Q&A: Freight Farms’ Rick Vanzura on Greenery S, tech upgrades, and more

Features - Production

Vanzura also discusses why recipes are a key feature of the latest Freight Farms model.

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August 17, 2021

Photo: boophuket, Adobe Stock

Produce Grower: What are some of the notable changes with this newest Freight Farms model?

Rick Vanzura: Dynamic Lighting Control. The Greenery S takes a huge leap in LED technology by allowing farmers to customize the lighting spectrum, intensity, and duration of light to achieve their desired plant yields. The Greenery S features Freight Farms’ proprietary LEDs, which emit light with 60% greater intensity and 50% better efficiency compared to off-the-shelf options. Farmers have precise control over their lights with brand new Eco (prioritizing farm efficiency by reducing power consumption), Performance (prioritizing plant growth for greater yields), and Standard (balances the two) modes.

Secondly, we are also featuring an all-new Workstation. As Freight Farms continues to define and refine what a farm can be, the company focuses specifically on optimizing workflow for their farmers with an all-new Workstation, a sleek, self-contained, multi-functional farm command center. Technical components – water and nutrient tanks, dosing panel, pumps – are hidden from view, yet easily accessible with a simple push-to-open mechanism for instant access. The ‘Tabletop Riser’ separates the workstation into two work zones, and includes an integrated, multi-functional LED bar (for tabletop illumination, plant spacing guidance, and task timing) and four full-range Bluetooth speakers.

And lastly, new lighting Recipes. The Greenery S launched with a huge update to our farmhand® software which includes a feature called Recipes. Recipes allow farmers to achieve consistent harvests with the touch of a button. Operators simply choose the crop they wish to grow, and farmhand automatically adjusts in-farm settings for that crop production. In-farm cameras and sensors gather information and continuously improve the precision of the recipes over time, aggregating data from the entire farmer network to determine patterns that lead to exceptionally successful harvests.

PG: How does the company work on deciding what kind of changes to do from model to model?

RV: The Greenery S is the 10th generation of our farming technology, and it leverages everything that we have learned from building these farms for nearly a decade. As a whole, we look for solutions that improve the performance, ease-of-use, and sustainability of our product to ensure our customers are able to support their communities with fresh, local, and sustainable food year-round. In addition to tireless R&D efforts within the company, many of the improvements made in the Greenery S were driven by direct user feedback, implementing the user research we conduct with our farmers about what works and what could be improved.

PG: What are the next steps for Freight Farms as a company?

RV: As a company, our priority is to grow and continuously improve our product capabilities to drive our mission of improving access to fresh, hyper-local produce throughout our global community. From there, we hope to use our entire knowledge, data, and technology base to accelerate the overall AgTech industry beyond the scope of our containers.

Freight Farms can customize LEDs to emit only select colors, such as the red and blue light that plants need to grow strong.

PG: How key are the recipes to what Freight Farms is doing? And do you find that having recipes is a way to bridge the knowledge gap for customers without detailed horticulture backgrounds?

RV: Recipes are truly the key to unlocking every farmer’s potential, regardless of their previous growing experience. Just as we have been developing the technology for nearly a decade, we have also been learning and collecting data that whole time. Recipes are a way for us to easily share all that institutional knowledge with our customers in an easy and effective way. Furthermore, recipes are not only the result of our learnings, but of the learnings of the whole farming network, meaning the available selection of recipes will become more robust as our community grows.

PG: What kinds of crops are available via Recipes right now? And do you get different growers trying out new things or new crops?

RV: Currently, our Recipes focus on general crop types versus singular crops, with farmers able to choose from four options: Lettuce, Salad Mix, Herbs, and Flowers. As a first release, we felt these would be the most useful for the greatest range of our customers, since these crop types typically get the highest yields and market prices. Farmhand and the Greenery S can be calibrated to be as specific as possible, and we always encourage our customers (if they’re comfortable) to experiment with new settings and new crops. This is how we grow the knowledge of the overall network.

PG: Why does Freight Farms go with LEDs vs. other types of lighting?

RV: LEDs are powerful and long-lasting and – of all the other indoor grow light options such as halogen, fluorescent, HID, etc. – have the lowest heat output and the highest efficiency. Additionally, we are able to customize LEDs to emit only select colors, such as the red and blue light that plants need to grow strong. LEDs are also the type of indoor light seeing the fastest technological advancement, allowing us to pass on benefits to our customers quickly. As previously mentioned, with the Greenery S, we are able to use bulbs that are 60% more powerful and 50% more efficient than those used in previous models, even the ones released just 12 months ago.

Top: Shipping containers built out with hort tech allow for full climate and lighting control for high yields.

PG: Take me into the workspace – what is it like to work in it?

RV: The Greenery S is a relaxing place to spend your time. The balanced temperature and humidity, combined with the lush canopy of oxygen-emitting plants is an instant mood booster, with the insulated container walls blocking out the outside world.

As for layout, the 320 sq. ft space is divided into two sections: the Nursery Station and the Cultivation Area. The Nursery Station is set alongside the wall on the front left side. It holds two irrigated seedling troughs, where seedlings spend approximately 3 weeks before being moved into vertical panels in the Cultivation Area. The Nursery Station also doubles as a worktop where the majority of farming activities take place. Farmers seed, transplant, and harvest their crops in this one versatile space. Across from the station is an empty, multipurpose area that can be customized according to the farmers’ wants: some install microgreen racks, others add additional storage, and some have even put in armchairs (to go with a wall-mounted TV).

The Cultivation Area consists of four mobile grow rows and four LED arrays (two mobile, two wall-mounted), and takes up the majority of the interior space. The mobile grow rows and LED arrays are mounted onto overhead racks, with a simple rack-and-pinion system making it easy to shift the farm arrangement at will. This is useful for farmers looking to do in-row plant care, harvesting, or maintenance.

Mostly, the Greenery S is optimized to make farming easy and enjoyable. This is where features in the new Workstation, such as the multi-functional LED bar and integrated Bluetooth speakers, or the push-to-open tanks come in. We want to streamline as much of the operations as possible so the farmer can focus on their business.

PG: With where you are now vs. the original model, is it easier to explain what FF does and what it entails?

RV: What has changed most since we built our first Freight Farms model in 2013 is not so much the complexity of the technology, but the general awareness of indoor farming and appreciation for local food production. The result is, yes, today it is easier to explain not just the technology, but the value of the technology for a variety of applications.

PG: What does purchasing a Freight Farm look like exactly – can you walk me through the process of buying one?

RV: The buying journey is different for every single customer. We’ve had sales cycles ranging from mere hours to several years.

First, is education. A lot of people are looking for a lifestyle change or a meaningful investment, but are not familiar with hydroponics, container farming, or controlled environment agriculture. For this reason, we host several events ranging from webinars and farm tours to farmer Q&A sessions where any questions about the technology and the lifestyle can be answered.

Second, is project development. Once a person decides they want to pursue a Freight Farms project, our business development team steps in to ensure they have all the tools to secure land, financing, partnerships, anything they need — we make it our business to be experts in everything related to launching a successful farming venture. Oftentimes, our farmer network is also involved, providing helpful tips.

Third, is support. After signing a purchase agreement, new customers are instantly introduced to our client services team, which guides farmers through every step from site preparation to first harvest.

This article originally appeared on ProduceGrower.com. It was edited for clarity and format.