Is the future of urban farming to be found in shipping containers? These metal containers that once shipped goods overseas can now be found in urban farms like the one on the Dartmouth waterfront. It’s in a large parking lot across the street from the King’s Wharf development. The industrial location is very different from what’s inside: a tiny, high-tech farm teeming with life.
“The container can essentially hold the same amount of leafy greens as would a traditional two-acre farm,” said Phil Hatcher, who founded what he believes to be Nova Scotia’s first freight farm this spring.
Farming inside shipping containers is the latest trend in urban agriculture. It is a way to get fresh, local produce even in the dead of winter. Containers are great locations because they provide moveability, sustainability and availability.
Inside the container there is room for about 5,000 plants all grown using hydroponics, so there’s no soil, just water. The plants grow sideways out of slim columns that hang from the ceiling. In between each of the columns are LED lights. Hatcher said the operation uses about 95 per cent less water than a traditional farm.
“We reclaim all of our water from our air conditioning and dehumidifier, so we’re actually producing more water than we need right now,” he said.
It costs about $150,000 to set up the operation thanks to Freight Farms, a Boston-based business that started manufacturing and selling the units in 2010. People are drawn to these units because the farmer has the ability to control everything — from lighting to nutrient levels — remotely from a cellphone.
“Yes, it’s high-tech in the way that it’s computer controlled and the sensors are all reading different things and crunching numbers, but at the same time it’s pumps and it’s water and it’s tanks and it’s air and it’s light,” said Hatcher.
Robert France, a professor in the faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie University, said farms like this have been able to take off thanks to two major developments in the last five years: LED lights and hydroponics.
He teaches an online course on urban farming, and says it’s attracting who have become disillusioned with their first careers and are looking for a sustainable way to grow their own food.