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.
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.
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:
Shipping containers provide all of these incredible benefits of CEA plus their own unique set of advantages, which we will discuss shortly.
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:
Shipping containers make excellent farms and are a really exciting part of CEA because they are:
Of course, while shipping containers are a fantastic option for CEA and box farms, there are some downsides you should consider, such as:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.