From driverless tractors and robotic pickers to technologies that preserve fresh produce 5x longer, we are obsessed with using technology to solve the many, many challenges in our food system. But after spending a few days in Omaha this week, hanging out with some of the most advanced and progressive farmers in America, I realized that technology is really just a small part of the solution we’re looking for. The real future of farming isn’t growing plants or animals; it’s growing businesses.
Don’t be confused, farms are already businesses — incredibly capital intensive and highly risky businesses at that. In one year, a farmer might buy a few million dollars in inputs and assets, sell a few million dollars of commodity crops, and come out in the end with something like $30,000-$40,000 a year in “profit” (read: wages). That’s a terrifying amount of risk to take for a meager reward. And farmers do it. And now, at a time when commodity prices are cripplingly low, they’re looking to mitigate some of that risk with new businesses on their farms.
Kimbal Musk just recently announced that he will be launching a new business in the fall — Square Roots. An urban farming accelerator program focused on training young entrepreneurs to grow non-GMO, fresh, tasty, food year-round, Square Roots will be leveraging the Freight Farms technology to create campuses of climate-controlled, indoor, vertical farms. These campuses will be located in major urban centers across the US starting in the fall.
The Square Roots team is made up of an incredible group of individuals and network of mentors that will coach each entrepreneur in the program. Their goal is to help facilitate the creation of forward-thinking companies that strengthen communities by bringing local, #realfood to everyone. Pretty awesome, right? We think so too! The first campus is launching this fall in Brooklyn, and they’re looking for their first class of real food entrepreneurs. If you want a chance to work in an LGM and receive guidance from industry experts, be sure to apply.
We want to know where our food comes from. The evidence is seen on foods labeled organic, in the rise of farmer’s markets, even in Ikea products. Our shifting attitudes are reshaping the business of growing food, and Freight Farms is rethinking the way we produce our produce. Founder Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman are selling hydroponics farms built from old shipping containers that growers can monitor through an app. They want to provide communities, neighborhoods, and schools an alternative way to grow food and know where it comes from.
Founded in 2011, Freight Farms has sold roughly 60 farms worldwide, 20 in the United States. Of those, McNamara says nearly 30 have been sold to food startups. At Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY, students use a freight farm to produce food for roughly 1,000 students at least once a week. A Boston husband-wife team purchased four freight farms in 2013, and now sell produce at local farmer markets for a living.
For $82,000, plus another $20,000 of annual operating costs, a freight farm can grow up to 800 heads of lettuce at a time. The 40-foot long, eight-foot wide containers, dubbed “Leafy Green Machines,” are essentially year-round farms capable of producing the same amount of produce as an acre of farmland on just 10 gallons of water a day. The company claims its mobile farms can create access to food in areas where the climate cannot support traditional farming methods. “When you start to look at the food system as a whole,” McNamara says, “there’s just so much to it. There are so many different ways to attack this problem. It’s an exciting space between technology, design, community, and empowerment.”