January 14, 2016
Boston Company Makes Mobile
Farms From Shipping Boxes
By PHILIP MARCELO
Boston (AP) — Shipping containers have been turned into housing, art, even playgrounds. Now, a Boston company is recycling them into high-tech mobile farms as part of a new wave of companies hoping to bring more innovation to agriculture.
Freight Farms and other indoor agriculture companies are looking to meet the growing demand for high-quality, locally grown and sustainable produce by farming fruits and vegetables in non-traditional spaces such as warehouses, industrial buildings and containers.
They’re using hydroponics and other longstanding methods to grow plants without soil and incorporating technology that automates much of the work and reduces waste.
``The food system needs to be designed around technology and equipment that’s available today,’’ says Brad McNamara, Freight Farms’ CEO and co-founder. ``It was designed 100 years ago without the right technology to reach the level that it needs to. The whole system needs to be modernized.’’
The company says its Leafy Green Machine helps farmers produce a consistently bountiful crop — roughly the typical yield of an acre of farmland — while using 90 percent less water, no pesticides, and just 320 square feet of space.
Climate controls, automated lighting and irrigation systems, and mobile apps for monitoring and maintaining crops remotely also allow farmers to grow year-round with minimal oversight.
``Starting a farm is a lot to ask of one person,’’ says company president and co-founder Jon Friedman. ``So we’ve put together a system that gives even a novice the tools to produce thousands of plants and get them to market.’’
So far, Freight Farms customers say the benefits outweigh the costs, which include the $82,000 base price for the 2016 model, as well as an estimated $8,000 to $16,500 a year in electricity, water and growing supply costs.
Hydroponic lettuce farm in a freight box
``The beauty of the Freight Farm is in its ease of use and its mobility,’’ says Thomas LaGrasso III, chief operating officer at LaGrasso Bros., a Detroit produce wholesaler that’s been growing lettuce in its unit since September. ``We harvest to meet our customers’ daily needs. You cannot have it any fresher.’’
Launched in 2010, Freight Farms is considered a pioneer of container farms. About a half-dozen other companies in the U.S. offer them, including CropBox in Clinton, North Carolina; Growtainers in Dallas; and PodPonics in Atlanta.
Freight Farms has sold 54 Leafy Green Machines, with ones already in operation on Google’s campus in Mountain View, California; Stony Brook University on Long Island; and Four Burgers, a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Most Freight Farm customers are growing high turnover, compact crops the company recommends — lettuce; hearty greens like kale, cabbage and Swiss chard; and herbs like mint, basil and oregano — and selling them to local restaurants and groceries and at community markets, according to McNamara and Friedman.
Jon Niedzielski, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in Massachusetts, says his office has already approved a handful of loans to farmers using Freight Farms’ containers.
``Efficient, hydroponic systems that need little open space can make a lot of sense, particularly in urban areas with lots of potential consumers willing to pay top dollar, year-round, for lettuce and herbs,’’ he says.
Industry experts caution that upfront costs and annual operational expenses like electricity for lighting systems that often run 18 hours a day can mean slim profit margins for would-be farmers.
But they also suggest technological advances are helping make indoor growing more feasible.
``I think it will take some development to make these systems truly sustainable,’’ says Andrew Carter, an urban agriculture consultant in New York and North American region manager for the Germany-based Association for Vertical Farming. ``But I’m a firm believer in indoor agriculture and small-scale growing and think it will supply healthy, sustainable, and local food.’’
Polish Immigrant Found Niche At Dallas Zoo; Couldn’t Retire
By Claire Z. Cardona
The Dallas Morning News
Dallas (AP) Roman Kantorek sets out shortly after 5 p.m. with a clipboard he rarely consults and a container of chopped fruits and vegetables.
The assistant supervisor of the late shift at the Dallas Zoo is a few hours into his workday. He has many mouths to feed and locks to check before the night is up.
``All right, let me climb that fence and meet those dangerous animals,’’ he says.
Kantorek, a 62-year-old Polish immigrant with a deadpan sense of humor, hops the 3-foot-high wooden enclosure and comes face to face with sleepy Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises. The tortoises need access to their indoor enclosure.
These days they’re trained to be motivated by food, but not that long ago a group of keepers had to pick them up and take them inside.
Penguins at the zoo, with a strange visitor
Kantorek worked at the zoo 23 years before retiring in 2009. He felt burned out. But he returned in 2012.
``I couldn’t stay away,’’ he told The Dallas Morning News. ``This is such a unique job, even though it’s not all glamour, as some people may think. There’s so much stuff going on. It’s so interesting, especially at night.’’
Kantorek loves working in the evenings, when the animals — nocturnal or not — show a side you don’t often see during the day.
``At my stage of life, I’m really enjoying it,’’ he says. ``Zookeeping, it’s not an easy profession. It’s kind of hard, it’s physical, and you’re outside.’’
The all-clear alert comes over the radio at 5:30 p.m., signaling that the guests have left the zoo. Kantorek says it’s time to go to the lemurs.
``When it starts getting dark, you’re out of luck,’’ he says. ``They settle in the trees and they don’t want to go in.’’
Kantorek lifts a series of color-coded levers that open the doors, and the lemurs dart inside, where a painting done by a lemur and a ``Beware: Guard Lemur on Duty’’ sign hang.
He knows the lemurs’ names and personalities: Iggy is trouble. Hydrox is more dominant.
And he knows how to get a lemur into the correct enclosure.
``Sometimes you have to use little tricks of the trade,’’ he says, throwing a grape.
Kantorek grew up knowing he would do something with animals, but his town, Szczecin, did not have a zoo. He earned a master’s degree in animal sciences and was working in the zoology department of the local agriculture university.
Kantorek had to leave Poland because of his involvement with a publishing house that printed books banned by the communist government. He secured political refugee status from the United States and landed in Texas in February 1986, thanks to the sponsorship of a Dallas family.
By August, he’d found a job at the zoo.
Kantorek’s large keyring jingles with each step. His shift involves checking a lot of locks and then checking them again, and he never fails to find the right key.
He pops into the lesser flamingo habitat, shaking the bushes to get some ducks — marbled teal — out of the water. The fowl have to be shifted indoors for dinner, and when he opens the hatch, they follow him the way they would an avian Pied Piper.
``I was into birds when I was a little kid; then I turned to ants and I was never the same,’’ he says.
The job has allowed him to hand-feed baby orangutans and antelopes and interact with a lengthy list of reptiles, primates and hoofstock, though ants are still among his favorites. He has seen the births of oryxes, sunni antelopes, big antelopes, giraffes and primates. Before he retired, Kantorek spent 12 years caring for elephants.
``There’s still one I used to work here with, Jenny. She still recognizes me,’’ he says. ``She starts rumbling or sometimes trumpeting. She’s a little moody; sometimes she kind of gives me a cold shoulder.’’
At Don Glendenning Penguin Cove, Kantorek opens a little gate and 12 African penguins waddle through as he sits on a rock and gazes off. There’s no time to get lonely during the shift, he says; it’s too busy.
Next are the otters, and then a visual check of the snakes and alligators in the reptile building, where he switches off some lights.
Night keepers have their share of experiences with sick animals, baby animals, nursing mothers and quarantines.
The longer you work with the animals, the easier it is to recognize problems — if they don’t respond when you come in, or if they’re lethargic and sluggish, something may be wrong, he says.
Once, on Christmas Eve, a night keeper called animal senior director Harrison Edell about a Eurasian eagle-owl. She was concerned because he was walking strangely and in a hunched position. After calling other animal supervisors, Edell learned the eagle-owl had been given a Christmas gift — a huge, whole rat.
Jenny with Kantorek in 1995
``He was just protecting his food from the night keeper,’’ Edell says. ``It wasn’t necessarily that she caught a huge issue, but she flagged something appropriately. She did exactly the right thing.’’
The keeper operation that cares for the 2,000 or so animals at the zoo runs ``like a finely oiled machine,’’ Edell says. ``It impresses the heck out of me. Most of the public doesn’t really understand what it takes to care for these animals. It’s not just hosing down the enclosure.’’
In the crisp, quiet night, Kantorek moves swiftly from station to station greeting the animals.
``Hey, Mason, our lovely gibbon,’’ he says. ``You don’t like me, I know that. Where are you going?’’
He knows the creatures’ personalities, and they seem to remember him. He gives the monkeys, cougars, bobcat and ocelots access to their indoor habitats, feeds some, sweeps and does a visual scan of the birds. A crocodile glides silently toward the food pellets he tosses into the water, its teeth illuminated by the light from Kantorek’s small flashlight.
Many giraffes are already asleep when Kantorek arrives, but they rise slowly to their feet when he enters. He starts to talk to the animals as he approaches the building.
``When you walk in without warning, you don’t know how they’re going to react,’’ he says. ``That’s kind of part of interspecies communication.’’
Outside, a couple of zebras watch him closely. It’s hard to pin down what he likes best about the job. Part of the allure is the animals’ diversity, he says.
``When you think about how difficult it is to survive in their environment, how competitive it is, the fact that they’re surviving is just an incredible success story,’’ he says. ``People generally under-appreciate animals. They have so much more to offer than people think, and we can learn so much from them.’’