Space age farm: Montana chef grows hydroponic greens in upcycled shipping container

Space age farm: Montana chef grows hydroponic greens in upcycled shipping container


MISSOULA – Jennifer Stackpole’s indoor farm looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Using a pre-assembled hydroponic vertical growing system inside a converted freight container at the Bonner mill site, Stackpole is growing tender crisp greens for local restaurants, stores and markets even as the temperature dips well below freezing throughout the dark Montana winter months.

Requiring only 10 gallons of water a day, red and blue LED lights, and a complex nutrient delivery and cooling system, Stackpole can produce the same amount of lettuce, kale, wasabi arugula and other leafy greens that ordinarily would take up two acres of farmland.

There is no need for soil, as each seed is inserted into a pre-made plug. Once they sprout, they’re put into 256 hanging towers where nutrients and water drip down into a growing medium made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles.

Stackpole calls her startup Wicked Good Greens, and she plans to purchase a second upcycled shipping container farm – nicknamed the Leafy Green Machine – from the same company where she got her first one, Freight Farms out of Boston. She paid to have it shipped here, but all it needs is to be hooked up to electricity and a garden hose, and she can grow more than 5,000 heads of lettuce at one time.

She also will be able to supply restaurants with a huge array of specialty herbs and crops such as tatsoi, basil, short French radishes and edible flowers.

“You’ve never seen anything like it,” Stackpole says as she demonstrates how she works the computer console that controls everything. “This is space age stuff.”

Because the air temperature and nutrients are regulated, and the plants get an even amount of light for 18 hours a day, the greens grow incredibly fast and without flaws.

“There’s no stress to the plants at all,” she said. “There’s no bugs or weather issues that affect most things that grow in the dirt. It produces these big, beautiful heads of lettuce. Everything’s dialed in.”

As a chef herself who operates Balsamroot Catering Co., Stackpole said that she understands what kitchen managers want. The unblemished greens don’t have to be heavily cleaned or processed, and there’s no brown spots or ridges. That saves time in the kitchen. As more and more customers demand farm-to-table, locally sourced food options, Stackpole is betting on an eager market.

“So we don’t have to eat stuff from Mexico or California that’s been sprayed and gassed and is all withered by the time it gets here,” she said. “When the chef receives these greens, they’ll still be alive so they have a very long shelf life, over two weeks. Timing can be everything to a chef because freshness delivers flavor, texture and aesthetics.” She said they will also appreciate the predictability and variety that her operation will offer.

Stackpole lives in Potomac and once ran the kitchen at the Montana Island Lodge on Salmon Lake. She took a two-day course in Boston to learn how to operate the machine.

There’s a constant workflow process she goes through to keep things moving so that the Leafy Green Machine is constantly producing. Certified organic seeds are planted in the seedling bay using tweezers and a chef’s funnel. After a week on the germination shelf, they get moved to the seedling trough for two weeks until being transferred to the towers for harvest.

A new crop will be ready each week, and she already has a list of customers lined up. Stackpole admits that many people ask her if the machine would be good for growing another type of green – marijuana – but she says that plant doesn’t grow well vertically and she’s not interested.

“I like feeding people,” she said. “That’s my passion. And I’m a very organized person, so this just fits my personality perfectly.”

There are similar farms in the region, with others in Bozeman, Red Lodge and Coeur d’Alene. Stackpole, who says that Bozeman has a much more active farm-to-table scene than Missoula, plans on purchasing another Leafy Green Machine in the spring.

In the future, she wants to supply hospitals and schools, install a wind generator, add a farm in the Bitterroot and perhaps start delivering her greens using a specially designed pedicab built next door at another sustainability-minded startup at the Bonner industrial site.

The company in Boston, Freight Farms, offers an app that controls the unit and has engineers on call to answer questions or make fixes. Their website lists the Leafy Green Machine for $85,000.

Stackpole said she’s hoping to have her first harvest available to share at the Missoula Valley Winter Farmers Market in January.

For more information, visit BalsamrootCatering on Facebook.


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