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Indoor farms have become one of the latest trends to be gripped by the craze of transforming the humble shipping container for a brand new purpose other than transportation or storage. The beauty of this idea is that not much about the container itself needs to be modified, as the farms are all housed inside the container. It’s just a matter of decking the container out with the equipment and ultraviolet light for plant growth. Check out just how shipping containers are helping Australian farmers and the agricultural industry as a whole.
We have seen shipping containers repurposed into a number of things over the years from luxury homes to chic cafes and restaurants. And just when you thought nothing else can be made from shipping containers, people come up with something new and more audacious. This time; shipping container farms!
Fuelled by the ever-growing demand for freshly produced food, “urban farmers” have come up with a creative way to meet demand by using repurposed shipping containers to grow food near their markets. Thanks to earlier inventions that enable people to grow food indoors, a simple shipping container can now be transformed into a farm producing the equivalent of an acre of land.
TYPES OF CONTAINER FARMS
There are two types of shipping container farms based on their design:
1.Shipping container greenhouse
This is the cheaper one to build and maintain as it uses less technology. It basically functions like a regular greenhouse providing optimum conditions for plant growing. This kind of farm is made using either an open top cargo container or a regular shipping container with the top stripped off. Once the top is off, a greenhouse-like roofing is installed to cover the open top. Racks are then installed inside the shipping container where the plants will be grown. With this kind of setup, either soil or hydroponics can be used to grow the plants. A hydroponic system would be quite costly but would have some benefits over soil – such as not requiring an additional irrigation system.
2. Enclosed freight container farm
This type of container farm differs from the former in that the shipping container used is fully enclosed. This enables the farmer to control each and every aspect of the farm more effectively.
To build this kind of farm, an insulated shipping container (reefer) is fitted with growing racks from floor to ceiling, irrigation systems, lights, and ventilation. The lights are necessary because the setup does not allow natural light inside. The enclosed system enables total control of the conditions inside.
Benefits of shipping CONTAINER FARMS
- They are efficient. Because these farms use modern irrigation systems i.e. hydroponics and drip irrigation, they are very efficient and could save up to 90% of the water used by a conventional farm.
- They can be set up near the market. Most of the food sold in urban areas is shipped in from remote farms. The long transit sometimes has an effect on freshness and the transportation costs are immense. With a shipping container farm, the produce can be grown near the market providing fresh produce minus the transportation costs.
- They’re easy to install and maintain. Once all the modifications have been done to create the farm, maintaining it is quite easy and straight forward. And since the plants are grown in enclosed spaces, attacks from diseases and pests are very rare meaning you can grow pesticide-free crops.
- All season growing. With container farms, regulation of the internal growing conditions is possible meaning production can be done all year round regardless of the season.
For now, shipping container farms are limited to growing a few plants such as herbs, leafy vegetables, strawberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers; but with time as the idea catches on, we might see more plants being grown.
Recognising their stability and potential, people worldwide have adapted shipping containers into homes, offices, storage, accommodation, kitchens, and many more. Among these many alternative uses is the rising trend of container farms.
While people have been experimenting with the idea of container farms for a few years now, the trend is now truly taking off, having many additional benefits to other industries. The beauty of this adaptation is not much about the container needs to be modified for a container farm to be built and function effectively.
So what exactly is this trend, why has it become so popular, and how is it advancing the agricultural industry?
What are Container Farms?
While the term is relatively self-explanatory, there is much more to a container farm than an agricultural system built inside a container.
Definitively speaking, a container farm is typically a vertical farming system built inside a shipping container with minimal modifications. Its popularity originates from but is not limited to the fact that it is transportable and can easily fit into existing spaces wherever a farm is desired.
Its temporary structural nature means that the majority of the time, you don’t need to go through the hassle of gaining planning permission, which is particularly useful if you rent your farmland. While this is generally the case, there are always some exceptions, so any necessary checks must be made before making a container farm arrangement. However, as long as the ground is level, there is access to electricity and water, you’ve typically got the green light to start up your container farm.
From the outside, these farms look like mildly enhanced shipping containers. Inside, however, the container has been automated, insulated and enhanced to house a vertical, hydroponic farm. This structure has been specifically designed for plants to obtain all of their nutrients from the water and their light energy from powerful LEDs.
The entire environment is suitable to be completely controlled, including light, carbon dioxide, and humidity. Unlike most greenhouses, this farm can be called ‘precision agriculture’, where everything is controlled to function optimally despite the external environment.
Essentially, that’s the main appeal. The controlled environment is where the shipping container farm thrives, so much so that lettuce produced in February is likely to grow exactly the same as the lettuce in July, which is very different from traditional lettuce agriculture.
Despite this trend’s evident novelty and innovation, some people may argue, what’s the point? What’s wrong with traditional agricultural methods? And, is this really necessary?
To answer any of these questions, we need to look at the current agricultural industry and where flaws exist. While modern-day agricultural practices can certainly be considered extremely advanced with efforts to mitigate environmental implications, there are naturally faults with any system on such a large scale.
Some of the challenges and restrictions that farmers typically face include extreme weather, pests, and limited growing seasons. Traditional farming has evolved and attempted to mitigate some of these issues to an extent. However, there is only so much the current system can do to resist these issues. Some of these issues have also been shown to have major implications on the farming and food industry, causing many stakeholders great economic distress.
HOW CONTAINER FARMS CAN ADVANCE AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES
The structure and functionality of container farms mean that agricultural operations can happen more efficiently and automatically. The customisable interior that features plant panels and LED technologies boosts yields and creates streamlined operations for the farmer.
Ultimately, this addressed the many limitations of traditional farming, making it possible for more food and crops to be grown and produced in regions that would otherwise have had to import them.
Climate & weather issues
When it comes to farming and agriculture, most farmers will indicate weather and the climate are the most limiting factors for crop yield. The climate can be extremely unpredictable, especially in the current environmental crisis, making strict agricultural and crop development plans unrealistic.
Although demand for crops typically does not reduce year-round, the ability to grow, produce and deliver these crops does. Traditionally, during off seasons for certain crops, they are outsourced from suppliers that currently have the suitable environment to farm. While there is nothing innately wrong with this, it does increase the resale value of crops making them more economically inaccessible for consumers, with the added risk of damage during long-distance transportation.
Container farms provide the opportunity for crops to be grown perfectly all year round in an internal, controlled environment that is artificially modified to suitably grow your specific crop. To such an extreme, it can be as if the sun is always out and the weather is always warm. The ability to regulate the internal growing conditions means production can be done at all times without external interference.
Accessibility vs demand
Not only do container farms provide conditions so that crops can always grow, but so they can grow in areas where they have otherwise been locally inaccessible.
In some areas, certain crops cannot grow no matter what time of year it is. However, the portable nature of container farms means they can be shifted and situated in places wherever and whenever needed. People have an ever-growing demand for freshly produced food, often not accessible in specific communities. In this sense, installing a means of growing these crops locally in the form of a shipping container farm has the positive potential to strengthen local food security networks. More specifically, they have the potential to disrupt food supply networks and reduce certain communities dependence on imported produce.
Additionally, as they are modular, multiple containers can be used to build larger farming facilities if that is what is required. This means that however much food certain local communities need, it will be much more accessible than relying on suppliers. Not to mention it reduces transportation costs, waste, empty shelves at markets, and ensures fresher products all year round.
Reduce environmental impacts
While traditional farming is seen as a relatively green activity because of its outwardly plant oriented nature, it can have many detrimental effects on our surrounding environment. So much so that traditional farming requires a massive 70% of our global freshwater supply for agricultural practices, where one head of lettuce can require up to 14 litres of water.
In a shocking comparison, hydroponically grown crops in container farms use 99% less water than traditional agriculture and create no toxic runoffs to ensure the surrounding landscape and water sources aren’t contaminated.
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So, what’s the point of container farms? While they pose many positive benefits for different communities within the agricultural sphere, they are certainly not a replacement for traditional agriculture. However, they do fit the needs of certain communities and areas wanting to expand their presence in the agricultural industry quickly.
The benefits of this invention are undeniable, however, they do differ depending on the scale and size of the farms. Economically, container farms have proven to truly make an impact when installed in three or more units. One container farm is considered to be more of a hobby. However, with three or more containers, farmers truly can make a positive impact in their local community and operate a viable business.
Ultimately, container farming is a constantly evolving field, and an exciting one at that. For more information about this invention or how you can use your shipping container to your potential, contact Tiger Containers today.