Schools Launch Hydroponic Farms Inside Refurbished Shipping Containers
Upcycling for Growth
Stepping into the shipping container on the grounds of Boston Latin School is not what you would expect. The glow of LED lights, the cool humid temperature and the abundance of leafy greens hanging from the ceilings might surprise you, but for the students in charge of maintaining this wonder, it’s just another day. This ‘Leafy Green Machine,’ produced by Freight Farms, started as a dream. The renovated shipping container houses an acre’s worth of vertical growing space, using hydroponic irrigation and UV light, and allows for year-round growth regardless of weather conditions. In an effort to help “green” their school, Cate Arnold, Boston Latin School’s sustainability coordinator and middle school history teacher, and a group of concerned students applied for the Global Green USA’s Green Makeover Competition in 2012. Out of 400 applications, Boston Latin’s proposal was the winner. The grant provided $75,000 needed to jump start a school farming program and a chance to educate future students on the concerns surrounding food access and the changing landscape of agriculture.
The New Study Hall
Fast forward six years and the farm is in full swing. With a team of over 60 students volunteering during their free periods, Boston Latin grows a range of produce from arugula to calendula, an edible flower that is equally as delicious as it is beautiful. These farm hands all seem to feel the same way about the farm. “It gives us an opportunity to do something different, and is a nice break from the books,” notes Annie Wilson, a junior at Boston Latin. Chelsea Zheng, also a junior, adds, “You can put some music on, work with your hands, and relax for a while.” Many of the students have been involved since their freshman year, and those who joined the group later wish they had learned about it sooner.
Future of Farming
The farm has influenced the students’ future goals and how they view food and agriculture. For Laura Goodfield, a junior, the farm has sparked an interest in public health, “I’m interested in how we as a population interact with our food, and the effects that has on our health.” The students are already giving back to their community by donating a portion of their yield to a food pantry in Jamaica Plain. The majority of their funding has come through school fundraising efforts. According to Ms. Arnold, “We are planning a picnic for the Spring. Students will be able to come out after school and make a salad with ingredients we’ve grown.” Looking towards the future, the students are working on becoming a certified CSA, which will allow them generate funds to keep the farm running for years to come.
Boston Latin isn’t the only Freight Farm in the area. Responding to the push for fresh, local produce, Green Line Growers, a small business that sells primarily to area restaurants, set up shop in a warehouse in Brookline, operating out of three shipping containers. Green Line Growers founder, Bobby Zuker, explains: “I wanted people to know where their food comes from, and to have the option of purchasing local produce. It was also important to me that my kids knew where the food they eat was grown.” Green Line Growers recently closed operations, but area schools like the Rivers School in Weston and Salem High School in Salem, Massachusetts have followed Boston Latin’s lead, installing farms of their own!
The Creators of the Leafy Green Machine
Based in Boston, Freight Farms was founded in 2010 with the intention of providing a space to grow healthy, fresh produce year round - regardless of the outdoor conditions. Their signature product, the Leafy Green Machine, comes assembled in a 40-foot repurposed shipping container. With the use of vertical hydroponic systems and a LED array, the Leafy Green Machine provides ideal growing conditions 365 days a year. Locations that endure extreme temperatures, whether hot or cold, would benefit from this system of farming. According to Rachel Wisentaner from Freight Farms, their Leafy Green Machine helps build resilient and sustainable farming systems by reducing food miles since food is grown and consumed locally using less water. Wisentaner explained, “The hydroponic system allows for less water usage than in traditional farming practices, using only 25-50 gallons of water per week compared traditional soil based farming that uses over 1,000 gallons.”
Is Freight Farming Right for Your School?
The perks of having a Freight Farm on campus are clear, but it does require an on-going investment of both time and money. The initial cost for the Freight Farm is $80,000, plus the cost of water and electricity to keep the farm operational. One shipping container requires 125 kWh of energy per day. A dedicated, 450 sq-ft plot of land is needed to house the farm. According to Cate Arnold, it is important that the students that are working the farm have extensive training on how the Freight Farm operates. Ideally, a school would have a designated individual who is well versed in the farm to train incoming students year after year. The labor required to keep the farm in working order is anywhere from 15-20 hours per week, so having enough volunteers to cover the hours should be considered as well. So whether Freight Farming is right for your school or not, we can all agree these students are making a difference one healthy, green leaf at a time.
Article submitted by Shannon Meyer, a recent graduate of the Boston University School of Public Health, currently working as a Sustainability and Health Intern with Boyer Sudduth Environmental Consultants.