Who is a farmer? What is a farm? Boston-based Freight Farms is on a mission to reimagine agriculture, at a time when foodies increasingly hanker after fresh, healthy produce, sustainably grown and preferably not shipped hundreds (or thousands) of miles before it reaches their plates.
The company’s flagship product, the Leafy Green Machine (LGM) is a complete hydroponic growing facility, built entirely inside an upcycled shipping container. Each LGM provides a controlled environment, capable of yields equivalent to 1.5 acres of land. That’s about one thousand heads of lettuce a week – or the crop might instead be herbs, such as mint, dill or basil; or brassica, such as cabbage, kale or brussels sprouts.
This, then, is Freight Farms’ definition of a farm – a farm ‘in a box’. The company’s definition of a farmer, meanwhile, is basically anyone who wants to produce such crops on a commercial basis and is willing to spend $85,000 on an LGM.
To date, the five-year old company has sold around 100 of these ‘farms’, and around 95% have been sold to customers that director of farm technology Kyle Seaman describes as ‘non-traditional’ farmers.
Some have another day job, but are looking to transition out of it. Some have quit their job to take up farming. Some are retirees or former military veterans. Others are institutional customers such as college or corporate campuses, looking to stock on-site canteens and restaurants. In other words, says Seaman, these ‘farmers’ don’t have to be agricultural experts, or even that experienced at growing leafy greens, because data generated by the highly connected LGM makes the job easy for them.
This is how it works: each LGM contains 10 IoT-enabled sensors that give the farmers insight into what’s happening inside their container farm, via a mobile app, Farmhand Connect. These sensors measure temperature, humidity and CO2 levels in the container (its climate) and the temperature, pH level and nutrient level of the water fed to crops. Customers can check up on these stats at any time and receive alerts of any changes in the container environment. A local automation controller, meanwhile, handles the hydroponic system and LED lighting. Says Seaman:
By offering a connected, controlled farming environment, we’ve been able to de-risk the growing cycle for our farmers. That means that they may only need to visit the pod every few days, maybe two days a week, instead of every day. As simple as that sounds, if you can reduce time spent inside the farm, the economies of farming start to make sense. It makes being a farmer more appealing, because there’s more time to spend on marketing your stand at a local farmer’s market or signing up local restaurants, for example.
The technology behind this centers on the Xively (pronounced ‘zively’) IoT platform from LogMeIn, which acts as a link between the sensors in each LGM container farm and Freight Farms’ cloud deployment on Amazon Web Services (AWS), where the data is processed, stored and served back to users via the app.
Xively also offers integrations with Salesforce, which Freight Farms uses for its customer relationship management processes. The company is now focusing on building up its case management capabilities in Salesforce, so if data from an LGM points to a problem, Freight Farms’ small, Boston-based support team can identify the issue and act quickly. Says Seaman:
What we love about alerts is their ability to build trust between the end user and the product. What the user sees via the Farmhand Connect app is based on alerts they’ve defined themselves: they can see when a pump turns off or on, or if the lights are off or on, take temperature readings and so on. They can get push notifications for any of the ten sensors in their LGM – it’s up to them.
But they also expect a certain level of support from Freight Farms, too, so we’re working on building a second layer of alerting for own our staff. That will focus on patterns of readings that might indicate problems based on parameters set by us – if a raised temperature alert continues over a certain period time, for example. It shows to customers that we’re keeping watch, too.
Linking Xively interactions to Freight Farms’ analytics in AWS DynamoDB, meanwhile, gives the company better insights into how customers are using their farms, according to Seaman. That helps it to build new features and functions for the app as well as gather intelligence on ideal growing conditions for different crops, in different regions, that it can then pass on to its customer community.
Leafy greens are some of the least transportable fresh products, liable to wilt if forced to travel far in less-than-ideal conditions, as Seaman points out:
But a Leafy Green Machine can sit comfortably in an urban environment, close to the end consumers it’s intended to serve. And because it’s a controlled environment, and because we’ve de-risked the production side of farming, it gives farmers guaranteed yields that they can pass on to commercial customers in the form of guaranteed availability. That’s something farmers and farms have never been able to do before.
Image credit - Freight Farms
Disclosure - At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica