Food production and distribution are no picnic. Consumers increasingly demand transparency around what they eat. Where did it come from? Who touched it? How many chemicals were sprayed on it? Those with the means to do so are willing to pay a premium for organically grown food that comes from local, known sources rather than the distant and impersonal “Big Agra.”
There are all sorts of technology-driven solutions cropping up in response to this demand. For instance, there are startups using blockchain, the distributed ledger technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, for supply chain tracking and transparency.
Boston-based agricultural tech company Freight Farms is taking a different approach, leveraging data to optimize value throughout the supply chain — and, of course, track production every step of the way.
Co-Founders Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman explained that the data is used to tailor growing environments — from light and heat to water and soil nutrients — so maximum production can be achieved and certain standards can be met, depending on distributors’ needs.
For instance, a variety of sizes and colors is desirable in direct-to-consumer (D2C) settings, while uniformity is more valuable to a wholesaler with a direct supplier relationship to a specific restaurant.
Oh, and all of this is happening inside of shipping containers.
One freight farm can grow approximately two acres worth of produce, according to the company, and that can be sold either D2C or through partnerships with local distributors, restaurants and grocery stores.
Talk about local. These freight container food production hubs were designed for urban settings where it can be difficult to access truly fresh food. But McNamara and Friedman say the economic implications are greater than simply giving savvy city dwellers the freshness they demand in food.
A farm in a box can establish an agricultural industry where there wasn’t one before — from the coldest, northernmost reaches of Canada to the deserts of Dubai. It also invites entrepreneurship wherever it’s placed, as farms can be started by either institutions or business-minded individuals.
McNamara said the company hopes to encourage more entrepreneurial activity through its recent acquisition of Boston-based software company Cabbige, a move that will unlock tools like price optimization algorithms, inventory matching, inventory tracking and algorithms to mix and price community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares.
“We’ve pushed to the limit of transacting,” Friedman said. “Where we really live in the payments realm is optimizing the value creation of the plant.”
He also said the company is working toward enabling seamless payments for those who buy from Freight Farms.
“We’re solving for the need for more food in more places closer to where people are,” McNamara summarized. “We hear a lot about the issues of population growth and urban density, and climate change is no longer a theory; it’s a fact. Going forward, people will need to be able to produce food under more and more difficult circumstances.”
Driving the farming process with data can make it easier to rise to those difficult circumstances, he added. Food production can be a bit of a black box to those who are not industry professionals. Institutional knowledge is not easy for outsiders to access. By simplifying and automating processes, Freight Farms aims to lower the barrier to entry so that people, communities and institutions can take control of their own supply chains.
Corporations feeding cafeterias and large staffs, for instance, could use this technology to replace or supplement expensive supply chains with self-sustaining ones that have total production transparency.
McNamara and Friedman don’t expect to take out Big Agra with their little box farms. Traditional agriculture won’t go away, and staple crops like corn and wheat won’t go out of business. Rather, their goal is to put pressure on the industry giants in the same way that nimble FinTech startups have put pressure on traditional banks and financial institutions.
The way people eat and perceive food is changing, the co-founders said, and Freight Farms hopes to further that cultural and industry transformation with its data-driven approach to food production.