Sprouting From Steel: Four Burgers Goes Freight Farm

four burgersFour Burgers owner Michael Bissanti shows off some of his Freight Farm's freshly planted greens. Photos by Emily Cassel.

A 40-foot stainless steel box with orderly rows of plastic tubes and an aura of violet light—this isn’t one of the idyllic farms that make up patches in the quilt of the American midwest.

But for a parking lot in Central Square, it’ll do. And then some. Four Burgers (704 Mass. Ave.), a burger joint with an eight-year residence in the square, just got itself a Freight Farm—a refurbished refrigerated shipping container outfitted with computers, pumps, lights and all the components of a hydroponic system.

Freight Farms is a six-year-old startup based out of the Seaport, and they say that their product is “the next generation of food supply.” There’s little to no waste, no pests (or pesticides), barely any soil—and virtually no environmental variables to contend with.

“Watch for the hose,” warns Four Burgers owner Michael Bissanti as we walk through his kitchen towards the back door of the restaurant. Indeed, a hose coils down from the faucet of an industrial kitchen sink, snaking out the back door and into the farm. Thanks to its white paint job and bright green logo, the shipping container-turned-farm stands out against a backdrop of speckled concrete and the brick perimeter of Four Burgers’ rear lot. The rumble of Mass. Ave. gives way to the hum of water pumps and a refrigeration unit as Bissanti steps inside the Freight Farm—which is nestled about 10 feet from the restaurant’s back entrance—and closes the door.

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Looking down the aisle of the Freight Farm, it’s as if you’re inside a corridor of edible, green wall art.

Inside, a stainless steel table is lined with shelves where Bissanti has perched black plastic trays of soil pods with seedlings. They’re waiting to be planted inside white plastic towers that extend from floor to ceiling, side-by-side one another along the length of the container. Together, these towers make up several aisles of vertically growing greens inside the freight farm. Filtered water mixed with plant nutrients drips down from the ceiling into the tops of the towers. The water percolates through the pillars, nourishing every leafy green along the way. The produce sprouts through a long, narrow opening running up and down each column.

Looking down the aisle, it’s as if you’re inside a corridor of edible, green wall art. Kale, mustard greens and various kinds of lettuce grow vertically, one on top of each other. Strings of violet lightbulbs encased in a clear plastic tube dangle down from the ceiling, running down the middle of each aisle of towers.

“Four Burgers is the first restaurant solely operating their farm,” says Freight Farms community manager Caroline Katsiroubas. Most other small businesses, she explains, are buying their Freight Farms produce from independent Freight Farmers who may be dealing their crops to multiple clients.

Bissanti adjusts the lighting inside his Freight Farm—with a little help from his son.

Bissanti adjusts the lighting inside his Freight Farm—with a little help from his son.

But Bissanti has the space—and the support of the Cambridge community—which has made it easy for him to control his own supply. “I was having lunch with my friend Heather [Onstott], who is the CFO at Freight Farms, and she was telling me about the product … and I thought, ‘That’s really cool,’” he says. Within a few weeks, he had brought up the idea of installing a Freight Farm with his fellow Central Square business community members. “[I found] tons of support from everyone I spoke to, but that’s Cambridge … everyone is so proactive,” Bissanti adds. In December, he parked his farm in the restaurant’s rear lot, with the city and his neighbors in full support.

Bissanti says he was drawn to Freight Farms for both business and ethical reasons. “You’re constantly looking for ways to differentiate yourself as a business. What are you doing to stay relevant?” he explains. “Local sourcing is a big thing for us.” Indeed, Freight Farms does local hyperbolically—a ten-foot-commute kind of local.

Inside the Freight Farm, Bissanti moves up and down the aisles of sprouting towers with a self-assured ease. He has each pillar labeled with the type of produce and the date it was planted. He shows me the water pump and filtration system.

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We’re not kidding—this thing is in the heart of Central Square

“The water and lights are on 18 hours a day,” he explains, which makes the Freight Farm an optimal growing environment for plants. It’s as if it’s the summer solstice every day of the year—minus all the unpredictable pests and weather events that could kill a harvest. The violet lights are the ideal balance between red and blue light, encouraging photosynthesis. Freight Farms is all about farming smart— when the container is planted to capacity, Bissanti says the yield will be comprable to that of a two-acre farm.<

While Bissanti wouldn’t call himself a farmer, the vocation is in his lineage. His grandfather owned a farm—the traditional kind—and he spent summers there during his youth. Decades later, Bissanti finds himself walking up and down a 15-foot aisle, checking on rows of vertical greens that sprout from an automated hydroponic system in a second-use shipping container.

“We pride ourselves on opening up farming to all different background … you don’t have to have an agricultural background,” Katsiroubas says. Many Freight Farmers are retired professionals or veterans—some even came from Wall Street.

For Bissanti, the learning curve was fairly short. “[Freight Farms] walks you through what to do on a daily basis, which really isn’t much,” he says. “I want to say I’m in [the farm] 10 hours a week, maybe.” Once the wheels are in motion, most of the farm’s growing parameters are kept constant by the system’s computers. Bissanti can control the environmental and water settings remotely using his smartphone.

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App on, app off. Bissanti can control all of the settings inside the farm from his phone.

Once Bissanti’s farm is planted to capacity, he’ll be able to produce enough greens for his restaurant and make food donations to Club Passim, where he’s the food and beverage director. Until then, he’s been filling the gap with greens from his traditional produce supplier. And he says there’s no comparison between those greens and the ones harvested from the Freight Farm.

“When you cut [produce] and then process it, and then put it in a bag, and then put it in a truck, and then send it to a produce guy … and then put it on another truck … stuff just goes to hell,” Bissanti explains. Once you’ve tasted produce that was harvested mere hours before you ate it, he insists, you’ll know the difference.

The cost of a Freight Farm? Katsiroubas quotes $82,000 as the purchase price and says annual operating costs range from $8,000 to $16,500. Bissanti says his monthly energy bill is about $700, which he finds reasonable.

And if the initial price tag seems a little high, Bissanti believes that in the long run, Four Burgers will save money by growing its own veggies. The restaurant’s bill from a conventional produce supplier—for greens alone—hovers at around $30,000 a year.

Bissanti’s major marketing initiatives and menu changes post- Freight Farms are currently in the works, but he speaks about his farming future with a sense optimism, contentment and confidence.

“If [the farm] goes well,” he says, “I’ll get another one. I’ll stack them one on top of the other!”

This story originally appeared in our May/June print edition, which is available for free at more than 200 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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