On 600 acres of a former sheep farm tucked between the Hudson River and the Taconic Mountain Range a 3,600 square foot plot – less than 1/10 of an acre—embodies hope and a small step toward sustainable, low-carbon farming. A project at Wally Farms takes the shape of a six-unit indoor farm constructed of repurposed shipping containers built by Box4Grow. The futuristic farm is tended by chef/farmer Danny Amend, a native of Northern California who grew up with reverence toward the environment. In prior years, Danny was a chef in some of Brooklyn’s most cutting-edge restaurants, including Franny’s and Marco’s. While there, he became increasingly involved in community-based environmental projects focused on climate solutions, like a rooftop hydroponic farm that provided food for local school kids.
Creative ways to farm while reducing the carbon footprint
COVID-19 convinced Danny and his family to consider less urban living options and they ultimately settled near Hudson, New York. His ongoing environmental advocacy and community involvement drew him to a local group called Spark Hudson, associated with the seminal Wally Farms in Taghkanic, New York. Working with them, Danny began to investigate creative ways to farm while reducing the carbon footprint. He hit upon an indoor, closed-system container growing as an answer.
Danny spent a year asking questions, researching, and studying until he found the Box4Grow (formerly Growboxco) Company in New Hampton, New York. The union was a success from the start. “It was a collaborative effort between Box4Grow and I to come up with our final design,” Danny says. “They were flexible. They knew I was looking for modularity.” And they understood the unique vision of Wally Farms. “So, I worked with Box4Grow and their container engineers in taking my idea and design and putting it into a realistic setting,” he says.
In time, six containers were outfitted, delivered, and situated on concrete piers in a small clearing on the property. Danny and Wally Farms started with one 40-foot-l growing unit with five support containers outfitted as a mechanical room for the nutrient tanks, two energy storage containers, plus one with an office, workroom, bathrooms, and a cleanroom that provides access to the growing containers. This was the phase one footprint of the container farm. “As we better understand where food is going, we can add up to four more growing containers,” stated Danny.
Understanding how to make farming carbon-neutral or negative
Danny started with nutrient-rich leafy crops such as spinach, kale, and chard, and will grow them to maturity while keeping meticulous growing notes. His aim, and that of Wally Farms, is not to sell these crops at a market or through a CSA. They have no desire to compete with existing and more conventional farmers. No, their goals are on a different level.
“This venture is more about community and uplifting others through research into understanding how to make farming carbon-neutral or negative. It’s also about understanding how to better recycle water, how to farm utilizing solar power and operate off the grid, and how a 24/7 container farm operation can help address food insecurity but not compete against other farmers.
“It is not about producing an eight-ounce plastic clamshell of mesclun for sale,” Danny says. “It is more about talking with local businesses that want niche crops like Thai chilis, for example, and having discussions with restaurants and food kitchens, asking them, “Is there anything we can grow for you that you might need?” For example, there is a dearth of leafy greens in winter, but I have been working with the Recovery Kitchen soup kitchen in Hudson and will be growing for them in winter.
Experimenting with different crops
“Right now, we have 200 seed varieties of leafy greens, edible flowers, and medicinal flowers,” Danny says. He will be experimenting with different crops and three distinct hydroponic growing systems. Nutrient Film Technique; a Dutch Bucket System utilizing soil and drip irrigation; and Grow Racks utilizing flood-and-drain hydroponics. He will also be comparing different fertilizer solutions, including one made from plant waste, a liquid compost if you will.
It’s all about learning and then teaching. To begin, Danny will be training staff from Spark of Hudson and Wally Farms as they build up a farm team. They believe they will be able to cut labor to an hour or two a day per unit. Automation and technology will carry a lot of the load. “The whole area will be connected with fiber; we will have WiFi everywhere and we will see how tech can work for others.”
Community-based and climate-friendly based agricultural system
The container farm at Wally farms is just the first step in creating a community-based and climate-friendly based agricultural system.
“We have to put in the work now to understand what we need to do to correct the course we are on,” Danny says. “We are looking to do some research and get the results of the world out there. We will create a good blueprint for the general public.” In time, the greater Wally Farms operation will welcome local farmers growing field crops regeneratively, where lots of different farmers work together cooperatively. “We want to make it easy for people to buy local and know what’s in their backyard. He says the important questions to ask about food are: Does it have nutrition? Can it feed people who are starving? Is it accessible to people?” For now, it’s all driven by the unique and forward-looking technology of Box4Grow.
“Who knows?” Danny says. “Maybe when we need systems to travel to the next star system, we will use the technology from something we created in the 21st century.”
He smiles and he surveys the rolling fields before him.
“Now I can do things that feel meaningful.”