Farm In A Box: What Exactly Is Container Farming?

When most of us think of farms, the first images that come to mind are usually large, open fields, big blue skies, and rows and rows of corn or wheat. Very few of us think of buildings, and even fewer of us think of shipping containers.

However, as the world gets more populated and as human behavior continues to strain our climate and planet, we as a species have to innovate when it comes to how we grow our food. Not only is there less farmland than there ever has been, but it's less nutrient-rich than ever. This forces us to rely on chemicals and fossil fuels to keep growing the food we need to survive, which has a wide range of negative impacts.

One of the more innovative solutions to this has been to try and remove nature from the equation as much as possible, and the way to do this is to farm inside. It might seem counter-intuitive, but it's possible, and shipping containers present an exciting opportunity for us to rethink how we farm.

So, whether you're interested in container farms just because you're curious or because you might want to build one yourself, we've put together this comprehensive guide to teach you all you need to know about farms in boxes.

Farm in a Box: Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)

Container farms fall under the umbrella of a much wider movement – controlled environment agriculture (CEA).

As the name suggests, this type of agriculture aims to grow food utterly independent of the whims and fancies of Mother Nature by creating an environment where the farmer controls all the conditions.

This is in stark contrast to traditional farming, where farmers can pretty much only control what they plant, when they plant, which chemicals they use, and, to a lesser extent, how much water they use. This type of farming is quite risky since you can never know from one season to the next how a crop will perform. There is always the chance of an unexpected event – tornado, hurricane, disease, insect infestation, etc. – that can ruin a crop and send a farmer into bankruptcy.

CEA is designed to prevent this from happening by giving the farmer full control over the entire growing process, starting with the soil's nutrient makeup and how much light and water the plants receive.

This is not an entirely new concept. Greenhouses are a form of CEA and have been around for ages. As humans get smarter, we're learning more and more about growing food, and our CEA practices are getting more and more advanced.

Why CEA is the Future

One does not need to study the state of modern agriculture for too long to see why CEA is likely going to be the wave of the future. This is mainly because it:

  • Improves productivity – When farming indoors using CEA, plants can be stacked much more closely to one another than they could on open land since there are systems in place to ensure that each plant gets the nutrients, water, and sunlight it needs to survive. Therefore, CEA can produce more pounds of food per square foot than traditional agriculture, which is a really exciting prospect.
  • Reduces our dependence on the land – Farms require large tracts of fertile soil to be successful. Not only is there less and less of this soil each year, but it's increasingly falling into the hands of large corporations and real estate speculators. If we continue along as if all is normal, we will soon run out of land we can use to grow food, which would cause all sorts of devastating problems.
  • Minimizes the risk of a failed crop – Because all aspects of the growing process are controlled and planned in CEA, there is little to no chance a crop will fail. CEA removes so many of the variables that can cause this to happen, reducing the risk a farmer gets to their harvest season without any crops to show for it.
  • Makes food more available – Most plants need warm, sunny climates to grow, but a significant portion of the world lives in areas where this weather only comes for a few short months a year. With CEA, plants grow in a temperature-controlled environment, meaning they can be grown any time of the year in any part of the world. Using CEA, we can grow food on both the North and South Poles and outer space! (Anyone who has seen or read The Martian...this was CEA, and it's highly realistic!)
  • Allows for better-quality produce – So many things impact how produce looks and tastes when it's harvested. Many of these things are outside of a farmer's control, e.g., amount of water, sunlight, soil condition, humidity, etc. CEA allows farmers to remove all these variables and grow "perfect" crops, and it also gives them the chance to experiment with new strains of plants so that they can come out with new products and expand their incomes. Also, because you can locate CEA farms anywhere, they make it easier for consumers to access genuinely fresh produce.
  • Reduces food miles – In our current food system, very little of what we grow is consumed locally. Instead, it's shipped to faraway markets and sold for a profit. This is good for business but bad for the planet as it requires us to use carbon-rich fossil fuels to grow our food and move it around. You can read more about food miles here.
  • Limits fossil fuel and chemical use – Agriculture uses tons of fossil fuels and chemicals to be productive. A big reason for this is our soil's poor quality; decades of intensive agriculture have degraded soil quality. This requires us to use chemicals to compensate, many of which have harmful effects on the surrounding ecosystem, especially when they wash downstream into the sea. Farms also use tons of fossil fuels, mainly oil and natural gas, to do everything from plant and harvest to extract water from deep underground to irrigate the soil. CEA, of course, still uses resources, but since the environment is controlled and contained, it uses less.
  • Eliminates risks posed by animals and insects – Because CEA is indoors, farmers don't need to worry about the various pests that can find their way onto their farms and destroy their crops.

Shipping containers provide all of these incredible benefits of CEA plus their own unique set of advantages, which we will discuss shortly.

The Basics of CEA

To understand the possibilities when it comes to container farms, it's essential to know the various types of CEA that exist today. Currently, there are four different forms of CEA:

  • Hydroponics – In this system, plants are grown without any soil. Instead, the plant roots are suspended, either in nutrient-filled water or in something such as gravel. There is no need for dirt.

  • Aeroponics – A similar system, aeroponic farming has you suspend the roots in the air and then spray them with a mist that's filled with the nutrients the plant needs.
  • Aquaculture – This is farming for plants and animals that live in water. An oyster farm is an example, but aquaculture is also used to grow things such as seaweed and algae.
  • Aquaponics – A combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, this system aims to mimic a natural underwater ecosystem in which the various organisms feed off one another. For example, you can introduce certain fish to this system, and their feces can be used to provide nutrients for plants. These types of systems are fascinating, but they are tough to build and maintain.

Building a Container Farm

Shipping containers make excellent farms and are a really exciting part of CEA because they are:

  • Portable – Shipping containers can easily be moved around the globe, making great farms because they are easily transportable to other areas should the need arise.
  • Scalable – Once you make one container farm, it's easy to make another. You just need to duplicate your design in a new container.
  • Durable – Containers are designed to be water- and airtight and also to be able to withstand the harsh conditions of the open seas. Therefore, if you grow food inside one, you don't need to worry about them getting damaged from anything other than your own mistakes!
  • Stackable – Because shipping containers fit easily on top and next to one another, they can be stacked together to help you increase the size of your farm with minimal effort.
  • Cheap and accessible – Used containers can be had for less than $1,000, and brand-new ones rarely cost more than $5,000. Perhaps more importantly, you can find both new and used shipping containers everywhere. This means that pretty much anyone with the drive and desire can have a box farm if they want it.
  • Customizable – An empty shipping container is like a blank canvas. You can remodel it any way you'd like and make your box farm dreams come true.
  • The right size – Containers make great box farms because they are big enough for you to be able to stack plants along the edges but also leave space in the middle where you can walk and tend to your plants. Plus, they're never more than 8' tall, so you will be able to get to plants that are higher up using a small stool or ladder.

Downsides to Container Farming

Of course, while shipping containers are a fantastic option for CEA and box farms, there are some downsides you should consider, such as:

  • A steep learning curve – Growing food using CEA requires a fair bit of knowledge about what plants need to thrive, and also the systems required to create a controlled environment. For someone with no prior experience of either, getting started with a container farm can be a daunting task. Still, there are numerous resources to help you overcome this and build a great container farm.
  • Cost of installation – Shipping containers were not designed for use as farms, and so they come with few features required for setting up a CEA system. If you're not careful, making all the modifications needed to turn your container into a farm could cost you a small fortune. If you're doing this as a business venture, this might not be a big deal as you can recoup costs later. If it's just for fun, make sure to set a budget before you begin so that you don't encounter too many surprises down the road.
  • High energy use – If you're not careful, your container farm can fall into the same trap as a regular farm and use lots and lots of energy, especially if you need to do lots of heating and cooling or water pumping.
  • Local codes and regulations – If you're building a container farm on your property, make sure you're following all the local codes and regulations. Some municipalities have specific guidelines for containers, whereas some don't. This can be confusing, but make sure to do your homework so that you don't wind up finishing a project and finding out it's illegal and must be taken down.

In comparison with the potential upsides of container farming, these downsides are fairly insignificant, and in most cases, there is a solution to them. However, it's important to be aware of these pitfalls so you can adequately plan your container farm project.

How to Set Up Your Own Container Farm

So you've learned about CEA and the benefits of a container farm, and you're sold on the idea. Great! Get ready for a fun, learning-filled process, which involves taking into account all of the following things:

Commercial or Personal?

The very first thing you will want to decide before embarking on your container farm journey is whether you're doing so for commercial or personal reasons.

By commercial, we mean turning your box farm into a business. This is quite popular, and a lot of money is being invested in box farming. However, if this is your plan, know that your project will be subjected to the same constraints that any new business must face. Your main task will be to figure out what you're going to grow and how much, as this will help you figure out how much money you can expect to make. Then, you will need to find a way to design a system that allows you to turn a profit.

It is possible to do this, but this is still an emerging market, so it comes with considerable risk. Plus, since you must sell your products alongside food grown traditionally, you will need to compete with price. People don't typically pay more just because their food was grown in a funky way. We recommend working with a business advisor or a financial analyst to help you ensure you've crunched the numbers correctly and are not getting yourself in too far over your head.

Many people are looking to container farms for personal use. It's an alternative to traditional gardening that will increase yields and allow you to grow year-round. However, if your interest in box farming is purely personal, the first thing we recommend you do is to work out how much money you are ready to spend. These projects can get very expensive very quickly, but if you're prepared, you can make it happen for a reasonable price.

Choose Your Container

Now that you've defined your project, the next thing you need to do is choose your container. The three most important things to keep in mind are size, type, and condition. Here's a summary of your choices to help you decide:


Most of us initially picture the standard 20' container. There are also 40' models, as well as 12' and 8' cubes. It's also possible to order a custom-sized container, but these are expensive and partially defeat the purpose of using a shipping container in the first place.

If you're planning to go into business with your farm, then the bigger, the better. More space means more crops and more stuff you can sell down the road. If you're doing this just for fun, you can get away with a smaller container; it just depends on how much you want to spend and how much you want to grow.

For most people, we recommend going with the standard 20' container, as this will give you the most options.


When you start shopping for your shipping container, you will see there are various types you can get. The most popular include:

  • Dry-freight – The standard container. It's watertight and airtight and opens only on one end. This will serve for most farms, except if you live in an area with an extreme climate since they are not insulated.
  • Open-top – These are used for loading grain, coal, and other materials from the top. They are likely not going to be practical for box farm applications.
  • Insulated containers – Designed to ship temperature-sensitive items, they are an excellent option for those who will need to monitor the temperature inside a box closely. They tend to be a bit more expensive but can save you the hassle of having to install insulation yourself.
  • Refrigerated containers – Built for storing perishable goods, "reefers" are not only insulated, but they come with their own refrigeration system that can be used to control the internal temperature. Check to see this container's capabilities, but reefers can make great box farms in environments where the outdoor temperatures make growing impossible.
  • Ventilated containers – Traditional shipping containers are airtight, which can be a great feature. But if you know you're going to need to work to keep your box cool, a ventilated container might be the right choice for you as this natural airflow will make things easier.

There are other types of containers, but these represent the most common out there. Give reefers and insulated containers an extra look, as these built-in systems, while likely to make the container itself a bit more expensive, can be a tremendous help and provide decent savings down the line.


When buying containers used (which we recommend), know that different grades are used to describe their physical condition. The main grades are:

  • "Cargo worthy" – These containers are almost new. They might have a few dings, dents, and scratches, but nothing noticeable. They are also going to be the most expensive.
  • "Watertight/airtight" – Containers falling into this category have maintained their ability to keep water and air out. Still, they may have other flaws, such as big dents, rust, scratches, etc. In general, containers of this quality are a good deal since they are cheaper than 'cargo worthy' containers but still plenty serviceable.
  • "As is" – Anything that doesn't fall into the previous two categories is sold "as is." These containers can vary dramatically in condition, so make sure you can inspect the one you're looking at before purchasing.

In general, your container's condition doesn't matter too much, but you want to make sure you're getting something that is structurally sound.

Also, pay attention to how the container was used in the past. Some are used for hazardous materials, and trace amounts may remain in the container, not ideal if you're planning to grow food. Ensure you double-check this before going too far.

Price and Where to Buy

Twenty-foot "cargo-worthy" containers usually cost between $3,000 and $4,000. It's possible to get them for less, or sometimes they can cost upwards of $5,000. On the other end of things, an "as-is" container can be found for less than $1,000.

However, no matter which one you go for, using a shipping container for your box farm will be much cheaper than constructing something using traditional materials, which is one of the many appeals of a container farm.

You can buy shipping containers from several different places. The first place you should look is your local port or shipping depot. They often have many containers on their lot they're willing to get rid of, which can be a great place to score a deal. Just note you will need to take care of moving the container yourself.

There are also container dealers you can contact. Search for one near you by doing a Google search. This route can be helpful if you're looking for a specific container you can't seem to find on your own (such as a reefer or an insulated container) or if you have no interest in or ability to transport the container on your own. If you decide to work with a dealer, know that you may wind up paying a bit more for the convenience they provide.

The last option (though far from the worst) is to look at Craigslist or eBay. People have been buying shipping containers for years now, and you can find them on these marketplaces pretty easily. There are some deals to be found here, but as is the case when buying anything online, make sure you do your homework so that you don't get conned!

Design Your System

Once you've made a plan for your container farm and selected and purchased your box, it's time for the most challenging yet most rewarding part of this process: designing your system.

The sky is the limit here, and often the only thing holding you back is budget. We recommend you take some time researching the various container farms out there to see what design elements have worked for people in the past. If you're not much of a builder, it's probably best to hire a contractor.

Doing it yourself is possible, but just get ready to make some mistakes along the road.

No matter which path you take, here are all the things you must include in your box farm design if you want to make it a success:

Plant Storage

The first thing you need to think about is how you will store plants inside your container. The most common method for doing this is to stack them on trays or shelves to line them up along the container's sides. Doing this will allow for the most amount of plants while also leaving space in the container for you and any other equipment or machinery you may need to install.

When designing your plant storage system, make sure to not stack plants so closely on top of one another that they can't grow tall. Also, leave room down below for the roots to spread out.

If you're doing this for personal reasons, we recommend you start by not stacking plants. Get one layer going, and then as you get comfortable, add more. If you're doing this as a business, then you'll need to think about what design will allow you to get the most amount of plants inside your box.


Once you've figured out where you're going to put your plants, you will need to figure out how you will get water to them.

Since it's likely you'll be setting up a hydroponics system; this means you need to stack your plants so that the roots are suspended in water. This is usually done by hanging plants over trays or buckets filled with water.

From there, you will need to install a pump that cycles the water around. This is how you keep the water full of the nutrients that the plants need to grow.

You will need to install all sorts of piping and tubing around your container. This isn't so hard for smaller farms, but if you're going to have a more complex system, designing your irrigation method can be a challenge.


Plants need light to grow - obviously. If you shut them inside a shipping container without any means of getting light, then your farm isn't going to be very successful.

Most people install LED lights inside the container. These lights are best because they produce the most amount of light and require the least amount of energy. Plus, they don't generate any heat, which is important. They are also good because you can control when they turn on and off, allowing you to dictate exactly how much light your plants receive.

One alternative is to cut holes in your box and rely on sunlight. If you do this, we recommend leaving a way to block this light and also installing LEDs. This way, if the sun is not cooperating, you will have a way of making changes. Remember, CEA is all about reducing the number of farming variables, so relying entirely on sunlight is not going to be ideal.

Temperature and Humidity

Consistent temperature is also essential, and it's one of the many things a container farm can provide that makes it better than a traditional farm. Installing an air conditioning system that allows you to control the container's exact temperature is going to be essential if you want to have a successful project.

In addition to temperature, humidity is also key. Think about which types of plants you may want to grow, and then install a climate system that will allow you to create the exact conditions they need.

Controls and Alarms

Lastly, we recommend you install as many control systems as possible. There are devices you can get that will monitor the humidity, alkaline level, temperature, light, etc., and that will alert you when something has changed inside your container. This is ideal since it will tell you the moment something is wrong so you can make an adjustment. The alternative is to wait until your crop fails, which is no fun for anyone.

Enjoy Your Produce and Learn from Mistakes

After reading this guide, we hope you are now an expert on CEA and container farms. As you can see, there are tons of benefits to this type of farm, both as a business and as a hobby. No matter if you're out to make some money or just grow your own food, the best piece of advice we can offer is to be patient. Yes, CEA is designed to make agriculture more predictable, but plants are still plants, and it takes time to get to know them and make them grow. If you are patient and open to learning from your mistakes, it's more than possible to turn a shipping container into a productive and viable farm.