Shipping Containers and Sustainable Food Production

It is a well-known fact by now that our current way of living on the planet is not sustainable. Global population continues to grow. The planet’s resources are stretched thin. More people are squeezed into densely populated cities. Accessing fresh and nutritious food is challenging, reducing health and quality of life for many people. At the same time, food production policies and business incentives still prioritize quantity over quality, employing unsustainable agricultural production methods. Additionally, the provision of basic needs, like safe housing, clean water, and food are limited by unequal access to supplies. To complement growing food in urban landscapes, there is a growing need for new ideas in sustainable food production. Shipping container gardening getting attention.

To ensure that the earth continues to be a place we can inhabit safely and comfortably, our societies will have to embrace some changes. Fortunately, humans are gifted when it comes to innovation and adaptability. Faced with seemingly insurmountable issues, like climate change, people develop creative new ideas that can get us on the track to sustainability. Gardening in shipping containers is become practical.

Sometimes these ideas are simply the result of thinking outside of the box. In this article, however, we will focus on inside-the-box innovation.

Video – 5 Acres of Farmland into Shipping Containers

Shipping Containers for Agriculture

Access to nutritious food and sustainable production are two of the key challenges agriculture is facing today. One solution that can deliver on both is shipping container gardening.

Millions of shipping containers currently sit, unused, in ports and shipping yards all over the globe. They are easy to transport, fast to assemble, and relatively inexpensive. Instead of dumping a big box of metal onto the rubbish heap, we can transform it into a farm.

Shipping container farms are self-contained units. They can be placed anywhere, even in deserts and mountains, or other harsh environments. By growing food inside a shipping container, fresh produce can be available in the middle of a densely built city. Access to fresh produce can be provided in such areas as “food deserts”.

Growing inside a shipping container is a much more controlled atmosphere, the production is less wasteful. For instance, the water can be limited to just what is needed and recycled throughout the contained system. Plus, food grown on-site for local communities saves food miles, reducing carbon emissions from transportation. 

An elegant looking shipping containers with a greenhouse built on top of it, and an inset photo of hydroponics inside the container.

How It Works

There is a much broader agricultural movement that includes shipping container farms for sustainable food production. This branch of agriculture is called CEA, or controlled environment agriculture. Included in this category are such common practices as greenhouses. Controlled environment agriculture grants the farmer more control over growing conditions, atmosphere, and crop yield. In the case of shipping container farms, farmers can reduce waste and increase crop yields in a smaller space.

Shipping container gardening is that it can be established just about anywhere in the world. The interior atmosphere is more tightly controlled than traditional agricultural methods. Crops can thrive even in very harsh environments where resources are limited. SpaceX and the United Nations are testing the concept of shipping container farms, sourcing produce from box farms.

Shipping Container Box Farms and Vertical Farming

The shipping container gardening box farms mostly use vertical hydroponic farming methods. Vertical farming requires less space than traditional soil-based agriculture, as acres of fields can be condensed vertically. With shelves and towers, vertical farming allows space optimizations, thus maximizing production and cutting down on costs.

Each box farm can have as few as one or as many as five layers of growing medium. The growing medium is fed by a nutrient tank and an enclosed water system that irrigates and nourishes the crops. Plants are stacked with their roots are suspended in water and have room to spread out as they grow. Shelves of plants hang over water containers, with a pump that moves the water throughout the box farm, simulating rain.

LED Lighting

The box farm should also include LED lighting to help foster plant growth with greater control. LED lights are a good option because they require minimal energy. They produce huge amounts of light, a necessary ingredient in the life of any plant. Some box farmers choose to cut holes in their shipping container walls to allow natural daylight to enter. But this can make the internal atmosphere harder to maintain. Your box farm should also contain an atmospheric climate control system.

Air conditioning or humidity boosters depending on which kinds of crops your farm will grow. As with any farm, box farmers will also need to continuously monitor the pH levels in the soil, to ensure that all conditions are balanced and optimal for plants to thrive. Installing systems that can monitor pH levels, humidity, temperature, and light, while allowing you remote access to the analysis, can help keep farmers alert to any changes in their farm atmosphere, so they can make necessary adjustments.

All this lighting and monitoring does require an external energy source. Solar power is one great option to boost the green capabilities of your container farm. This also minimizes the carbon footprint of your operation. Farm from a box is a company in California that offers solar-powered box farms. Their farms are rigged with a photovoltaic solar power system, off-grid inverters, energy transformers, and deep-cycle batteries to store energy. They also come with a backup generator that is used to power the whole farm operation in case of insufficient sunlight.

Box farms can be outfitted specifically to grow any type of crop, from herbs and flowers to fruit and vegetables, like this box farm in La Courneuve, France, that specializes in growing strawberries all year round. 

How to Set Up Your Own Shipping Container Farm

For individuals, businesses, or communities interested in setting up their own shipping container gardening, the first element to consider is the box itself. The standard steel shipping container that can be so elegantly repurposed for CEA farming also goes by another name: the Conex box. The Conex box container was originally invented as a way of shipping and storing supplies for the US military during the Korean War. The name comes from a hybrid of “container” and “express”, and can be referred to as a shipping container, sea can, or Conex box interchangeably.

These steel boxes are weatherproof and pest-proof, providing the favorable base conditions necessary for sustainable food production. Individuals and large communities interested in setting up a shipping container farm will want to consider the size of their recycled Conex box.

A composite of four photos showing ideas for shipping containers being adapted for gardening

Sizes Can Matter

The standard 20 ft. container is appropriate for medium-sized operations, like a box farm-to -table restaurant, while the 40 ft. Conex box can produce the same crop quantity as 5 acres of seeded fields if you employ a 5-tier vertical farming system. This size will be more appropriate for providing disaster relief, refurbishing communities in food deserts, and commercial agriculture purposes. Individuals who want to install a shipping container farm in their backyard may want a smaller option, but to avoid unnecessary waste, we recommend sticking to the standard Conex box sizes: 12 ft x 8 ft, 20 ft, or 40 ft. To order a custom-sized shipping container would defeat the purpose of recycling one of the millions of steel boxes that already exist, unused and purposeless in shipping yards. 

Once you have determined the purpose and scale of your shipping container farm, you can begin to search for the right box to house your farm operation. Buying the box to house your farm may seem to require a large initial investment- between three and four thousand dollars on average for a 20 ft. Conex box- but building a farm using wood or cement would cost thousands more, so it is an economical choice in the long run. 

Finding Dealers

You can search for your Conex box online, by looking up shipping container dealers near you. A dealer can help you locate and transport the container to its destination, though it may cost more than searching on your own. Or you can investigate the local shipping depot or port. These locations usually have plenty of old Conex boxes on their hands that they will be all too happy to get rid of. Since you are essentially doing them a favor by removing the shipping container, ports or shipping depots will often offer you a better deal. You can also browse online via marketplace websites such as eBay or Craigslist. Just make sure you research thoroughly so you know what to expect from the box you are ordering. 

Once you have located your box, the next major step in the process is to design your sustainable food production box farm. You can research and work on designing the farm yourself or hire a contractor who is experienced in transforming Conex boxes into farms. Be sure to consider all the necessary factors for your crops to thrive, like storage, lighting, and irrigation. Researching how to set up your Conex box can be an invaluable learning experience and implementing your box can provide lasting hands-on knowledge for you and the community.

Thinking Inside the Box

Shipping containers have been repurposed for a variety of uses. From swimming pools to art studios, this versatile recycled material can be used to meet important basic needs, and solve global problems, both on a societal level and an environmental one. 

By embracing the shipping container as a valuable recycled commodity, we can halt the damaging production line needed to enact industrial agriculture. Shipping containers can prove to be an essential resource for sustainability, and for providing necessary access to food for communities in isolated areas, urban centers, and disaster zones. 

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