipping containers are a good fit for agricultural projects, we need to take a step back and understand the problem that container growing is trying to solve.
To do that, we’ll start by discussing Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) through the lens of plants (since that’s where most attention is focused), although many of the same ideas apply to non-plant agriculture as well.
The purpose of CEA is to provide the optimal conditions necessary for crops to thrive throughout their development.
Think about the things that keep farmers up at night: the weather, disease, bugs, animals, etc. Now, think about the things consumers care about when purchasing produce: flavor, freshness, etc.
CEA allows farmers to have much tighter control over a lot of these factors instead of hoping for the best. It’s about removing risk and chance from the growing process.
Now there are a lot of people who think that practically speaking, CEA just means trying to grow as much stuff as possible in a small space. And while that’s not completely untrue, that’s more of a result than the main goal.
Instead, CEA is really about higher quality food that’s grown closer to where it will be consumed and in a sustainable way that uses the least amount of resources. Those resources include water, energy, space, labor, and capital (money).
The first word of the CEA acronym is ‘controlled’, and it is what separates CEA from traditional agriculture. But you might be curious as to what exactly is being controlled. The main input variables that CEA systems attempt to control are sometimes collectively referred to by researchers are ‘climate recipes’:
A controlled-environment agricultural system can be simple or sophisticated. Just putting plastic film on the ground over crops is technically a form of CEA. On the other end of the spectrum, you have computer-controlled, sealed facilities that precisely meter every part of the environment.
Likely the most common type of CEA is the common greenhouse. In all of these cases, the important distinction is that several of the above environmental variables are being intentionally manipulated for a desired outcome.
When we talk about CEA, there are several types of alternative agricultural methods that are also part of the conversation. These include:
Additionally, there are also some adjacent ideas that aren’t exclusively part of CEA, but are often used in conjunction with it:
Clearly, the umbrella of what constitutes CEA is pretty large. That breadth of possibilities is also what is helping drive CEA innovation in many different ways.
If you’re just now learning about CEA, you might be surprised to find out just how much attention is being given to it these days.
While CEA is practiced by many backyard hobbyists, it’s also the focus of serious university research. Examples include:
Additionally, several startups with substantial Venture Capital funding are hard at work in this market, such as:
There is serious money and time being spent to understand and improve CEA. This will help us have better agricultural systems that produce the food and other products we consume.
With us so far? In CEA, farmers are intentionally manipulating the environmental variables we previously discussed. Why would they do that? After all, it’s not simple or cheap to do so necessarily.
If it wasn’t already obvious, farmers go to the trouble of thoughtfully rationing out the amounts of the above inputs because there are tangible benefits to be gained. Below are a few examples of how CEA can improve on existing agricultural methods:
People dedicate entire careers to CEA, so we aren’t going to be able to cover every detail or possible application here. However, we hope you now have a solid understanding of what CEA is and why it is important.
Hopefully, your brain isn’t fried yet, because we’re actually just getting started! If you’re wondering how CEA fits in with shipping containers, you’re about to find out.
Let’s say that someone wanted to move forward with a mature CEA project, meaning more than just a simple greenhouse. One of the first decision points would be choosing what structure to house the CEA system.
You’d need some kind of building or box to hold everything and separate the outdoor ecosystem from what you’re creating inside. You could custom-build something, but your expertise is really what goes inside the box, not the box itself. You could hire a company to design and manufacture the perfect space for you, but that’s expensive unless you have hundreds of customers.
Instead, there are some great reasons why many researchers and companies have looked to shipping containers to fulfill this role:
The idea of using cargo containers for farming has already been explored by inventive companies like Ikea and researcher groups like the MIT Media Lab. And don’t forget about unique projects to combine a container and greenhouse into an aquaponics system with natural light.
It’s clear there are some qualitative merits to the idea of using containers for farming. Now, let’s talk about the quantitative, financial reasoning behind container growing.
The economics of CEA overall are still being debated and studied, and using shipping containers as a path toward CEA doesn’t instantly cure all of those issues. As we always say, shipping containers aren’t perfect and have inherent strengths and weaknesses.
Coupled with the difficulty of growing in containers is the difficulty of running a business in general (given that most container farms are run as businesses). Just like businesses in every other industry, it should be no surprise that several shipping container agriculture companies have gone out of business over the past few years such as Local Roots, Indoor Farms of America / Grow Trucks, and others.
Despite controlling most environmental variables, container farming still exposes owners to most of the marketplace and economic variables that traditional farming faces. So when you think about the economic viability of a container farm, you need to focus on key decisions and costs.
Important choices include which crops to grow, where to locate the container farm, how to price, and how to advertise effectively to find the right consumers. These choices will impact costs, but they predominantly affect revenue.
Some of the often neglected choices are the small day-to-day decisions that have to be made to operate the container farm successfully. Daily tasks required to actually grow the crops can’t be taken for granted.
In some ways, shipping containers farms have less margin for error than regular farms. When you’re operating at very high efficiencies, mistakes tend to be amplified, but so are the rewards. On the upside, the accelerated growing time and year-round growing season mean you don’t have to wait an entire year for the next chance to plant.
Whether you’re farming it yourself or hiring employees to run it for you, ensuring you have the ability to consistently grow high-quality produce is the issue that everything else hinges on.
For the cost side of the equation, we’ll divide outflows into two categories: capital expenses (commonly abbreviated CAPEX) and operational expenses (commonly abbreviated OPEX).
Capital expenses are the large, upfront costs needed to get the container farm started. In most cases, this is just the acquisition cost to buy the actual container farm and associated equipment that is needed to run it.
You can expect to spend around $50k to $100k for most pre-made 40-foot commercial container farms. These CAPEX costs are one-time, or at least, once over a period of many years until something needs to be replaced.
Operational expenses are much different. These are the costs required to run a container farm you already have. Common OPEX items include seed, fertilizer, water, packaging, advertising, etc. But by far, the largest operational costs are energy and labor.
Container farms need to have their own sources of light and water distribution while being kept at a temperature and humidity often very different from what’s outside. The energy inputs required to do all of these things can be significant.
Research has shown that at least for the midwest United States, the majority of energy is used for heating and cooling (around 79% of the required energy) and the balance is used for lighting, water pumps, etc. This split will vary depending on where you’re located (a Mediterranean climate will be easier to heat and cool than a tropical or arctic climate). And additionally, the cost of purchasing energy (in most cases, electricity) can vary significantly from place to place.
However, spending more upfront (CAPEX) on insulation should reduce the heating and cooling expenses (OPEX). If you’re planning for an extreme climate, this investment might be worth it.
Needless to say, there are a lot of factors that go into running a shipping container farm. Those interested should spend significant time on a feasibility study and business plan to ensure that they aren’t just falling in love with a sexy idea, but a realistic business opportunity.
Given that a lot of Discover Containers readers have at least a partial interest in do-it-yourself projects, it’s natural to think about building your own shipping container farm. Is it possible to build your own container farm? Absolutely. Is it a good idea for you? Keep reading.
To begin, we’re going to assume that your potential DIY container farm is based on a hydroponic system. The number one question you need to ask yourself is, “Do I have experience with hydroponic growing or do I mind getting that experience slowly on my own?”
If you have lots of free time and a high-threshold for frustration, a DIY approach may be for you. While a container farm system, in theory, is fairly simple, getting everything to work together and without requiring constant supervision will be a chore.
Let’s talk about the basic setup you’d need:
This quote from Fast Company is indicative of the uphill battle you’d face purchasing, integrating, and operating all of these systems into a profitable venture:
Given the hefty price tag of developing proprietary growing technologies, not to mention renting pricey urban land, underwhelming harvests (which are common among startups still tinkering with their growing systems) can be financially devastating.
So, for many people who are interested in container farming, purchasing a turn-key system from a manufacturer will be the best pathway forward. Being able to immediately produce crops profitably will help immensely with a container farm’s financial viability. While you may be able to find a used container farm, the market is small enough that most people end up buying new.
In order to provide the type of high-quality guide we’re known for at Discover Containers, we’ve reached out to companies that specialize in container farms to get more detailed information. This is by far the most exhaustive list of container agriculture companies you’ll find anywhere!
Note: For the most part, we’ve left off the numerous independent farms that have purchased their container farming system from one of the included companies. Instead, we’re focusing on the larger manufacturers and the smaller operators who created their own systems.
In this section, some of the companies that we highlight manufacture and sell shipping container farm systems to businesses or individual farmers. Other companies have made their own container farms themselves and are instead in the business of selling their harvested products.
Below, we share what we heard from these companies when we asked them more about what they do and why they use shipping containers. For those we weren’t able to reach directly, we’ve shared a short summary based on publicly available information. As you might expect, most of what you’ll see are hydroponic shipping container farms. Enjoy!
Agricool is a container farm based in the Paris metro area that currently specializes in strawberries. Their strawberries are available for sale in several areas around the city and can even be delivered via a partner company. They have raised almost $40M to fuel growth in Paris and Dubai while hopefully expanding their product assortment to other fruits and vegetables.
Alesca Life is an agritech startup that builds indoor farms and farm management solutions to make food production more localized and data-driven. Alesca was founded in 2013 with the vision to democratize access to fresh and nutritious food by democratizing the means and knowledge of production.
Alesca has developed hyper-efficient, hydroponic, climate-controlled commercial farms that utilize 20~25 times less water, fertilizer, and land compared to conventional farms with no need for chemical pesticides, and small-scale, automated, cabinet farms to enable on-site food production by hotels, restaurants, and homes.
Alesca has also launched a precision farming IoT device for remote monitoring and farm equipment automation, and a farm management IT system to aggregate production-level data, streamline operational management, and provide complete farm-level data transparency and supply chain traceability for farmers and customers.
Alesca upcycles second-hand shipping containers into high yielding farms for several key reasons: shipping containers are globally abundant, highly standardized, and incredibly durable. The standardization and modularity allow container farms to be manufactured quickly and efficiently. The mobility and durability allow container farms to deployed as temporary or semi-permanent installations and in harsh climates.
Bonbio practices circular farming, meaning that food waste is used, indirectly, to grow new food. Specifically, recycled food waste is used to produce biogas. A byproduct of biogas production is organic, liquid plant nutrients that are used in their container farms. So, not only do they have the sustainable benefits inherent to container farming, they also have the ability to make their own plant nutrients in an eco-friendly way.
CropBox is a business that started in 2014 as the result of a master’s thesis and grew to be a partnership that sells and leases shipping container farms. They produce a more economical type of container farm that’s positioned for budget-conscious farmers.
CubicFarms are large scale systems optimized for commercial production. They require 14 shipping container farming units at minimum, along with irrigation and germination machines.
The horizontal plant growth trays move on a serpentine chain system throughout each container, making all plant units accessible through the main container doors from the central production area. Therefore, the entire area of the a container is used for growing crops – there is no need for a walkway through the middle of the container.
FarmBox Foods is merging technology and agriculture to change the way we farm. When compared to traditional farming, FarmBox Foods’ fully automated, vertical hydroponic shipping container farms are more environmentally friendly—greatly reducing water usage and the carbon footprint associated with food transportation.
Capitalizing on global transportation standards and their hyper-efficient insulation, shipping containers are the ideal mobile farm. These shipping container farms provide year-round, locally-grown produce that can create new farming careers and supply food deserts with much needed fresh food.
Using an entirely climate-controlled system allows the farms to operate in virtually unlimited locations around the world—from the densest of cities to remote, harsh environments—without adversely impacting food production.
In 2020, FarmBox Foods will debut the world’s first gourmet mushroom farm housed entirely within a shipping container. This innovative unit will produce over 300 pounds of oyster, shiitake, lion’s mane, and king oyster mushrooms per week.
Contributing to the movement of food decentralization, mushroom container farms will allow communities to regain control of their food supply.
With growing academic research on the positive effects of psilocybin on mental well-being, FarmBox Foods is also exploring the possibility of launching a psychedelic mushroom container farm in the future.
FarmPods are vertical, aquaponic food production systems that are based on 20-foot shipping containers. They integrate a greenhouse for plant growth on top of the container with fish tanks inside of it.
Offgrid operation is possible in some climates thanks to solar panels, a rain catchment system, and solar radiant heaters.
Freight Farms is the world’s leading manufacturer of container farming technology with dozens of container farms in use worldwide. If you’ve ever seen a shipping container farm before, there’s a good chance it was one from Freight Farms.
They sell their shipping container farming system as The Greenery, previously named The Leafy Green Machine. The Greenery uses vertical racks held by overhead tracks that allow the entire hydroponic system to move from side to side within the container.
FreshBox Farms uses shipping containers for their growing areas, but several of them are housed together in a warehouse instead of being freestanding. They have the scale to distribute produce to dozens of stores within 150 miles of their headquarters.
GrowBox offers container farms in a variety of sizes, including 10-foot and 20-foot containers. This allows owners to purchase a container farm at much lower prices if they need less harvested produce. They are available with grow shelves or towers and are fully automated for year-round growing.
Growcer aims to empower individuals to have access to fresh food locally. By manufacturing state-of-the-art modular food production systems, communities globally can grow up to 12,000 lbs of produce annually in temperatures as cold as -56 degrees Celsius. Additionally, each system is extremely efficient and as such uses 95% less water and 99% less land than traditional growing methods.
These systems are designed for existing farmers, remote and Indigenous communities, retailers and food service providers to grow local food on a competitive commercial scale. The Growcer provides an opportunity for economic development for communities across Canada and in just over three years of operation, The Growcer’s ready-to-use systems have already had success across Canada and with over 20 systems now deployed.
Growcer produces a line of container farm systems for all different environments including the Arctic Growing System (AGS) that operates from -52°C to 22°C, the Urban Growing System (UGS) that operates from -30°C to 35°C, and the Desert Growing System (DGS) that operates from -10°C to 45°C. They use sloped, hydroponic growth trays to deliver nutrient-rich water to plants.
The Growcer supports customers like Compass Group (the world’s largest food service provider), Walmart, Loblaw Companies Ltd. (PC Children’s Charity) and is looking to grow internationally in the upcoming year.
The shipping container farm units from Grow Pod are equipped for both soil-based and hydroponic growing and are available in both 20-foot and 40-foot sizes.
Growtainers® are state-of-the-art vertical farms housed in 20’, 40 or 45’ custom-designed shipping containers. Unlike others in the space, we have almost 50 years of industry experience and the ability to design and supply crop or project-specific units for our clients worldwide. We know that every crop and every project is unique and a “One Size Fits All’ approach just doesn’t work.
Growtainers® utilize our proprietary Growrack® system, irrigation systems including water monitoring and dosing, precise control of the climate and environment and crop-specific LED lighting.
We only deal with commercial clients such as Growers, food manufacturers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, Universities, Grocery Retailers and Research Centers. Recently we created 53’ food safety compliant units for a major US Grocery retailer. In that disruptive project, leafy greens are grown in Growtainers® in the Supermarket’s parking lots and the hyper-local produce is available for sale in their stores immediately after it’s harvested.
In addition to designing and building Growtainers®, our parent company, CEA Advisors LLC consults on the development of investment-grade Vertical farming projects for global clients. Some of our ongoing consultation projects include the development of a 4000 square foot vertical farm producing micro-greens, a 20,000 square foot automated vertical farm project producing leafy greens, micro-greens and edible flowers, serving as the senior advisor to the Farminova Plant Factory project in Turkey and working with a major manufacturer of Bio-Stimulants in Spain to develop plant nutrition for hydroponic growers worldwide.
Based in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, La Boîte Maraîchère can produce a variety of leafy vegetables and herbs in their container farms. They consciously build with used containers, giving the metal boxes a second life.
Founded by NBA player Ekpe Udoh in 2015, LGR Farms is a hydroponic farm in Edmund built out of a recycled storage container. They grow over 50 leafy greens, herbs, and fruits and provide local, fresh produce to communities, schools, and restaurants.
Pure Greens was founded by Damon and Taisiya Jacobson in 2015. We got the vision of growing crops in ocean shipping containers in prayer. Due to unpredictable weather patterns, it has become a challenge for many farmers to produce crops. We created the Pure Greens Container Farms as we saw a need to improve the accessibility to fresh and locally grown produce in the US and around the world.
Our container farms allow farmers to grow year-round in any weather: extensive heat conditions as in Arizona or very cold temperatures as in Alaska. Unlike greenhouses or outdoor farming, Pure Greens Container Farms are climate controlled. This allows the grower to monitor the indoor environment in the farm, which is done through an app on your phone or on your computer.
With more than 20 years of experience with specialized shipping container modifications and design, we are set apart from our competitors, as we’re able to fabricate the entire Farm in house. We have our own engineers, welders, and electricians which makes our manufacturing process efficient and timely. We offer several different layouts and can custom-build specific layouts and specifications.
Our Container Farms are ideal for growers, entrepreneurs, kitchen chefs, schools or anyone who has a desire to grow crops but doesn’t have the space or environment necessary for an outdoor farm.
Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch is Colorado’s first and only edible insect farm, founded in 2015. Our “micro ranch” is a used, retrofitted 40-foot high-cube shipping container. Inside, we raise the edible insects that we sell to chefs, food makers and anyone who loves delicious, sustainable food.
We make products from mostly whole, roasted insects, including chocolate-covered insects and even a pasta made with cricket powder. We previously raised crickets, but now focus on mealworms. Food production is done at a commercial kitchen – the shipping container is totally dedicated to insect farming!
Growing bugs in a shipping container has a learning curve: insects are ectothermic or “cold-blooded,” and it’s crucial to keep a constant temperature and humidity with insulation, environmental controls, and air circulation. We also connected a solar thermal water heater to the roof and run a glycol and water mixture through baseboards to heat the container.
Given the expensive real estate in booming Denver, creating a small starter farm that could be moved (and has been!) made a lot of sense for a self-funded startup farm like ours. We will continue to farm in the container, but future larger micro ranches may be housed in buildings to be able to scale vertically. We think these insect farms have just as much potential for urban farming as other companies making shipping container farms.
Shipshape Urban Farms (SUF) is a hydroponic farming corporation, providing fresh local produce to consumers along the Gulf Coast with strategies to expand into new markets through the sale of patent-pending, hydroponic Container Gardens.
Shipshape’s hydroponic “Container Gardens” are unique in design and layout, growing healthier plants in larger quantities, in a reduced footprint versus conventional farming. The technology is supported by the agri-scientist, designers, and computer scientists that perform ongoing R&D on new crops and methods of production.
The Container Gardens are built in a 320 square foot up-cycled, high cube shipping container and produce the equivalent of a 3.4 acre farm (148,104 Sq Ft) in an enclosed environment. This system eliminates seasonal and environmental pressures, allowing SUF to grow consistent produce year round that is larger and healthier in a reduced grow cycle.
Square Roots is an urban farming company with a mission to bring local, real food to people in cities around the world by empowering next-gen leaders in urban farming. Their team includes Elon Musk’s brother, Kimbal, along with dozens of others.
Square Roots farmers grow a variety of fresh and flavorful greens and herbs in indoor, vertical farms, right in the heart of cities. Thanks to their modular, hydroponic growing systems, farmers are able to grow fresh, non-GMO, pesticide-free produce all year round.
They sell to a variety of New York City retailers from the Brooklyn location. Additionally, the have an expanding relationship with Gordon Food Service distribution centers that will provide produce across North America, starting in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Their Next-Gen Farmer Training Program is at the heart of what they do—providing an accessible pathway to the forefront of urban agriculture for more young farmers.
Tiger Corner Farms employs aeroponic instead of hydroponic technology, making them fairly unique in the world of container farm companies. They also have proprietary software managing all the operations.
Urban Crop Solutions is a Belgium based pioneer in the fast-emerging technology of ‘Indoor vertical farming’. They provide systems that are turnkey, robotized and able to be integrated in existing production facilities or food processing units.
Urban Crop Solutions has its own range of standard growing products as well named the FarmFlex and FarmPro, both of them made in a 40 foot high cube freight container. Their commercial farms are being operated throughout Europe and North America for vegetables, herbs, micro-greens for food retail, foodservice and industrial use.
Being a total solution provider, they can also supply seeds, substrates and nutrients for clients that have limited experience with (indoor) farming. Currently, the company has developed plant growing recipes for more than 220 crop varieties that can be grown in closed environment vertical farms. Some of these recipes (ranging from leafy greens, vegetables, medicinal plants to flowers) are developed exclusively for its clients by the Urban Crop Solutions team of plant scientists.
With headquarters in Waregem (Belgium – Europe) and operations in Miami (Florida, US) and Osaka (Kansai, Japan) they are globally active.
Urban Farm is a French company making shipping container growing systems called the Farmbox. They place Farmbox’s onsite at stores and handle the operations and maintenance themselves, so the stores just provide electricity and water and get fresh produce.
Container farms aren’t the only thing VH Hydroponics makes, but it is arguably the most exciting. Their Containerized Growing System (CGS) includes everything needed to grow fresh, local produce year-round, and it available for both sale and lease.
Their system is ready for Arctic environments and provides a way for rural Northern communities to get fresh produce at a lower cost than importing.
Container farming is an incredible application for shipping containers. By providing local, healthy produce in areas where that wasn’t feasible before, these innovators are truly changing the world.
If you’re a container enthusiast, the idea of farming in containers is just one more reason to get excited about the diverse opportunities provided by shipping containers. If you’re sustainability-minded, container growing is a great way to reduce vehicle miles delivering food to areas where it can’t be grown via traditional agriculture. And finally, if you’re trying to be a healthy consumer, sourcing your vegetables and herbs from a nearby container farm is a wonderful way to boost freshness, nutrition, and taste.
Let us know in the comments below what you think about the different ways containers can be used in conjunction with agriculture