Bringing the farm into the city.
Two sky blue shipping containers sit unassumingly outside the Katsiroubas Brothers Produce warehouse in Boston’s Newmarket Square industrial district. Yet unlike the trucks queued up at the front of the building, these containers are not for shipping food, but for growing it.
Katsiroubas Bros. is the inaugural commercial customer of Freight Farms, a Boston company that developed the shipping-container farm as a way to bring fresh, local food into the city.
Freight Farms co-owners Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara saw a demand for local food in Boston, but understood that access was a challenge. So they wanted to create a system that would fit a large square-footage of farming in a small space and be able to continue producing during winter, when New England is not so farming-friendly.
They also wanted Freight Farms to be accessible for novice growers, McNamara said.
“We didn’t have 10 years of greenhouse or growing experience,” he said. “And we didn’t want people to have to have that in order to operate [the farm].”
The company’s target customers are wholesale food distributors who need consistent supplies and often have to meet changing demands, as well as local farmers, who could use Freight Farms to extend their growing season.
Ted Katsiroubas, owner of Katsiroubas Bros., a Boston based produce distributor, said the opportunity to grow food in an urban setting attracted him to Freight Farms.
“It’s us once again putting skin into the game of being in Boston,” he said. “It’s something for us to reinforce being a Boston based produce company.”
The Katsiroubas Bros. farm is currently growing only conventional basil, but Katsiroubas said they plan on offering different varieties of the herb—which is notoriously difficult to grow in New England—in the future. Their basil will be hitting the market in early May under the Sweet Nily brand, Katsiroubas said. But right now the plants are just getting started.
“Keeping the expectation at bay has been the biggest challenge,” he said. “I’ve found myself going out on a daily basis and looking at the basil.”
Inside the Katsiroubas farm, basil plants sprout from four rows of hydroponic columns, awash in a soft purple glow that substitutes for sunlight.
The hydroponic system uses circulating water instead of soil to distribute nutrients. And the columns, which look like traditional horizontal trays suspended by one end, are a Freight Farm innovation that allows for increased number of plants without the need to increase lighting, McNamara said.
Currently Freight Farms is selling the “Leafy Green Machine” farm setup that includes everything a customer needs to get growing—from seeds to nutrients to the growing medium, McNamara said.
Next on the agenda is developing a mushroom growing unit and eventually a vine vegetable variety, Friedman said.
They’re currently focusing on the Boston market, which has a lot of local farmers around the city and people interested in local food, Friedman said.
“We really want to start here and then take that hub to New York, to L.A., to San Francisco, and start building there,” he said.
Changing the conventional food system by making local food the most economic option is a big part of the Freight Farms mission, Friedman said.
“It’s really all about creating access to food in places that we never thought was possible.”