UPDATE: this article refers to pricing and features available in March 2015, and the information may have changed. Please contact the company for current pricing and information.
Along with "exponentially higher" yields, the CropBox promises that their complete growing system also uses 90% less water and 80% less fertilizer than conventional agriculture does.
The latest entry into the growing urban agriculture sector pairs a high-tech hydroponic growing and monitoring system with one of the darlings of the repurposing movement, the humble shipping container, yielding a "farm in a box" that can produce large quantities of fresh local vegetables year-round.
The CropBox, which is manufactured by long-time greenhouse builder Williamson Greenhouses, is an outgrowth of a project of Ben Greene and Tyler Nethers, who are developing the Farmery, an urban farm and grocery in North Carolina that uses shipping containers to grow strawberries, greens, lettuces, herbs, and gourmet mushrooms.
The shipping containers, which can fit 2800 planting spots in the 320 square feet (~ 30 square meters), are outfitted with grow lights, planting racks, a heating and ventilation system, all of the necessary hydroponic components (reservoir, pump, control & monitoring system), and a complete suite of 18 sensors for monitoring just about every environmental condition inside the container. Additionally, the networked computer system that runs the CropBox can be accessed and managed from a smartphone or web interface, and provides a complete log of records for analyzing the unit's performance.
"Monitor and adjust every element of the growing system from a tablet or smartphone, including lighting, CO2, Nutrients, PH, Air Temperature, Flood, Fires, Humidity, Fans, Water Temperature, Water Flow, Water Levels and Root Zone Temperature. Includes a Webcam, so you may view your crops from anywhere in the world." - CropBox
While the price of a CropBox isn't exactly pocket change (about $43,000), the company is offering them on a lease-to-own basis to interested parties, and depending on the crops, the market, and the experience of the grower, the payback time on a unit could be as quick as 7 months (using basil as the example) or up to 3 years (growing salad mix).
For restaurants and grocery stores that want to provide more fresh local produce year-round, CropBox could be a viable option, as the containers can be installed on-site in a small footprint, or stacked vertically for more dense crop production, and the portable nature of the units allows them to be moved as necessary. Currently, the units are said to use twice as much electricity as a traditional greenhouse does during the winter, so they aren't necessarily a low-carbon shipping container farm, but CropBox is said to be working on an LED lighting option, which could lower lighting electricity use by 60%, as well as reducing the cooling costs of the units by producing less heat.
According to the News Observer, CropBox just leased its first unit, to North Carolina's Coon Rock Farm, where it will be used to supplement the farm's CSA, restaurant, and home delivery service.