By Andie Burjek
Oct. 12, 2018
Most employers want their employees to be healthier, and healthy eating is one way to achieve that. One company is taking this idea to the extreme and offering organizations the chance to grow fresh produce on site with their own farm.
Boston-based agriculture technology company Freight Farms builds IoT-connected, vertical farms — literally growing plants on the walls of shipping containers — using hydroponics, a growing method that utilizes 90 percent less water than traditional growing and a mineral nutrient solution in a water solvent without soil. The company sells its farms — called the Leafy Green Machines — to companies that would then be the ones responsible for staffing and upkeeping the farms.
In September, Freight Farms announced a new service called Grown that provides the labor to manage the farm, said Caroline Katsiroubas, director of marketing and one of the founding members of Freight Farms. Previously, some organizations didn’t have the staffing or facilities maintenance capacity to maintain a farm. With the Grown service, organizations pay an average pay $5,000 a month, for custom crop scheduling, maintenance, supply replenishment, 24/7 farm monitoring and all farming operations, such as seeding, transplanting and harvesting.
“We hope to see this huge barrier to entry for these organizations get resolved,” she said.
Indoor farming has come a long way in the past two years and become increasingly mainstream, she said. It’s becoming less of a challenge to convince people that it’s possible to grow food in an indoor shipping container.
The Leafy Green Machine operates by growing in a shipping container, 40′ x 8′ x 9.5′ per unit, in a climate-controlled environment, Katsiroubas said. Air temperature, carbon dioxide levels and watering are managed. LED lights stimulate day and night for the plants to echo a more natural environment. A central brain in the farm knows when to increase or decrease and turn off or on these environmental factors.
Freight Farms focuses on leafy greens such lettuce, heartier greens including kale and herbs because this produce uses the space more efficiently and growers get more food per square foot.
This isn’t unlike what many other indoor farms do, according to the “State of Indoor Farming, 2017” by Agrilyst, a management and analytics platform for indoor farms. Agrilyst tracks and analyzes farm data from 150 farmers who participated in this survey. This research found that 57 percent of growers focused on leafy greens, while only 16 percent grew tomatoes and 10 percent flowers.
Dassault Systemès SolidWorks Corp., a company that develops 3D editing software and is based in Waltham, Massachusetts, is using the vertical farm as an employee benefit, Katsiroubas said. “It helps them skip the produce aisle essentially when they’re going grocery shopping,” she added.
By growing its own fresh produce on campus Dassault Systemès was able to set up a community supported agriculture, or CSA, program with weekly deliveries that employees could sign up for, said Jim Wilkinson, former vice president of user experience architecture at Dassault Systemès and leader of the Boston Campus Employee Activities Committee. He recently retired after 22 years at the company.
A CSA is an arrangement in which consumers can subscribe to receive a certain amount of fresh produce from a farmer on a regular basis. For example, by signing up, an employee could receive a couple heads of lettuce, a couple heads of kale and a box of herbs every week.
About 50 employees, or 6 percent of the campus population, signed up for the deliveries, which cost the same or less than other local CSA programs, he said. Also, the produce doesn’t need to be washed, lasts longer in the refrigerator and does not need to be consumed right away.
“Plus, we were able to give input on what type of produce we would prefer which was a big bonus,” Wilkinson said. “Often CSAs deliver types of produce that you don’t even know what to do with.”
Dassault Systemès, whose software Freight Farms uses to design their farms, was interested in having their own farm for a few years, but, before the CSA program was introduced, that was not possible, he said. Now, the software company is participating in the first pilot for Grown.
Another way employers can distribute this company-grown produce is by offering a salad bar to employees, Katsiroubas said.
Freight Farms is starting out with its new service in the New England area with plans to grow in other geographies next year, according to Katsiroubas. Although she sees this as a benefit for interested employees, what often attracts leadership is how the hyper-local Leafy Green Machine contributes to corporate social responsibility, she added.
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