Software for Farming Inside a Shipping Container!

 Dr. S. Chellaiah, Professor of Systems, Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA)Agriculture is responsible for more than 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) About 30 to 40 percent of produce (vegetables and fruits) is lost because of spoilage while transporting (Local Roots, California) Can we do something about this? Is it possible to reduce the emission and spoilage? Additionally, can water consumption be cut down by 95 percent, yes, startling 95 percent. Above all, in megacities like Boston, Chicago, and New York where outdoor farming is done only during summer months, how nice would it be to garnish your salad with fresh leaves of lettuce in February – in the middle of winter? Welcome to the world of hydroponic farming – growing vegetables and fruits, using water as the main source of ingredients and nutrition.

While this proven technology has been in use for a long time, information technology has given it a big fillip. It has also brought the farms to downtown, gated communities and big commercial complexes. Conventional farming has many disadvantages. It is not possible to maintain uniform soil conditions. The use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides is almost inevitable. In the long term, these not only add to the cost, but are also harmful to health. Even the certified organic growers use organic pesticides. Seasons control the produce. Water consumption is high. There could be loss due to drought, floods and high temperatures. Animals can trample and damage the crops. Birds eating the crops will help in cross pollination and dispersion of seeds but may also transmit bacteria.

The supply chain involving fresh produce is time-consuming and expensive. On the average, in USA, a head of lettuce travels about 2000 miles before it is consumed. It results in putrefaction, loss of taste and reduction in nutritional value. One cannot guarantee consistency in quality. Variation in the types of produce is limited. Genetically Modified Plants are not that much welcomed. Container farming is the use of shipping containers (20, 40, 53 feet long) to do farming. Those ‘innocuous looking giant boxes’ can be parked in a corner of the parking lot while lettuce, greens and strawberries are growing inside.

Local Roots is a small company (headquartered in Vernon, California) engaged in hydroponic farming inside a shipping container with extensive use of information technology to maximize when possible and optimize when needed to deliver high quality fresh produce throughout the year. They call these TerraFarms. People can see light across the entire visible spectrum but for photosynthesis, plants need light in the range of 400 – 700 nm wavelengths. The most important ones are blue light (430 to 450nm and red light 640 to 680nm). The company uses custom-engineered LED lights to select the wavelengths and the intensity of light needed. Thus, by altering these early in the growth phase, they can even change the color of the plant. By using wireless sensors to monitor and control the temperature, humidity, lighting and nutrient level, the company increases productivity significantly.

With efficient design, they are able to recycle water up to 99 percent, a very significant saving. Using computer vision and deep learning techniques, a neural network based software monitors and diagnoses plant health. Thus, prophylactic measures can be taken very early to ensure good and consistent quality of yield. No herbicides or pesticides are used because bugs and weeds have a very low probability of entering the container. A 40-foot container can produce 4000 heads of lettuce every ten days. In traditional farms, it takes about 55- 70 days to grow lettuce. 2 These containers can be parked anywhere and their numbers increased incrementally. Thus, fresh produce is available almost at or vey near the place of consumption; thereby eliminating transportation costs while ensuring high quality and good taste.

The company intends to use solar or wind power to minimize the use of electricity (generation of which contributes to global warming). Tiger Corner farms in South Carolina is another company specializing in aeroponics type of farming inside a shipping container. Aeroponics refers to the growing of plants in an air or mist environment while in hydroponics, the mist is replaced by water solvent and mineral solutions; both do not use soil. NASA uses aeroponics to grow plants in space station. Tiger Corner Farms has received Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for all its operating container farms.

Boxcar central is a company involved in supplying the controls, sensors and the software to monitor and maintain the farm. Light, air temperature, water temperature, water flow rate, pH, CO2 level, nutrients, are monitored. They can be controlled by a Smartphone or a tablet and crops can be viewed on a webcam. Every 10 minutes, mist from hundreds of tiny sprayers is sprayed on the plants’ roots for 3 to 4 seconds. The software tracks all activities from “seed to sale”. Thus, algorithms can specify the amount of nutrients, wavelength and intensity of light, and humidity levels needed for different types of plants. Ritz Carlton Hotel in Naples, Florida uses a container parked in its parking lot to grow lettuce and microgreens.

A company called CropBox manages the container farm. The chef picks the fresh lettuce and greens from the farm. It is the first hotel in US to do so. Freightfarms, Growtainer, and Containerfarm are a few companies that specialize in fitting a shipping container with sensors, and converting it to a farm. Each farm takes approximately 15 working days to build from start to finish. Each container costs about $85000 but it is not high compared to farm equipments that are needed. What can beat garden fresh lettuce for salads and plump strawberries for dessert?