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This Colorado company is building farms in shipping containers to help feed people in need

FarmBox Foods wants people to be able to farm anywhere, allowing them to access fresh food they otherwise wouldn't be able to.

SEDALIA, Colo. — A three-year-old Colorado company has an ambitious goal: to bring food security, safety and sustainability to communities in need around the world.

FarmBox Foods aims to achieve that goal by connecting those communities to sustainably-sourced food that's grown locally inside one of their container farms.

Their first product was a vertical hydroponic farm, or VHF, built inside a shipping container.

The company has since developed a second product: a gourmet mushroom farm, or GMF.

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So far, customers in Colorado include Centura Health, Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets and the C Lazy U Ranch in Granby.

FarmBox CEO Rusty Walker and COO Jake Savageau joined 9NEWS to talk about how they hope to change the way the world thinks about farming.

9NEWS also spoke with a prospective customer of FarmBox, Cori Hunt of the Denver restaurant group Edible Beats.

(Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for context and clarity.)

9NEWS: As a mission-driven company, what is the mission of FarmBox Foods?

Walker:  Our goal and our mission is to get our products out into the communities where we can help develop food security programs. We’re looking to get into food deserts, opportunities where folks in the world might not have access to good, clean nutritional food. And so we kind of strive as a company that’s driven to feed the world one container at a time. And we’re ready to go out and manufacture thousands of these if we can. 

We’re able to decentralize growing food by being mobile – being able to deploy these by just having a semi come in. We can then lift it up on a flatbed and take it to anywhere in the world. We’ve got two containers going to islands. We’ve got our first container that took off for the island of Jamaica. It’s going to Montego Bay where it’s going to be used behind mega marts on the island. And then we have another container which is our gourmet mushroom farm that’s going to be going to Tahiti where they’re going to be using that to feed the island population which does not have access to that type of food. 

One big area that we’re really focusing on is the urban areas throughout the U.S. where they don’t have a lot of land to grow. These farms can go right into the parking lots, behind a church for example. We’re working with a community church on the south side of Chicago that’s looking at placing two of these containers – a vertical hydroponic farm and a mushroom farm – right outside in the parking lot outside the church. 

And we think we could bring an educational spin to this where we can have the community grow their own food and supply the community themselves with highly nutritional food that ordinarily they just would not be able to get their hands on. So, we’re thinking that if this pilot program goes well this would be an application that would apply to every inner city throughout the U.S.  

Credit: Jeremy Moore, KUSA
Farmbox Foods grows vegetables in shipping containers.

Savageau:  The mission’s always been to create products that are for the decentralized food insecurity industry. So, we want to create a product that can be deployed anywhere in the world, can run off-grid, and can feed communities. So, we have two different products – the VHF and the GMF. Every product that we develop gets us one step closer to being able to feed a community with everything they need, because you can’t feed communities forever just on leafy greens. 

So mushrooms, they’re more nutrient dense, that gets us one step closer. There’s other products that we’re going to develop to get us to that point. But, I think the mission for the company is to be able to deploy these farms into communities where they’re needed, whether that’s a rural area, a food desert in the U.S., an inner city, or somewhere in Africa like Ghana or the Sudan. 

We want to align with big ag and we want to help the industry get better. So we want to get food to where it’s needed. We’re looking at doing stuff with food insecurity and food inequality. That’s big with what we’re doing. So, that kind of aligns with our mission. If you look at our food system – just take for instance – you know if you look at a SNAP program or food subsidy program – you’re taking food and giving it to somebody or they’re purchasing it. 

But, a lot of that food that they’re purchasing is processed, sugar – I mean, it’s poison. And if you go on a military base anywhere in the U.S., there’s fast food on the base. It’s really what you see. So, there’s a lot of reasons why we’re doing this I think. We can help fix our food system. And we can help educate the youth on how they should eat. We’re doing some stuff with an Inuit community in Alaska. They don’t necessarily know how to fix this food or prepare it or use it. So, I think education is a big part of what we’re doing.

9NEWS: How do these container farms work?

Savageau:  When people think of farms, they don’t think of agriculture like this. Vertical hydroponics and indoor ag and controlled environments – it’s been around for a long time. I think that the way that this one works is pretty simple. The water gets fed into a tube system and the water trickles down and goes back into the tank. And where you’re standing – the seedling tray area – the water goes into a tank, into the seedling trays, gets flooded, and then back into the tank. 

There’s a software that we use called Agrotech that monitors the temperature, the humidity, the lights – basically, all automated. So, it’s fairly easy to run. You need about 15 to 20 hours a week to run one farm. The GMF farms takes about 25 hours a week. It’s a little bit more intensive. The VHF is the vertical hydroponic farm and that’s the farm that we’re standing in. The GMF is the gourmet mushroom farm, which is the one that you went through earlier. You want to just keep things as clean as possible. The cleaner that you keep it the better it’s going to run. 

So, we have a standard SOP, you know, that we implement with our training. Cleaning the floors. Cleaning the tubes. You don’t clean them every time. But, usually every couple harvests you’ll take the tubes out, wash them out. You’re cleaning the tanks about every 60 days. 

But, on average it’s pretty easy to maintain if you’re doing the daily checklist. The seeds are going to be in the seedling tray for about two weeks. Then, they go into the wall. And then they get harvested about 60 days after they start in the seedling tray. So, on average you’re about 60 days from seedling to harvest depending on what you’re growing. 

And this farm is really setup for vertical hydroponics. So, it’s leafy greens. You can do hundreds of different types of lettuce. You can do cherry tomatoes, strawberries and peppers. There’s a lot of different things that you can grow in here. Most of our clients are only growing a couple things at one time. You don’t have to worry about weather. You don’t have to worry about if this is in a cold climate like the arctic. You know, they can’t grow food. If it’s in a desert, they can’t grow food. If it’s on an island, they can’t grow food. So, these can be deployed anywhere. And they grow 365, all day, every day. Also, the yield is very high for the square footage. So, you can put these on top of a building, inside of a building. It only takes up 320-square feet. You don’t have any pesticides. So, you don’t have to worry about pests, bugs, mildew, stuff like that’s going to effect the plant as it’s growing. It’s also decentralizing the food system.

 So, you’re not having to ship food hundreds of thousands of miles from point A to point B. So, the food is right there. And the nutrients that we use are organic plant-based nutrients. And there’s no pesticides. So, the nutrient density is extremely high compared to something that you would buy – even organic – in a store.

Walker:  We grow a variety of vegetables and lettuces. I believe that we’re somewhere in the area of 30 to 40 different types of vegetables and lettuces that we can grow in our farms. And, then of course we’ve got our gourmet mushroom farm which we’re currently growing anywhere from eight to nine different varieties of mushrooms. We’re in the startup phase of running that farm ourselves. So, we’re exploring the different types of mushrooms that we can grow. But, we’re very proud of the folks that are actually running these farms – our staff, very knowledgeable and they do a great job. We’re going upwards to 300 to 400 pounds a week now. We’re not competing with traditional farming. We’re actually a compliment.

9NEWS: Who are your customers? 

Walker:  One of our first customers is Centura Health. They purchased their first container – which is now sitting at St. Mary’s in Pueblo. They ordered two more containers after seeing how the first container behind their hospital worked. We actually started up a pilot program with Centura Health where we’re now running them as the FarmBox family. 

We’re working with Centura Health in identifying not only their hospitals and the patients who are going to be fed through our vertical farm – but then we’re also identifying where the food deserts are and Centura Health will then help us with what we’re going to be growing, and then the communities that we’re going to be serving from those, those particular crops. 

We do have a couple that’s looking at doing some farming right here in Sedalia. They’re going to use it to supplement their traditional farming, which will be an interesting pilot program for us to work with them on. We’re working with C Lazy U Ranch out of Granby, Colorado. They’ve ordered a hydroponic farm and we’re going to be manufacturing that. And they’re going to place that at the ranch. They don’t really have access to a lot of good food as far as having it grown right there on the property. So, this will be a nice compliment to the services and the customer experience that they provide their customers by having one of our farms right on site. 

Credit: Jeremy Moore, KUSA
Centura Health is one of FarmBox Foods' first customers.

One big area that we’re really focusing on is the urban areas throughout the U.S. where they don’t have a lot of land to grow. These farms can go right into the parking lots, behind a church for example. We’re working with a community church in the south side of Chicago that’s looking at – we’re looking at placing two of these containers – a vertical hydroponic farm and a mushroom farm right outside in the parking lot outside the church. 

We can have the community grow their own food and supply the community themselves with highly nutritional food that ordinarily they just would not be able to get their hands on. So, we’re thinking that if this pilot program goes well this would be an application that would apply to every inner city throughout the United States.

Savageau:  We have a customer here in Lakewood that’s going to put one in their backyard. They run a small organic farm. We’re looking all the way up into federal government and military, and everything in between. 

So, Rusty was talking about FEMA, the UN, UNICEF, those are the big customers that take a long time to build a relationship with. And then we have customers that are all the way down to just an individual that wants one for their property or maybe a couple of people are going to run one for a restaurant or a developer wants one for a small development that he’s doing. 

We’re working with a group in New Mexico and they’re building a huge development of about 45,000 houses. So, we’re talking about 100 of these units that are going to be deployed in that area right outside Albuquerque to feed those communities within that area over the course of about two years. We work with a grocer that’s regional. And we work with some other customers that are kind of at a government, federal government level. 

I think we’ve done a lot in the last three years. I mean we haven’t gone out and raised any capitol. So, we’ve self-funded it. And I think from that point of view you know we’ve done a lot. We’re kind of at the point right now where we’re just starting to scale. So, we’ve just started our social media. You know SEO (search engine optimization), SEM (search engine marketing). We have a sales team. And orders are starting to come in. We’ve partnered with RK which is manufacturing our units. That’s giving us the ability to scale. Because before that we were building these one or two at a time in Sedalia and now we can build 100 of them. So, that’s really been a huge part of us being able to scale is the manufacturing side.

9NEWS: How much does it cost to purchase and operate the farms? 

Jake:  This VHF farm – vertical hydroponic farm – starts at $140,000. The GMF starts at $150,000. Then, you have training and deploy, getting it there. So, usually you’re over $150,000 for a farm. So, your ROI (return on investment) in this product is going to be about 12 months to 24 months depending on what you’re growing and where it is in the world. 

The GMF is going to be closer to 12 months because mushrooms tend to be more expensive – again – depending on where it’s going. We have a unit that’s going to Tahiti for example. That ROI is going to be extremely fast because they ship everything in. If there’s a market for mushrooms there, which there is with a grocer, it’s going to be quick. So, the cost of running it with labor and everything you need to grow the plants, usually around $20,000 to $40,000 a year. We’re a mission driven company. So, money isn’t the first thing that’s important. We want to build a certain amount of these and then every x amount that we build, we build one for free and we send it to a community that maybe our social media has engaged with or given us an idea that ‘hey, this would be a good community.’ And then, we send it there. We pay for it. We train people. And that’s something that we want to do. We can’t do it yet. But, I think that’s coming in the next year.

9NEWS: Why is Edible Beats interested in working with FarmBox?

Hunt:  We try to be as local and organic as possible and that’s what brought us here to FarmBox. We can put a box behind a restaurant and have lettuces cut and washed and put on the plate the next day. 

Just to have that connection with our food and know exactly where it’s coming from and how it was produced. It’s going to be a better quality because it’s not traveling. It’s not ripening in a truck coming from Mexico. Economically, what we can do to not pay the mileage on the vehicles and the gas, the inputs, the emissions, the extra packaging, the plastics. 

That’s one of the best things about FarmBox – that what we can do is – if we produce food for our restaurant group – I’m not going to have to buy packaging that’s going to go into a landfill or even need to be recycled. It’ll go directly into the vessels that we’re going to store them in the cooler. We don’t have to worry about marketing and labeling and you know stickers and plastics and all this extra stuff – this hoopla that we don’t need – because FarmBox is a possibility now. 

Credit: Jeremy Moore, KUSA
The Farmbox Foods containers allow leafy greens to grow vertically, maximizing space.

We are looking at lettuces and herbs, leafy greens. So yeah, like basils, sage, leaf lettuces, butter lettuces, arugula – these kinds of things that we use that could greatly help our impact. Essentially it’s a self-contained box that you can grow fruits and vegetables in – most likely leafy greens – and it’s a soilless or near soilless medium. 

So, essentially you plant your seed in a very small amount of coconut core or soil or peat moss – something to hold the root structure – and that, according with FarmBox, they’re system is a vertical farming. 

So, they have vertical towers and then they put the lettuces in the towers in their small soil medium and then they drip water with enhanced nutrients mixed into the water specifically built for those vegetables. It doesn’t have a lot of soil waste. 

For the amount of the surface area you can get way more production out of it and the water that goes through is recycled. Per plant, it uses far less water than any other type of growing system.

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