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Two Young Entrepreneurs Offer Way to Grow Food Even in the Dead of Winter

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As the Eastern U.S. deals with sub-freezing temperatures and lots of snow (looking at you Boston), two young entrepreneurs, Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara, who happen to live in Boston, have a solution to produce food locally even in the middle of winter. Freight Farms, which Friedman and McNamara started in 2010, sells insulated shipping containers, which they've nicknamed Leafy Green Machines, as part of what they call "the next generation of food supply."

Founders Jon Friedman, left, and Brad McNamara, right. Photo credit: Freight Farms

The converted shipping containers are "outfitted with vertical hydroponics, high efficiency LED lights and an automated climate control system," according to their website. The automated system allows users to easily produce "high volume, consistent harvests." Yesterday, Friedman and McNamara joined Jeremy Hobson of NPR's Here & Now to discuss their start up.

Friedman, McNamara and Hobson stood outside in sub-freezing temperatures next to four Leafy Green Machines. Inside these converted shipping containers are (you guessed it!) thousands of varieties of leafy greens including lettuces, herbs and brassicas.

"We can take this all over and to places that don't have access to food," says McNamara. Their idea has been met with skepticism from some, but everyone understands when you explain that "if you want lettuce in New England right now, it's coming from really far away," says Friedman.

Is this catching on? The two have sold 25 units so far, starting around $76,000 per unit. "Between 50 and 100 people a month come in and say I want to get involved with this," says McNamara. Growing food might be the world's oldest profession, but Friedman and McNamara are bringing food production into the 21st century.

"Each farm is a wifi-enabled hotspot, so your farm ... is immediately on the web and all of our farms are connected to our network," McNamara says. "All of our farmers use our farm hand mobile app to monitor their farms 24/7. They can set alerts. They can set alarms."

Sean and Connie Cooney are two happy Freight Farms customers. With their Leafy Green Machine, they can monitor temperature, nutrient and pH levels, and even watch live video of their plants from anywhere with the company's mobile app. "We like to think of it as farming by computer but we still get our hands in there," says Connie Cooney.

Sean Cooney said they chose to buy one because "it seemed like the only scalable way" to grow food in a city and make money doing it as opposed to needing "acres and acres of land further away from the city." They sell most of their greens, including cilantro, mustard green, wild mint, kale, purslane and sorrel, to restaurants. The plants grow more quickly and can grow all year long, and they taste as good or better than what you would buy from a "dirt farm," according to Sean Cooney.

Friedman and McNamara estimate the annual operating costs at $13,000 a year—for electricity, water, packaging and growing supplies—but with plans to incorporate renewable energy sources such as solar panels, that cost could drop significantly.

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