What is a farm? Who is a farmer? The local food movement is changing the way we think about all aspects of food production. Consumers demand locally grown, sustainably produced food with minimal impact to the environment. But for city dwellers, “local” food may still have to travel hundreds of miles to get to our plates.
In 2010, the founders of Freight Farms re-imagined urban farming with these fundamental questions in mind. A farm could be a mobile indoor growing environment placed in any open space within a city or suburb. A farmer could come from a small business, non-profit, restaurant or hotel, university or school, or corporate campus. The company’s flagship product—The Leafy Green Machine—is a hydroponic farm built inside a 40’x8’ upcycled shipping container, making it inherently self-contained and mobile.
Fine-tuning the farm
What makes Freight Farms a truly modern food enterprise is the technology behind the farm. Each of their 100+ farm units is connected to the company’s IoT network. Their platform farmhand provides farmers with access to real-time data from sensors and automated controllers inside the farm. Farmhand helps farmers to monitor and remotely control key components of their growing environment, such as temperature, humidity, nutrient levels, and more. Any changes trigger notifications that help the farmer immediately correct issues or manage equipment. Farmhand’s Shop is an e-commerce app that sells farm supplies.
Scalable agriculture on Heroku
When Freight Farms started, they saw themselves as a hardware company. Their perspective has since evolved, and they now consider themselves a connected software company. As such, Freight Farm’s software is really a “system of systems.” Rather than build sub-systems themselves, the team finds it more economical and scalable to rely on partners. The engineering team chose to build their network on two platforms: Heroku, a part of the Salesforce Platform, and Xively by Logmein.
With Heroku and Xively at the core, it’s as if we have built-in DevOps and IoT expertise on our team. Kyle Seaman, Director of Farm Technology, Freight Farms
Each farm is provisioned with a gateway device that runs a Xively MQTT client locally. Every minute, data flows from the farm’s equipment and climate sensors through Xively to a Parse server running on Heroku, where it is processed and stored in MongoDB and Heroku Postgres. The gateway uses MQTT running on top of Node.js to manage communications between the farm equipment and the server.
One of the team’s biggest concerns was around security. With remote control access into the farms, vulnerabilities could arise at any point in their network. They felt confident that the Heroku and Xively platforms offered the level of security their system needed to maintain integrity.
Heroku has allowed us to just build stuff quickly and not worry about the low-level. With such a small team, that has been a huge perk. Matthew Brandly, Lead Software Engineer, Freight Farms
Heroku Add-ons have been key platform features for us. It's great to be able to roll something out and have it just work. Even the integrated billing is really convenient. Kyle Seaman, Director of Farm Technology, Freight Farms
In general, the Freight Farms team prefers systems that integrate well with other systems. With Heroku and Xively operating the farm network, the team chose Salesforce as their CRM platform for storing all customer and farm data. Phase one of their implementation is to ensure every farm, customer, piece of equipment, transaction, and data point lives in Salesforce. Integrating Salesforce with their Heroku apps has been a breeze using Heroku Connect. Later in the year, they’ll add Service Cloud and Marketing Cloud.
Heroku Connect has helped us streamline our shipping process for our e-commerce business. We can easily sync customer and transaction data between our Farmhand Shop app and Salesforce. Kyle Seaman, Director of Farm Technology, Freight Farms
Data drives crop optimization
Freight Farms is starting to hit scale with 100+ farms currently in operation. Most of the farms are just coming online, which means there is a steady stream of valuable data flowing through the IoT network. The company recently launched a new feature for their Farmhand app called “Track,” which is a component to their system that aggregates and analyzes data across the farms. This will better enable Freight Farms to recommend ideal growing parameters for specific crops in each region, as well as trigger alerts to farmers if conditions are suboptimal.
Freight Farms’ technical approach to agriculture helps increase yields and make local food production viable, and thus truly “local.”
To learn more about Freight Farm’s tech stack and IoT network, read our developer interview with Kyle Seaman, Director of Farm Technology.