Shipping containers could bring farming to the heart of the city as hydroponics and mobile phone apps are harnessed for large-scale urban food production. A Sydney start-up company Sprout Stack has perfected the commercial production of large volumes of leafy greens in shipping containers, producing as much lettuce, herbs or spinach leaves in eight weeks as a hectare of fertile farmland. The containers, filled with towers for growing vegetables, tomatoes and strawberries hydroponically, require only electricity and water.
Sprout Stack founder Francisco Caffarena says the farming containers, which can be leased or bought outright, can be stacked on top of each other in places where land is scarce or unsuitable for growing vegetables, to produce commercial quantities of fresh food all year round. The container systems uses 95 per cent less water than a vegetable farm with drip irrigation to grow 900 lettuces, requiring just 60-100 litres of water a week for its plants to drink and 60 kilowatt hours of power a day to run its lighting, heating and sensors. All crops grown are pesticide-free because the container’s controlled environment virtually eliminates pests, disease and bugs, while the production of six cycles of crops a year is not exposed to the vagaries of weather.
The Sprout containers can be controlled remotely with little agricultural knowledge required because of the detailed sensors’ wand warning alerts linked to the phone app regulating the container’s hydroponic and growing systems automatically.
“This is a scaleable, financially-feasible solution to having commercial farms in urban areas,” Mr Caffarena said yesterday.
“This is not some nice trendy thing for individuals or backyard gardeners to have — the quantities of greens, herbs and potentially tomatoes and berries it can grow all year round are much too large; we really see this as a commercial proposition that frees the people attracted to run these businesses from the need and cost of buying large tracts of farmland.” Mr Caffarena envisages the containers being used by restaurants who want to tightly control the safe provenance of their own food, or entrepreneurs keen to become professional urban farmers selling fresh produce to greengrocers, cafes or farmers markets.
Alternatively, a local council might allow a street car-space to be used as the home of a community-owned container — just as it allows green share-cars parking spaces, while the rooftops of apartment blocks are ideal sites. Other locations suited to the farm containers are outback mining camps or remote Aboriginal communities, where fresh vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes and strawberries are almost impossible to obtain, or prohibitively expensive due to transport costs.
Mr Caffarena’s company will charge customers $3000-4000 a month to lease a 12m fully-equipped hydroponic shipping container, with Sprout Stack also providing added technical and phone app support and the option of buying seeds and nutrients under a subscription model. To buy a ready- to- use Sprout Stack container outright would cost $40,000-$50,000. “It sounds a lot but the numbers stack up because of the production volumes against the cost for commercial restaurant or greengrocer buying normal produce,” Mr Caffarena said, pointing out that most containers would be set up to grow three or four different vegetables.
“It does depend what prices you are comparing to. We are not saying we are as cheap as lettuce in Woolies, but if you normally buy organic lettuces or premium produce, or live in a remote community, you will be profitable and better off straight away.” The development of the hydroponic containers has been funded by raising $1 million from private investors, with Sydney venture capital and specialist start-up tech-company BridgeLane behind the project. BridgeLane’s founder and chief executive Markus Kahlbetzer is no stranger to traditional Australian agriculture. His father, John Dieter Kahlbetzer, previously owned the Twynam Group of properties in southern NSW, once Australia’s biggest holder of irrigation water rights and 50,000ha of farmland.