LaGrasso Bros. Grows Local with Freight Farms Shipping Container

Detroit’s LaGrasso Bros. Produce started in 1914 with a single pushcart. Through the years, and three generations of family ownership, the food distribution company has grown to include a fleet of delivery trucks and a 40,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse near Eastern Market.

In September, the fourth generation of LaGrassos, Tom and Joe, installed a hydroponics operation—housed in a shipping container and controlled by software and a mobile app—in the company’s parking lot in order to capitalize on food trends that favor fresh and local produce. The LaGrassos are growing 15 varieties of baby greens in multiple colors and flavors, as well as an experimental section containing purple carrots and mini cucumbers and melons.

“We’ve never been on the grow side [of the food business], so it was attractive to us to try,” said Tom LaGrasso. “Locally grown, sustainable produce is a big thing for chefs. In the middle of winter, we’ll be able to offer locally grown baby lettuces.”

Tom and Joe have “zero experience” in farming, but the LaGrassos were introduced to Boston’s Freight Farms last year through a trade group they belong to. One of the Boston-based group members they met at a national conference sang the praises of their experience with a Freight Farms shipping container garden, and the LaGrassos were fascinated.

“We checked out the technology and it was a fit for us,” LaGrasso said. “It’ll always be a niche product—it’s an insignificant fraction of our total business—but it will make a big impact on our customers and the chefs we work with.”

The Freight Farms shipping container, called the Leafy Green Machine, is a complete farm-to-table system with LED lights, vertical hydroponics, and app-guided climate controls. It uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming methods, and because it’s completely encapsulated by a shipping container, there is no need for pesticides or herbicides. From seed to harvest, it’s an eight-week growing cycle. Users have a suite of farmhand apps to track air and water quality, monitor the operation through live in-farm cameras, and shop for growing supplies. The process includes automated watering and fertilization, though some human participation is required to keep the farm thriving.

“If there’s a problem, we get an alert on our mobile phones from the software that monitors the farm,” LaGrasso explained. “We’ve had a couple of issues, but nothing we couldn’t adjust ourselves.”

The LaGrasso brothers said they like working with the Freight Farms team because they’re fellow millennials who are passionate about sustainable agriculture. LaGrasso Bros. has the only Leafy Green Machine in Michigan so far. “We told them to use us if they want to educate people,” Tom LaGrasso said.

Freight Farms was founded by Brad McNamara and John Friedman in 2011 after the pair spent some time working in rooftop hydroponic gardens. Through that experience, McNamara said, they realized there was an “enormous opportunity” to create something similar that could be successfully used by even the most black-thumbed novice, using spaces not normally dedicated to food production.

“It arrives, you plug it in, connect the hose, and are growing on day one,” McNamara said. Freight Farms offers its customers a two-day farm camp to walk them through the growing process and communicates with them throughout the first harvest by FaceTime and email.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the company’s suspicion—that a new generation of food producers and distributors was ready for innovative, tech-enabled ways to go after customers willing to pay a premium for locally sourced, sustainable produce—was validated.

“There’s been a shift in the industry where it started to become more important that food was local; what started as a trend became a requirement,” McNamara said. “We were looking to solve the problem of getting food closer to where people are, then through luck and circumstance, we got tied into the food distribution industry. Companies that had been successful sent their sons and daughters to university, so the kids have a better understanding of the future of food and a unique perspective that if they do business the same as their grandfather, there won’t be a business to pass on to their kids.”

The Leafy Green Machine is Freight Farms’ flagship product. It retails for about $76,000, and there are about 30 farms total operating across North America. The venture-backed company has 17 employees in Boston and one in Ohio.

Freight Farms hopes to double or triple the number of Leafy Green Machine installations in 2016, and it’s also working on forming partnerships with institutional food providers as part of its growth strategy.

“We’d love to have more farms in Detroit,” McNamara said. A few years ago, he traveled to the Motor City and met with the team behind Hantz Farms, a tree-growing operation on Detroit’s east side. “I was blown away by the potential and gumption of the people and organizations there, to the point where we were champing at the bit trying to make sure Freight Farms had a presence in the city. It’s a great tool for people to do some cool, impactful things.”

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