How to Start a Container Farm Business

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Have you ever wondered how to start a container farm business?

You’re not alone.

Vertical farming continues to be a growing trend, with the vertical farming market set to reach $20 billion between now and 2026.

Global population growth concerns about food production, increasing interest in green infrastructure, and technological advancements in aeroponics, hydroponics, and aquaponics have amplified the interest and practice of vertical farming.

Start a Container Farm Business
Some of the lovely produce you can grow in a container farm

Using stacked farming to produce food in vertical spaces, vertical farming is an attractive option to traditional methods of farming, opening more opportunities for year-round freshly grown and locally accessed food.

While the idea of vertical farming may be a striking consideration, the business side is often complex and confusing.

We’ve written this guide, as an informative piece to help navigate new and even current container farm owners on how to start a container farm business.

In this guide, we’ll look at a few things to help you get started, including:

  • Types of customers
  • Investment planning
  • Container location and design
  • Helpful training
  • Growing and harvesting
  • Selling and branding

Let’s start planning for your container farm journey!

Types of Vertical Farming Customers

For any business, an important question a business owner should ask themselves is

“who is the type of customer I want to attract?”

Customers are the lifeblood of any business, regardless if you’re selling to customers or even other businesses.

And because they are an integral part of your business, it’s important that you discover the type of customer your container farm business is appealing to.

The best way to discover this is by creating a customer avatar or customer persona.

A customer avatar is a detailed profile of your ideal customer, focusing on just one ideal person and going into greater depths about who they are, what they do, what challenges they may be facing, and in some cases, how your business is able to solve those challenges.

customer personas for start a container farm business
courtesy of econsultancy.com

A customer persona is purely based on the type of customer your business wants to market to, so not all personas are the same.

The importance of the avatar is to try to discover what your ideal customer would be and then arrange your marketing or selling towards that idea.

Here’s an example customer avatar for someone who might be interested in using a container farm business:

  • Name: Jim Taylor
  • Age: 32
  • Marital status: single
  • #/age of children: 0
  • Location: Phoenix, AZ
  • Occupation: Programmer
  • Level of Education: bachelor’s degree
  • Challenge: wants to change his diet to become healthier after a death in the family. Jim wants to add more vegetables and fruits into his diet, but he doesn’t want to eat foods that may have been sprayed with pesticides.

What does this customer avatar tell us?

Well, this customer wants to have a healthier diet, by adding more vegetables and fruits into his daily eating. He’s concerned about pesticide use on crops, so he may be looking into trying or buying organic greens.

His occupation is also key, as he has a position that requires you to sit for most of the day.

This could be the reason Jim wants to eat healthier – maybe the prolonged sitting is causing joint pain or he might be prone to unhealthy snacking while he’s working.

Marital status can also be important – as a programmer, Jim might work late and is able to cook food at home or perhaps he ends up picking up fast food due to the late-night hours.

Here’s another example:

  • Name: Maggie Smith
  • Age: 26
  • Marital status: married
  • #/age of children: 1 child, aged 4
  • Location: Denver, CO
  • Occupation: Chef
  • Level of Education: bachelor’s degree
  • Challenge: healthy eater, but always looking for new recipes to try. Enjoys shopping at the farmer’s markets on the weekend. Trying to get her young child to enjoy vegetables at an early age.

In this persona, Maggie already enjoys a healthy lifestyle and enjoys discovering new ways to eat healthy.

Because she enjoys shopping at farmer’s markets, she is most likely looking for locally grown foods to eat and use.

In her profession as a chef, she may also be looking for different avenues of getting and using locally grown food and produce. She’s also trying to teach her young child to incorporate vegetables into his own diet.

What do both of these avatars tell you about the ideal customer?

In this case, both of these individuals are interested in eating healthier, especially along the lines of organic and locally grown foods in their area.

For your container farm business, this might be the opportunity to provide some of your crops to a local restaurant or a grocery store or even selling your produce at a local farmer’s market.

As mentioned, the purpose of a customer persona is to figure out who your business will be catering to.

This doesn’t mean you have to stick to a particular customer when you start a container farm business.

Customers, like crops and produce, come in many different flavors, so while these may be your ideal personas, it doesn’t mean you have to stick to just those avatars.

Investment Planning for Container Farm Businesses

Now that we’ve discovered what kind of customer you want to attract, the next step to start a container farm business is to get into the financial side of things.

We’re not going to lie – starting a container farm business is expensive; some containers can even cost up to $120,000!

Pure Greens does offer affordable pricing for our container systems, however, we also understand that most people don’t have thousands of dollars just lying around.

How to get a loan or grant to start your container farm business

But now that the shock has worn off, that doesn’t mean you need to give up your dream.

There are a variety of different programs, grants, and loans out there that can help you get started in the container farm business.

We even wrote a blog about the different ways to get a loan or a grant.

In summary, we discovered 10 different loans and grants that are helping to pay for part or even all setup costs to start a container farm business.

Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program – designed for those just beginning in farming, the SCBGP is a program designed to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops. Many of these crops can be grown within a container farm. Go to the main webpage to learn more about this grant.
  2. USDA Value Added Producer Grant – another grant by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), this grant helps to fund farmers who are generating new products, expanding marketing opportunities, and increasing producer income. Beginning farmers will sometimes receive priority when applying. To learn more about the VAPG, check out their website.
  3. USDA Rural Energy for America Program – The REAP provides funding to farmers that are using renewable energy systems or are improving the efficiency of any of their existing systems. This is a great grant as container farms qualify as a renewable energy system. Learn more at their website.
  4. Farm Service Agency Farm Operating Loans – switching our focus now to available loans, FSA loans are designed to help farmers start, maintain, or strengthen their farm or ranch and is a great place to start for financing your container farm. Discover more on their website.
  5. FSA Farm Ownership Loans – FSA ownership loans are another great choice for first-time farmers, as it provides 100% of the funding necessary to start your farm. To learn more, visit their website.

Finding a Container Farm Business Location

We’ve taken the first two steps to start a container farm business – creating a customer persona and looking into investment planning involving grants and loans – and this next step is another crucial item that should be considered in the first initial concept.

While the advantage of container farming is the versatility of growing food within areas that would normally not be used for farming or are outside of the preferred farming locale, you still need to choose a location for your container farm business and that often includes finding out what location you can use for your container farm business.

Zoning and Permits

Unfortunately, you might not be able to purchase a container farm and just set it on your front lawn or even in the parking lot of your favorite grocery store.

This is because of zoning laws and permits.

While both residential and business locations are subject to zoning and permits, what exactly does that mean? And how does it affect your container farm business?

Zoning laws are a set of guidelines set up by local governments and municipalities that help guide the development and growth of the area. Zoning is often used to preserve the character of a neighborhood and ensures new development is compatible with existing uses and communities.

As mentioned, residential zones are usually categorized as land that’s used for single-family housing, multi-family residential housing, or mobile homes. Residential zoning tends to be more restrictive than business zoning and are highly protected.

Farmers usually look at agricultural, industrial, or commercial zoning permits when they want to start a container farm business

Tips on Farm Zoning and Container Zoning Laws

When it comes to zoning and permits as it relates to farming, especially container farming, it’s always best to speak with your city or country’s zoning department.

This is because every location is different, even within the same city or suburban area, so knowing what your location requires or the location you plan on placing your container farm requires is crucial.

Even if you do plan on starting your container farm business in your backyard, you still have to make sure that you’re meeting any permit requirements or bylaws set by a homeowner’s association, for example.

UrbanAgLaw.org has a very detailed look at planning and zoning that you can learn more about.

Container Farm Land Considerations

If you’re looking at zoning and permits, then you have a location picked out, or at least have a location in mind. Considering the land your container farm business will rest on, is just as important as learning about your zone area.

When using a Pure Greens Container Farm, we recommend having an area of land that is 55 feet by 12 feet, though you will want to make sure that all sides of the container area are accessible. You’ll also want to make sure that your location is on level ground, with no more than a three-foot rise.

Because you’ll be growing crops and produce within your container, it’s important that the location you choose is near an electrical source, has a water access point within 50 feet, and is near or can be outfitted with an internet connection.

For both the electrical and water, be sure you have these professionally checked out by an expert, to ensure all outlets and connections are in working order and that your water source is free of bacteria, pathogens, and other harmful elements.

Container Farm Design:

Now we’re at the exciting part and that’s designing your container farm!

A large white building

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The great thing about container farming is that no two farms are alike.

Depending on the crops or produce you plan on growing, your container farm can be designed and customized to fit your business requirements.

Pure Greens Container Farms are made up of five crucial components to get your farm up and running:

  • A growing system, that includes chambers, trays, racks, or shelves
  • An irrigation system, complete with pump, reservoir, nutrient bins, vales, and piping
  • A lighting system to help the seedlings grow
  • Atmospheric systems, with air conditioning and/or heating units and ventilation
  • Control & monitoring system, to help with humidity, temperature, and pH levels

Aside from these basic requirements, our Container Farms allow for deeper customization and are set for what your business will grow.

We have three customizable growing systems you can choose from:

  • Pure Micro System
    • Best suited for independent growers who want to manage their own growing environment, especially if growing crops like microgreens.
  • Pure Essence System
    • Ideal for starter farms by beginners or even experts. These systems are maintenance-friendly and provide DFT (Deep Flow Technique) tray racks. These systems are good for growers of leafy greens and herb crops.
  • Pure Volume System
    • Ideal for commercial production to produce maximum yields. Our Pure Volume system includes NFT System (Nutrient Film Technique) channels to help recirculate nutrient-rich water. These systems are also good for growers of leafy greens and herb crops.

All of our containers come with a standard water hookup, HVAC, electrical connections, and the main entry door. We also have three different layout options that come with some additional components, such as grow rooms and seedling nurseries.

We also offer automated controlled environments using Growlink, a new generation farming technology that uses sensors to monitor and measure multiple environmental parameters like CO2, pH, TDS, nutrients, and water temperatures.

Training for Container Farming

When you start a container farm business a lot of this can seem intimidating!

No worries!

Once you have ordered and had your container farm delivered, we provide one-on-one training with one of our expert growers.

Training can be done either on-site at your container farm business or at our office, whichever is convenient for you.

Our expert growers are very knowledgeable and can help with the following:

  • Setting up and configuring your container farm
  • Setting up the GrowLink system and mobile app
  • Instructional walkthrough on how to seed, transplant, and harvest your crop or produce
  • Instructional walkthrough on how to plant your very first crop
  • Instructional walkthrough on how to test and maintain your farm
  • Recommendations on supplies for your farm and crops

How to Grow and Harvest in Your Container Farm

Congratulations!

You’ve just started a container farm business!

You’ve discovered the types of customers you want to market and sell to, you’ve looked into and received your loan or grant to start your container farm business, you’ve chosen a location and a container design, and you’ve gotten helpful training from a Pure Greens growing expert on setting everything up and configuring your container farm.

After you start a container farm business,the next step is to start growing and then harvesting your crops or produce.

You can grow plants like this when you start a container farm business
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

You may already have an idea of the types of crops or produce you want to grow or maybe you’re curious as to what else might be out there. Let’s look at a few different types of growing options for your new container farm business.

Growing leafy greens

Leafy greens are a variety of vegetable greens, usually within the lettuce family of vegetables. Familiar greens like kale, mustard greens, bok choy, and arugula are considered leaf or leafy greens.

These greens are rich in both flavor and nutritional value, making them staples for many cuisines and recipes. They’re also a popular choice for container farming.

Growing lettuce

The salad staple, lettuce has a few different varieties, like romaine, butterhead, bibb, and leaf. Lettuce is a high demand crop, meaning that your avenues of selling open to consumers, grocers, and chefs.

Growing herbs

If the idea to start your container farm business was based on your love of cooking, then herbs are the way to grow. Many popular herbs – like basil, chives, dill, and thyme – typically grow in warm-weather climates, so year-round availability is important for chefs and at-home cooks.

A close up of a green plant

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When it comes to harvesting, there are three stages of growth you should be aware of:

  • Seedling stage – planted sprouts start growing and you’ll begin to see the stalk and leaves. At this stage, roots are beginning to grow, seeking out more nutrients as it does.
  • Transplant stage – here, you will start to move the seedling into your growing system in the farm
  • Harvest – your crops are ready to be picked and eaten!

How to Sell and Brand Your Container Farm Business

You’ve come a long way since your first initial idea to start a container farm business.

You’ve learned how to create your customer persona, you’ve discovered how to finance your first container farm, you’ve set up your location and designed your container farm, you’ve gotten hands-on training from our Pure Greens expert growers, and now, you have crops and produce ready to be given out to the public.

You’ve reached the last steps to make your container farm business a success – selling your produce and branding your business. As the old saying goes, you’ve built it and now you just need people to come.

But how do you do that?

While word of mouth to your friends and family is a great start, you want to be able to get your name out there to consumers or other businesses. There are many different avenues and opportunities you take with selling your crops and produce.

Let’s look at a few examples.

How to Sell to Restaurants and Chefs

If you’re a foodie at heart, maybe your ideal customer is a chef, whether it be at an upscale restaurant or small independent eatery.

Restaurants are looking to use and buy locally grown food that can be used in their dishes. As we mentioned above with the different crops you could grow, herbs are one such thing chefs love to buy.

To start selling your crops or produce to a restaurant chef, you’ll need to make an appointment with the restaurant’s head chef to discuss the possibility of them buying produce from you. Some restaurants also have small purchase areas or marketplaces where people can buy products that are sponsored by the restaurant.

How to Sell to Customers at Farmer’s Markets

If you want customers to buy from you directly, there are two paths you can take:

  • Farmers’ Markets
  • Produce shop

Farmers’ markets are retail marketplaces that allow farmers to sell their foods directly to customers. These can be anything from small, weekend pop up events to larger, ongoing areas; the intention is for people to buy local fresh items, whether it be fruits, vegetables, or even meat.

There were over 8,000 farmers markets listed in the USDA Farmers Market Directory in 2017 and 100% of any commerce done at a farmers’ market goes to the farmer themselves. A farmers’ market stall or stand might be a potential first step to getting the out about your container farm business.

A box filled with different types of vegetables

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Another avenue for reaching consumers is by creating a produce shop where you sell your crops or produce to the customer themselves. Unlike a farmers’ market, you would need to rent or purchase an office where you could then sell your product.

While this is certainly an option, it might be a costly one, as you would need to choose an office location and once more go through the process of getting financing and setting up an office.

How to Sell to Grocers & Local Distributors

bunch of vegetables
Photo by nrd on Unsplash

Perhaps you don’t want to sell to restaurants or customers directly, but you do want to ensure that they are receiving your crops or produce. Your third option is selling directly to your local grocer or local distributor and then having them sell to their customers.

For those just starting out selling their produce, the best advice is to start small – like at farmers’ markets– to get the experience in selling to the public; after that, contacting small, independent grocers is usually the next step as the access to buyers is better and you can start to develop a long term relationship with the store and owner.

From here, your path can take any direction you’d like. If you’re happy with utilizing the farmers’ markets and your independent grocer, you can continue this model as long as you’d like; if you want to continue distributing your produce, you’ve now gained the experience and credentials to speak to a larger store.

When setting your sights on larger grocers, especially chains like Fry’s/Kroger, Walmart, Target, Safeway, etc., you want to make sure to set up an appointment with the person in charge of their produce purchasing. You’ll want to ask what produce they’re in need of, packaging and labeling preferences, and any product codes they might prefer.

If you’re meeting in person, make sure to bring samples of your crops or produce so they can get a taste of what they might want to buy; if speaking over the phone, invite that person or team to visit your container farm so they can sample the product on site.

Here’s a terrific guide on how to sell your produce to your local grocer.

How to Build Your Brand Online

Now that you’ve taken a path on who you’ll be selling your product to, let’s look at how to brand your container farm business. If you’ve been in other business industries before getting into container farming, you’ve probably heard this term thrown about in the office or online.

But what does it mean?

Branding is a marketing term and practice where a company creates a name, a symbol, or design that is easily recognizable as belonging to that company, making it distinctive from any other company.

We see branding every day – from the distinct Nike logo on your sneakers to the character Chester Cheetah on that bag of Cheetos.

In our growing digital world, branding is an important tool for businesses to get their names out into the public consciousness.

Thanks to social media, websites, and online blogs, there are a plethora of ways to get your container farm business out to the public.

But branding isn’t just about creating a Facebook page and calling it a day.

You'll need a Facebook page when you start a container farm busines.
You’ll need a Facebook page when you start a container farm business!

Let’s look at a few branding tips and tricks for when you start a container farm business.

The importance of brand name

In 2019, Zendesk – a popular customer service software company – conducted a survey that found that 87% of consumers said consistent branding across all online and traditional platforms was important.

The results of this and other surveys help businesses better understand what their customers want and how best to reach them. As mentioned, our digital world has grown to such heights that it’s almost unheard of for a business or company to not have a website, social media, or online presence.

Devices like computers, smartphones, and even smart devices (like TVs, Alexas, and Google assisted devices) have made it extremely easy for customers to find an item or business they’re looking for. As a new container farm business owner, you want to make sure that your business can also be easily found.

First and foremost, you should have a website.

A website is usually the first place people will go in order to learn more about you and your company.

Don’t worry if you don’t know the first thing about building a website; there are a wide variety of free website builders out there, especially for those starting a business. Some popular ones include:

These are just five website builders, but there are many more and all of them have different features that might appeal to what you’d like your site and other branding to look like.

All of them have an extensive range of templates and themes to choose from, while others – like WordPress – allow you to go even deeper into customizing your site with plugins and add-on applications.

Wordpress is a good cheap option for when you start a container farm business.
WordPress

Because these are free site builders, make sure you investigate the different features between their free service and their paid services. For instance, you may only be limited to free themes and not the premium or paid for, themes for your free site or your web address may have the builder’s branding attached to it, like farmersmarket.wordpress.com.

The good news is that most of these free builders also have a paid option, so if at any point you want to update your site with more features, you can upgrade your plan without your website changing.

After creating and building your website, you’ll next want to get yourself set up with a company page on one or more of the popular social media networks. While it may be tempting to just use your personal account, whether it be Facebook or Instagram, it’s much better to have a separate page for just your container farm business.

As with the website builder, choosing a social media network to use is personal preference. Facebook is the most popular network, with close to 2.45 billion active users per month, while 1.66 billion users use the platform daily.

If you use Facebook on a regular basis, then that should be the first social platform you should start using. Setting up a business page on Facebook is very easy and you can even tie it to your personal account to make login easy.

If Instagram is your platform of choice, you’re in luck – the platform is owned by Facebook, so you can connect the two together for easier social media management.

Twitter and LinkedIn are also popular choices for businesses, especially the latter as it’s considered a social media platform for businesses and professional; there’s no set rule on how many social media platforms you should be on, but the general consensus is at least two, depending on the demographics you want to market your container farm business to.

Here’s an interesting article on how other farming businesses are using social media and here’s another on using social media for farmers 101.

One opportunity with social media we haven’t discussed is the use of video. Video has been a very popular trend across all of the social platforms and has even carried over to popular video content channels like YouTube and Vimeo.

Video is a great way of bringing customers into your container farm business by showing them the crops that are being grown and even how to use certain types in everyday meals. The great thing about social is that setting up your business page is completely free while setting up ad campaigns cost as much as you would like to promote.

Each social platform has guides for businesses to start using their ad campaign. Here’s Facebook’s guide on business ads.

Conclusion

In this guide, we walked you through the beginning steps to start a container farm business.

We discussed how to create customer avatars and personas, we looked at a few different ways to get funding through grants or loans for your container farm business, we discussed how to decide on a location for your container farm – along with zoning laws and permits – and how to design it.

We looked at our helpful training with our expert growers, which goes hand in hand with starting to grow and harvest your crops or produce.

And lastly, we looked at what’s involved with selling not only the produce that you’re growing, but how to sell your container farm business itself to your customers.

Congratulations! You’ve started on a brand-new path to starting your container farm business! We’re so excited to see you enter into a growing community and we wish you all the best in your success.

Should you need any assistance along the way, don’t hesitate to contact us either through our website at http://puregreensaz.com or by giving us a call at  602.753.3469.