Shipping Containers as Farms? (Updated)

Intermodal shipping containers on a railway fl...After reading an article on Treehugger, I just learned about a Kickstarter Project that is attempting to modify “recycled shipping containers with the tools to grow fruits and vegetables in an urban environment.”  These shipping containers are to be fitted with hydroponic technologies and, presumably, electric lighting to provide plants with “solar” energy.

Shipping containers have several advantages that make them well suited to agricultural modification:

  • Containers are standard in their measurements, making them well suited to small scale manufacturing for modification
  • Containers can be moved fairly easily using existing water, rail, and road networks.  Even as fossil fuels become scarce, moving containers over fairly short distances will probably be feasible.
  • Containers can be fitted with a number of renewable, regenerative technologies that can move through a community as required

So while I agree with the basic premise of this project, I’m not sure I agree with the tactical implementation.  Why fit shipping containers with relatively expensive lighting technologies for producing vegetables?  The sun does a much better job for much cheaper; the energy yield for the vegetables is probably a thermodynamic loss.

Instead, why not modify the container to act as a mobile agro-industrial unit?  Dorn Cox of Greenstart has the jump on this, as he is currently installing open source biodiesel generators into an old Coca-Cola trailer.  The biodiesel generators are designed to process sunflower oil produced from his no-till organic sunflower crop.  Since Dorn doesn’t use the equipment year round, there’s plenty of machine down-time to warrant a technology share with neighboring farms.  The shipping container could also be fitted with additional regenerative open source technologies, like the open source Rodale crop roller.

The permacultural concept of guilds becomes useful here, as shipping containers could be dedicated modules (or guilds) for ecosystem regeneration: an aquaponics module for producing breeding fish; a mushroom lab for producing mycelium spawn; an apiculture module for building and deploying hives; and as mentioned above, a liquid fuel/no-till module for producing energy.

Centralizing shipping container modifications into an semi-industrial process will allow for rapid deployment of “seed” technologies that can be moved across the globe with the urgency that is commensurate with our current human crisis.

And check out this article, again via Treehuger, about growing shrimp in the desert.  Feeding the voracious 24-7 shrimp appetite of Las Vegas is probably not a good use for this tech, but overall the idea may make more sense than vegetable production, as the protein conversion efficiency of aquaculture is many times greater than a feedlot.


I found some good additional information after publishing this.  Apparently, lead paint is a problem in shipping containers…which may be very difficult and/or expensive to remediate.

Additionally, these things are hot and difficult to ventilate, which probably isn’t a huge problem in New Hampshire, but more problematic in Haiti or New Mexico.

Treehugger has really covered this issue over the years.  See the link below for a summary of this coverage:

And the National Young Farmer’s Coalition has a report back from a FarmHack event on Dorn Cox’s farm in New Hampshire.


Shipping Containers as Farms? (Updated) — 6 Comments

    • Yeah maybe, but sunlight is a whole lot cheaper!
      “…While cost and power efficiency for these bulbs are following Moore’s Law (essentially doubling every two years or less) they are still cost-prohibitive for commercial agriculture….”
      Have you heard about the solar powered tanning bed? 😉

  1. In relation to the Aquaculture v feedlot conversion. In no way do I condone feedlotting but it is vital to remember that in teh case of Aquaculture FCRs (Feed Conversion Ratios) that we are not comparing apples and apples. Aquaculture feed is typically based on fishmeal and thus represents a higher order process. Animal protein to protein as opposed to plant material to protein. It thus also impacts significantly on the marine environment and the likely El Nino later this year will have significant impact on the Peruvian fishery..

  2. Assuming that you’re in a cold environment, you need a Klinkman Solar Design linear trough to concentrate sunlight into the containers all day. You can save all of that extra solar heat with thermal mass and a fan. You’ll get far more light than will a normal greenhouse — light equals growth — and you won’t lose much heat at night through the relatively small windows.

    Yes, this is a self-plug.

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