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Startup that grows crops in shipping containers unveils sleek, new design

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Freight Farms displayed a prototype of their new device, the Leafy Green C, in Boston on Thursday.

By Janelle Nanos Globe Staff 

At first glance, the tall metal box on the Greenway looks somewhat innocuous. But open the doors and there’s a salad disco happening inside.

The large white container, which will be situated in the park all day Friday at the corner of High and Purchase streets, is the latest product from Freight Farms, the local startup that enables would-be farmers to grow produce anywhere using its tricked-out shipping containers.

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The company, which has raised nearly $5 million in funding, has become somewhat of a darling to the startup set. Google is using one of its hydroponic containers to feed its 20,000 employees in Palo Alto, and last month Freight Farms partnered with Elon Musk’s chef brother, Kimbal, to help launch his urban farming accelerator, Square Roots.

Since launching in 2010, the company has sold 100 of its signature device, the Leafy Green Machine, said its president, Jon Friedman.

The prototype is a slightly smaller version of the modular growing system. He dubbed it the Leafy Green C (the C stands for community, or compact ... they haven’t decided yet). It’s about one quarter the size of a typical shipping container, clocking in at about 10 feet long, 9 feet high, and 8 feet wide. And it can grow 200 heads of lettuce each week.

Inside is where the fun starts.

Farmers plug their seedlings into six-foot tall, gutter-like “towers” that act as a growing medium for the young shoots. Each tower is then hung from the ceiling and lit with blue and red LED lights, which can be tweaked to emulate the sun as it cycles through the day.

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Imagine dozens of vertical spinning towers of lettuce. The entire system gives off a very disco-like feel.

The original containers, which each cost $85,000, are now in nine countries, six islands, 25 states, and 12 schools. But Friedman said the system’s new design has a different customer in mind. It will be half as expensive as the original model (the exact price is not yet set, he said). He’s hoping to attract restaurants, communities and perhaps even individuals who are excited about the idea of container farming but don’t necessarily need nearly an acres worth of produce a week. The company will begin taking preorders in November.

Part of the draw, said Kyle Seaman, the company’s farm technology director, is the newly-designed app called Farmhand that allows the owner of the unit to control all aspects of the container from a smartphone, adjusting the light, heat, nutrients, and water.

“The app informs the farmer if something goes wrong,” said Seamen.

Should their lettuce need some love, they’ll get a ping on their phone. Now, if they can just make it connect to Spotify, they’ll be in business.


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.