What it Takes to Run a Container Farm

You should know what it takes to run a container farm before you commit to starting one.  

That’s why we put together this huge guide! 

In this article, you’ll learn all about what it takes to run a container farm.  

This includes, how a container farm works, what you need to consider before starting, what materials you need, how to grow crops hydroponically, tasks you need to do, and other tips! 

For easy navigation, use the table of contents below to skip to the parts that interest you the most. 

Or read the whole thing at once! 

If you feel like you’re too busy right now, feel free to save the link for later! 

First, you’ll learn how a container farm grows crops.  

How Does a Container Farm Work? 

Container farms are repurposed shipping containers used for commercial farming.  

They were developed as a sustainable and mobile agricultural practice. 

These farms typically use a soil-less system of growing like hydroponics. 

Hydroponics delivers nutrients to crops using a water-based nutrient solution and a growing medium for root and stem support instead of soil. 

There are many different types of hydroponic systems, which all use different methods to deliver the nutrient solution to roots.  

To learn more about hydroponic farming, read our “Ultimate Guide to Hydroponics.”   

Container farms also use vertical farming techniques in order to maximize yields

Vertical farms grow up, rather than out, so more plants can be grown per square foot than in traditional soil farms. 

To do this, vertical farms plant crops in stacked layers, like on towers or shelves.  

This is how container farms can yield so much in only 320 square feet.  

One Pure Greens Container Farm produces up to 400 pounds of fresh produce each month, depending on the type of crop grown. 

Plus, container farms use controlled environment agriculture technology (CEA).  

CEA works great in container farms because they’re relatively small indoor spaces.  

CEA is a technologically advanced method of hydroponic agriculture.  

It uses technology to control various factors of the growing environment, such as temperature and humidity, to create perfect conditions for crops to grow in. 

CEA allows farmers to grow crops year-round with no concern for weather, climate or season.  

As a result, farmers can grow out-of-season or exotic crops and harvest more from one plant. 

Growing in windowless containers, sounds like it could pose a challenge.  

But it’s fairly easy to replace sunlight in indoor farms. 

Rather than using the sun for photosynthesis, crops grown in container farms use artificial light from high-powered lamps. 

For example, Pure Greens Container Farms use 5500K White LED bulbs, producing 5100 lumens of full spectrum light. 

LEDs use less energy, while providing more light, than fluorescent bulbs.  

Keeping conservation in mind will help you keep the energy bills down! 

Speaking of conservation, container farms save water too! 

Hydroponic farms use only 1/10th of the amount of water than field farms use.  

This is because water in hydroponics systems, is not lost to evaporation or run off and can be captured and reused in the system. 

Plus, because they don’t use soil, container farms don’t damage the earth’s surface.  

Traditional farming methods, especially non-organic ones, deplete the natural nutrients in soil, making it unsuitable for growing more plants.  

As a result, they rely heavily on synthetic fertilizers, which come with many environmental risks.  

And because container farms grow crops in controlled, indoor environments, there’s less risk of pest invasions.  

Pests include insects, weeds, fungi, wild animals, and more.  

Pests have the potential to cause farms to lose 50% to 80% of yields.  

This is because pests kill crops and introduce deadly diseases.  

Farms typically use pesticides in order to get rid of these giant risks.  

But pesticides are dangerous when it comes to humans and the environment.  

For example, some pesticides have been linked to cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, and birth defects.  

And pesticides often contaminate nearby bodies of water, deforming and killing fish.  

You can learn more about the dangers of pesticides and safe pest control by reading our “Ultimate Guide to Pesticides.” 

Since there is less risk of pests in container farming, crops can be grown completely organic, without any chemical pesticides.  

Now, you know what container farming is, how it works and some of its benefits. 

Next, you’ll learn what you need in order to prepare for a container farm.  

How to Prepare to Run a Container Farm 

How much you need to prepare to run a container farm, will depend on a few things, such as whether you already have the proper space, tools and materials for it.  

Plus, you’ll want to preplan your budget and what crops you’d like to grow. 

To help you identify these things, this section is broken into to two parts: Key considerations and necessary materials. 

First, let’s look at what you need to consider.  

Key Considerations 

Where will you put it? 

One of the benefits of container farming is the versatility it offers!  

With a container farm, you can grow food in areas that wouldn’t usually be used for farming.  

We recommend having an area of land that is at least 12 feet by 55 feet to accommodate one 8-by-40-foot container.  

You’ll want to make sure all sides of the container are accessible and the ground is level, with no more than a 3-foot rise.  

Because you’ll be growing with CEA technology, artificial lighting and water, it’s important that your designated space has electric and water sources. 

Have your electric and water sources professionally checked by an expert, to ensure all outlets and connections are working properly.  

Additionally, make sure your water source is free of bacteria, pathogens and other harmful elements.  

To take full advantage of the automated features of the container farms, make sure that it also has access to internet connection. 

Who will do the labor? 

Pure Greens Container Farms have an automated system that you can control from a smartphone.  

So, you don’t need to be watching it constantly.  

But you should keep in mind, that a container farm requires at least 20 hours of labor each week to ensure it’s running properly and to achieve the best yields.  

Even if you won’t be hiring someone to take on the farm duties, be sure to include labor costs in your budget.  

Time is money, after all! 

What will you grow? 

Before you start, you’ll need to plan for what crops you want to grow. 

Container farms can grow herbs, vegetables, flowers and some fruits.  

Typically, leafy greens, like lettuce or basil, grow best in indoor hydroponic systems.  

It’s important to choose crops that have a high chance of growing well in the container farm.  

You can grow one type of crop in one container farm, or you can grow several different types together.  

If you choose to grow more than one type of crop, you’ll want to choose crops with similar environmental preferences and nutrient needs.  

If you pick crops that are too different from each other, you won’t be able to provide the best possible growing environment.  

Be sure to research whether your desired crops have a history of growing well in hydroponic systems and whether they will grow well together in the same environment.  

What will you do with the produce? 

If you plan to sell your produce, you’ll need to take into consideration different things, than if you’re using the container farm for a different purpose.  

For example, to sell your produce, you’ll need to make a sales plan and market your business

To use the produce in an onsite dining hall, you’ll need to plan for what you’ll do with any excess harvests.  

For both situations, you may need to consider how you’re going to package your produce. 

If you’re only harvesting what you need, as you need it, packaging won’t be a concern.  

But you’ll still want to come up with a plan to estimate how much you’re going to need, and when you’re going to need it.  

With these things in mind, it’s time to move on to what tools and materials you need! 

Necessary Materials 

In addition to a space with water, electricity and internet connections, there are a few tools and materials you need in order to successfully run your container farm.  

Three of the most obvious materials you’ll need are: 

  • rockwool cubes (or similar growing media) 
  • nutrient solution 
  • seeds and/or cuttings

Since Nutrient Film Technique hydroponic systems don’t typically use net cups to hold the growing medium, avoid using loose media.  

Deep Flow Technique systems do use net cups, but it’s also easier to start seeds in compact media. 

Loose media includes clay pebbles, coco coir and perlite.  

We use rockwool cubes, which is a compact growing media, as it doesn’t need a net cup to hold it together.  

One substitute for rockwool, could be foam or hydroponic root plugs. 

The nutrient solution you choose, should align with the needs of your chosen crops.  

For example, fruiting and flowering plants need different nutrients than ones that only grow leaves.  

This is why you should always plan what you are going to grow, before purchasing materials.  

Finally, you’ll want to get any seeds or cuttings ready.  

Cuttings become ready for harvest faster than seeds do, but they’re more susceptible to diseases.  

Plus, not all crops can be cloned using cuttings, so you’ll probably need some seeds anyway.  

Next, you’ll also need: 

  • Humidity dome 
  • Labels  
  • Logbook 

A humidity dome is helpful for starting seeds and cuttings.  

Plants grow new roots best when in humid environments.  

So, a humidity dome will help you grow strong plants right off the bat.  

Labels are also important, because it’ll help you keep track of your plants.  

Label each plant in your system so you can easily log plant growth, observations and more. 

On the labels, you should at least mark the date of planting and what type of plant it is.   

The logbook doesn’t have to be a physical book.  

If you prefer digital records, there is software made specifically for farming, or you can simply make a spreadsheet.  

We’ll go over tracking growth a little more in-depth later on.  

Additionally, to ensure the best growth, you should have: 

  • pH meter, pH up and down, and calibration solution 
  • Electrical conductivity (EC) meter 
  • Water thermometer 

While the container farm comes with equipment that automatically tracks and adjusts pH levels, some farmers prefer to do it themselves.  

Additionally, since pH is such an important part of plant growth, it’s best to have the ability to manually check and adjust if needed.  

Similarly, the electrical conductivity (EC) can be remotely monitored.  

But since the EC refers to how many nutrients are in the water, you want to be sure that it’s as accurate as possible.  

To do that, you need your own EC meter, so you can ensure the most balanced nutrient solution for your plants.  

Water temperature is also important in hydroponics.  

High water temperatures cause heat stress in plants, leading to wilting and root death.  

And low temperatures cause slow growth.  

For best results, keep the water in the 70-degree range. Or no lower than 60 degrees and no higher than 80 degrees.  

Water temperature is automated in Pure Greens Container Farms. 

But, similar to the EC and PH, having your own manual thermometer ensures your plants are receiving the best care possible.  

Having these tools on hand, also allows you to notice if your system isn’t calibrated correctly.  

You’ll also want some measuring tools for tasks, like tracking plant growth and adjusting the nutrient solution. 

  • Scale  
  • Measuring cups  
  • Pipettes 
  • Ruler 

Finally, as you’ll find out in the next section, cleaning plays a huge part in your success as a container farmer. Make sure to have: 

  • A broom and dustpan 
  • Mop and bucket 
  • Bleach 
  • Scrub brush 
  • Shop-vac  
  • Isopropyl alcohol

Having the right tools before you start planting, will help you be prepared for growing your crops hydroponically.  

How to Grow Crops Hydroponically 

Understanding the process of growing crops is important to your container farm’s success.  

In this section, you’ll learn the basics of choosing, growing and harvesting crops, so you can better understand what it takes to run a container farm.  

Choosing crops 

One of the most common indoor farming mistakes novice farmers may make, is selecting crops with incompatible nutrient, or environmental needs. 

For example, pairing warm weather crops with cold weather ones. 

Plus, some crops are not suitable for indoor systems, such as trees or tall bushes. 

These plants may grow too close to the lights or take up too much space in the container. 

The crops you choose should grow well together in your environment, so you can manage them with less hassle. 

The first step in the process of crop cultivation is planning what seeds to sow. 

Profitability is one consideration when it comes to selecting crops.  

It’s dependent on affordability, potential yield and maintenance. 

Expensive seeds can result in products that fetch a high price, but also results in fewer plants. 

The more expensive the seed, the more you must sell your crop for, in order to make a profit.  

If no one wants your produce, it’ll be hard to sell. 

When planning your farm, keep in mind profit margins will vary depending on season, location and demand. 

Research how much certain crops sell for in your area.  

If a product is hard to find in the local market, the selling price will likely increase. 

One benefit of indoor hydroponic systems is the ability to grow crops when they’re not in season. 

Selecting plants with a high yield for little maintenance like microgreens, offers the potential for greater profits. 

Inexpensive crops with high yields, like romaine lettuce, also have high profit margins.   

If you’re not selling your crops, you’ll have a bit more freedom.  

If your crops are intended for use in a restaurant or cafeteria, choose edible, nutritious and flavorful plants.  

You may want to stick to common food crops, like lettuce, or you may want to go for something more experimental.  

Pick your crops based on how cost effective they’ll be (e.g. will it be cheaper to grow or buy?) and your consumers’ tastes.   

These are just a few of the considerations for some common growing situations.  

If you’re doing research on specific crops or growing nonedible plants, you’ll have different factors to consider. 

Once you’ve decided on what to grow, it’s time to start sowing. 

Planting 

When you’re ready to grow, it’s often recommended to start with seeds, rather than seedlings or cuttings (depending on the plant).  

This is because seedlings may be damaged, diseased or infected with pests, threatening other plants in your farm. 

Starting with seeds gives you greater control over your plant’s health.

Use grow cubes to plant seeds.  

We use rockwool, but other grow cubes are often made from other growing media, such as foam. 

Start by soaking your cube in water until it’s completely saturated.   

Place one to three seeds in the cube, depending on your crop’s germination rate.  

If your crop has a low germination rate, planting more than one at a time improves the chance of at least one seed germinating per cube.  

It also gives you the option of preserving only the strongest plants. 

The seeds will grow best in humid conditions.  

That’s why many growers start seeds in a nursery, before transplanting to their permanent home.  

Humidity domes are a common way to keep seedlings in humid conditions while their roots grow.  

Place the cubes inside the dome, with about half an inch, to one inch of water on the bottom. 

Remove the lid sporadically over the next week or so. Re-soak or mist any dry blocks. 

When roots start poking through the bottom of the grow cube, they’re ready for transplanting to the hydroponic system. 

Growing 

In our Nutrient Film Technique system, you can just place the grow cube with the crop into the system.  

In the Deep Flow Technique system, you’ll need a net cup to hold it in place.  

Pay close attention to crops as they grow.  

How you care for your plants will vary depending on species and the system you use. 

While the risk for disease and pests is lowered for container farms, it isn’t eradicated.  

Watch for signs of unhealthy plants in order to minimize harm. 

If your plants are showing signs of pests or diseases, remove the infected plant immediately.  

Some simple signs to look for include: 

Yellow Leaves 

If leaves are yellowing, it’s possible that your plants just need a bit more nutrients. 

But if they’re falling off too, it could be a case of root rot, which makes roots brown, soft and mushy. 

Wilting  

If the roots look fine, it’s probably just thirsty. But wilting can also be a sign of root rot. 

Check the roots and act quickly to remove any infected roots. 

Scabs 

Scabs on plants are hard brown, black or gray spots and are a sign of a fungal disease. 

Immediately isolate the plant from others, prune any affected area and treat it with an antifungal solution to prevent an outbreak. 

Dust  

Mysterious dust is a common sign of pests. 

For example, black soot is an indication of aphids, and white dust is an indication of whiteflies. 

In addition to looking for signs of problems, you’ll want to track their growth and progress. 

How to Track Growth 

Crop growth can be logged daily, weekly or monthly.  

It depends on your own personal preference.  

Typically, we recommend logging growth every week.  

If you start having issues that require adjustments, start tracking every day in order to clearly identify the results. 

For example, if your crops aren’t getting enough nutrients so you decide to mix a stronger solution, start tracking every day to make sure you made the right decision.  

When tracking plant growth, you can use a physical notebook or a digital software.  

A digital logbook might be more helpful, because you could easily take photos from your phone or camera and upload them.  

You should note the dates of planting, transplanting and any adjustments.  

You could also note any new leaves, flowers, or fruits.  

You could also measure the height of a few plants. of each type, to get an idea of how fast they’re growing.  

It’s not recommended to take photos of and measure every single crop, because that’d take too much time.  

But be sure to note anything out of the ordinary.  

Once your plants have reached maturity, it’s time to harvest.  

Harvesting 

As you’re tracking the growth of crops, you should be able to have an estimate of harvest dates.  

Once your crops are fully mature, harvest as you normally would if the crops were growing outside in the soil. 

For plants with fruits or berries, simply pluck the produce.  

For plants that are harvested fully, like head lettuce, pull the entire plant out of the growing medium. 

For plants with harvestable leaves, like basil, prune according to the crop type. 

Remove any roots and unhealthy leaves.  

Then, wash thoroughly before packaging, storing and using. 

Next, you’ll learn what other things you need to do every day, week and month to ensure your container farm is running smoothly.  

What You Need to Do, to Run a Container Farm 

One container farm takes about 20 hours of labor each week to operate efficiently. 

Since growing crops is a long process, there are things you need to do daily, weekly and monthly.  

First, we’ll look at some of the daily tasks that keep a container farm running smoothly.  

Daily Tasks  

Keep inside clean 

Keeping the inside of your container farm clean, will do wonders to prevent harmful outbreaks of diseases and pests. 

We recommend cleaning surfaces at least every other day, with a scrub brush and a 1% bleach and water solution. 

Sweep the floors and throw away any dead plants, fallen leaves and other plant debris.  

Don’t eat or drink anything but water inside the unit, to avoid attracting pests. 

Keep outside clean 

Keeping the outside clean is almost as important as doing so inside. 

If the outside isn’t tidy, you’re practically inviting pests to enter your farm. 

A lot of indoor pest problems start by the farmer taking it in with them. 

Keep the surrounding area free of garbage and anything that might cling to your clothes. 

Keep doors closed  

Keeping the doors of your container farm closed, does two things for your crops. 

First, it maintains the efficiency of your climate control system

Similar to how you wouldn’t leave a window open with the air conditioning running at full blast. 

Second, it prevents debris and pests from entering the premises. 

Ensure environmental settings are correct 

You should use the Growlink app to make sure factors like temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide are in the proper range every day.  

Keeping everything in range is important for promoting healthy growth.  

You should also be monitoring the pH and EC levels. 

If something is not right, be sure to make the proper adjustments.  

Look for burnt out bulbs 

Light is essential to the growing process.  

Through photosynthesis, plants convert light into energy that’s used for growing. 

Since container farms grow crops using artificial lights, it’s important to ensure all lights are functioning properly. 

If any bulbs have gone bad, replace them with new ones as soon as possible. 

Plant maintenance 

Walk through your farm every day to make sure your plants are growing well.  

Look for any signs of a problem, like wilting or discoloration.  

Additionally, be sure to prune down any that are growing too close to the grow lights.  

Letting them grow too close to the lights will burn them.  

Now, we’ll look at what you need to do each week.  

Weekly Tasks  

Change the water 

Since hydroponic systems often use reservoirs of water, they’re no stranger to algae. 

Change your water every other week to help prevent algae.  

But if it starts to build up, then change the water every week. 

Be sure to run clean water through the system to flush out any impurities too.  

Manually check pH and EC  

Pure Greens Container Farms use an automated system to monitor the pH and electrical conductivity (EC) levels. 

But it’s still good to check manually. 

Use separate meters to measure these levels, one to two times a week. Just to be safe. 

That way you can recalibrate the automated equipment, if needed. 

Calibrate all sensors 

Keeping your sensors as precise as possible is important.  

If they’re not calibrated, your farm could be operating differently than you think it is.  

This could cause your plants to suffer, as they’re not receiving the intended care. 

So, make sure to calibrate your sensors once a week.  

Integrated Pest Management tasks  

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a method of managing and reducing the risk of pests, focusing on minimizing health and environmental risks.  

With IPM, you should take actions to kill pests, only after they’ve infested your crops.  

There are many ways you can prevent and control pests safely, check out our article about it here.  

We recommend spraying your crops with safe essential oils with insect repellent properties every week, or as needed.  
Clean floors 

Just like how you should keep your unit clean every day, you should be keeping the floors clean too! 

We recommend mopping at least once a week. 

Mix a 1% bleach and water solution to sanitize the floors.  

This will help kill any potentially harmful bacteria.  

Fill pstock tanks  

There are two pH stock tanks in the container farm, that the automated system draws from, to balance the nutrient solution.  

One holds pH up solution and the other holds the pH down solution.  

Keep pH solutions in the stock tanks at all times, to ensure your system can adjust the pH as needed.  

 Order new materials, as needed 

Once a week, go through your supplies to make sure you have enough of everything.  

If you run out of something important, like pH calibration solution, it could hurt your plants! 

Be proactive by keeping track of everything and ordering new supplies before you run out.  

That way you’ll never have to worry about running out of something important.  

Finally, we’ll look at what you need to do each month to run a container farm.  

Monthly Tasks 

Sanitize the hydroponic system 

It’s important to thoroughly clean your hydroponic system between crop cycles.  

This is because you’re going to be planting new crops in the system. 

You don’t want them to be infected by any leftover germs from the last round of crops.  

Sanitize the system by running a diluted 2% bleach solution through it.  

Change HVAC Filters 

Container farm or not, dirty filters are the most common reason HVAC units break.   

Replacing your filters regularly will extend the life of your unit.  

Plus, if you let the filters get too dirty, it makes the HVAC unit work harder to operate.  

This uses more electricity and causing your energy bill to cost more.  

Clean Filters on Water Pumps 

Cleaning the filters on your water pumps regularly, will help your pumps operate smoothly and last longer.  

To clean the filters on the water pumps, remove them and rinse off any dirt and debris with clean water.  

Put them back and you’ll be ready to keep farming! 

Start Seeds 

The crops you’re growing will determine how frequently you should start your seeds.  

If your chosen crop takes a long time to reach maturity, you can get away with starting seeds less frequently. 

For example, crops like basil can live in a container farm for years with the proper maintenance.  

But if your crops reach maturity quickly, you’ll want to keep a steady supply of seedlings ready to replace your harvests.  

Other Tips to Run a Successful Container Farm 

You now know what goes into running a container farm.  

But we have a few more tips to help you get the best results.  

Use a Water Filter  

Since container farms use water to deliver nutrients to the plants, water quality is extremely important.  

Make sure your water source is as pure as possible, before you start farming.  

This means you should test the water you intend to use. 

If you’re using tap water, your municipality should be able to provide you a report. 

Otherwise, you can also send a sample to a lab to find out what’s in it. 

You should also test the electrical conductivity (EC) of your water, in order to see how many salt-based minerals are in it.  

Ideally, the EC should be as close to zero as possible.  

Poor water quality may cause plants to suffer from stunted growth, nutrient deficiencies, bacterial contamination and more! 

Additionally, water’s “hardness” will affect hydroponic systems. 

Water hardness refers to the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in water. 

Hard water is damaging to both your plants and the system itself. 

Plants have to spend more energy to successfully consume hard water and its nutrients. 

Plus, hard water can cause solid calcium carbonate to form, which causes scaling on pipes and pumps. 

These scales reduce the life of your equipment, clog pipes and lower the efficiency of water heaters. 

That’s why it’s important to invest in a water filter for your container farm.  

Professional hydroponic growers highly recommend reverse osmosis water filters. 

Most filters remove impurities by simply distinguishing between liquids and solids. 

But reverse osmosis filters are able to remove impurities down to ions. 

This means, it’ll even remove dissolved minerals and bacteria

Many hydroponic farmers pre-filter the water and then store it in a tank, so it’s ready to use when needed. 

If you decide to get a reverse osmosis filter and water storage tank, you’ll need to add two tasks to your monthly routine.  

First, clean the water storage tanks with a 1% bleach solution and then rinse with clean water.  

Second, inspect your reverse osmosis filter once a month to make sure it’s clean and working properly.  

For best practices, replace its filters every year.  

Keep the pH Balanced 

pH has been mentioned many times already, but it’s just because it’s that important! 

The pH levels of your system need to be balanced, at all times. 

This is because the pH of your water will influence which nutrients your plants are able to absorb.  

If the pH is too high or too low, not all of the nutrients will be able to be absorbed by your crops.  

Specific crops have different pH preferences. 

But in general, a pH of 5.5 to 6.3 works best.  

Ignoring the pH levels in your hydroponic system, can cause nutrient deficiencies in your crops, leading to slow growth or even death. 

The automated system will maintain a strict range for you.  

But some farmers prefer to start low at 5.5. 

Then, they allow the pH to naturally raise over the course of week. 

Once it gets to about 6.2, they’ll adjust the pH back down to 5.5.  

A healthy hydroponic system should slowly raise in pH.  

If the pH falls instead, it’s usually an indicator of an issue, like a nutrient solution that is too strong.  

Before adding new water, be sure to test its pH and balance as needed. 

Change One Thing at a Time 

If your crops start showing signs of a problem, but you’re having trouble identifying the cause, change only one factor at a time.  

For example, if your crops are growing too slow, it could be a problem of temperature or nutrient intake.  

In this case, you’d try mixing a stronger nutrient solution and seeing how your crops react before changing anything else.  

If you change too many factors at once, it’ll overwhelm your crops.  

Plus, it’ll make it hard for you to identify which solution actually fixed the problem.  

As a result, you won’t be able to learn what caused the problem in the first place.  

Additionally, if you change only one factor and it makes the problem worse, you can easily reverse it.  

This helps you learn what not to do, in the future as well.  

With this guide, you should be able to run your container farm with no problems! 

If you have any questions, need more information or want help getting started, contact us! 

You can reach us via our website at puregreesaz.com or by calling 602-753-3469.