I’m in a seedy parking lot on the fringes of downtown Raleigh, eating lettuce off the walls of a shipping container.

The container—the kind you’d count on a freight train—houses half of Nanue’s Farm, a hydroponic homestead where owner Trevor Spear has spent the past three years growing leafy greens, herbs, root vegetables, and edible flowers out of irrigated floor-to-ceiling panels.

Pristine and climate-controlled, the farm’s two modular units operate year-round, using just five gallons of water per day and producing around 1,000 heads of lettuce each week. While the farm’s environmental benefits run aplenty—water and land conservation; no pesticide runoff; a hyperlocal distribution model that, in a cool inversion of the containers’ original usage, eschews the carbon footprint of long-distance shipping—Spear, a sort of health-conscious Willy Wonka, is most enthused by Nanue’s ability to provide local chefs with unique, often off-season produce.

Ashley Christensen, for instance, once asked Spear to grow six different types of mustard greens for a salad special at her Raleigh restaurant Poole’s Diner. Spear regularly sells produce to local restaurants including Hummingbird, Carroll’s Kitchen, St. Roch Fine Oysters, Crawford and Son, and Jolie.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” Spear says. “We’re completely changing the way they cook, because we can grow anything at any time. And then they can create anything.”

Walking down the aisle of the container he calls “Juanita,” Spear tears off leaves and buds for me to try: there are some familiar ones, like romaine and basil, but many I’ve never heard of, such as a yellow flower called a “buzz button” that offers an electrifying, Pop Rocks–esque zing before causing my entire mouth to go numb. For centuries, people ate buzz buttons to numb toothaches, Spear says; now, bartenders use them to garnish cocktails.

While Spear is relatively new to modular farming, his interest in agriculture is rooted in his childhood, and in his farm’s namesake.

When Spear was a kid, he liked to spend time in his grandma’s garden, where the rows of vegetables seemed to stretch on forever.

Sometimes, his grandma—“Nanue,” as she was dubbed by Spear’s cousin Skeet, who couldn’t pronounce the word “nanny”—gave him small tasks, including plucking pesky leaves from tomato plants and replenishing the bait in her homemade slug traps.

“We poured beer into pie pans and all the slugs would come and drown themselves,” Spear says. “Or Nanue would cut them in half with the end of her hoe.”

Spear grew up in New Bern, on the banks of the Neuse River. His grandmother lived 40 minutes north, in Beaufort County, and Spear says he savored the holidays and summer breaks that he spent with her.

“That’s where I got my love for growing things,” Spear says, “hanging out with my grandmother at a young age.”

For the first 35 years of his adult life, Spear channeled that love into building houses. But four years ago, itching for a change of pace, he decided to “hang up his hard hat” and follow a lead he’d come across while reading a profile of Kimbal Musk. Musk—a restaurateur, agrotechnology magnate, and brother to the richest man in the world—had just launched Square Roots, an urban farming company that houses hydroponic farms in shipping containers. Spear, drawn by the start-up’s fusion of architecture and agriculture, set off to tour the facility in Brooklyn.

He was immediately sold on the concept. With his own modular farm, he realized, he could carry on Nanue’s horticultural legacy without having to navigate the climatic uncertainties of traditional farming, which had always repelled him from the field.

After doing some research, Spear learned that Freight Farms, the company that pioneered the container farm model, was selling its units to novices. He purchased two containers and underwent the company’s intensive training process, and by December 2019, he was, as Nanue would put it, “growing lettuce upright in the air condition.”

Spear is one of more than 500 farmers in Freight Farms’ international network. The company was founded in 2013 by Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman, two friends who spent years devising a way to make urban agriculture an economically viable way to produce food. With an accessible urban farming model, they believed that they could promote sustainable agriculture as well as combat food insecurity in food deserts and remote areas of the world.

“They were really looking for something that was a turnkey solution, so that anyone could get started farming,” says Caroline Katsiroubas, director of events and partnerships at Freight Farms.

Friedman and McNamara initially planned to build rooftop greenhouses, Katsiroubas says, but dismissed the concept after realizing it was too cost prohibitive. Eventually, they landed on the idea of constructing farms inside shipping containers, which were cheap, widely available, and, when outfitted with climate-control technology, capable of sustaining agriculture in places where it would otherwise be impossible.

While the units are more affordable than other types of urban farming, start-up costs still run high: Freight Farms’ current container model, the Greenery S, is priced at $149,000. The unit also requires around 190 kilowatt-hours of energy per day, which can be costly for both operators and the environment. (For context, the average American household uses about 29 kilowatt-hours of energy each day.) Katsiroubas, who calls the electrical draw the “pain point of the industry,” says Freight Farms is working to integrate clean energy systems into its containers and notes that the current model can run on solar power. The company also offers an extensive financing guide of loans, grants, and incentives for prospective buyers, Katsiroubas says.

If numbers are any indication, the company’s farms have proven to be fairly accessible thus far: they currently exist in 34 countries and nearly every state in the United States, and the company’s network of farmers is the largest in the world.

Some units are operated by seasoned farmers who grew tired of climate fluctuations and varying yields, and switched to the container model to “future-proof” their operations, according to Katsiroubas. But most are operated by people like Spear.

“The majority don’t have traditional farming experience,” Katsiroubas says. “However, they typically have a tie to farming or gardening somewhere in their family history, which is really cool because the technology allows them to carry that on in this new way.”

At Nanue’s, Spear’s 19-year-old son Brayton is poised to keep the tradition going.

Brayton never enjoyed school—he wasn’t a bad student, he says, but a “rebellious man” who “lived in in-school suspension”—and since graduating high school and working full-time at Nanue’s, he’s found a vocation in working with his hands.

“It becomes sort of zen, like yoga, where your mind wanders because you have this muscle memory of just putting the seed in a plug over and over again,” Brayton says. “It’s very relaxing, very peaceful. You sort of travel to the back of your mind and figure out all your issues.”

It’s the best job he could ask for, he says.

When I set out to visit Nanue’s, I assumed that Spear and his son would be driven by the same macro motives that Freight Farms lists on its website: revolutionizing the farming industry, providing fresh produce for underserved communities, saving the planet.

In many ways, Nanue’s is contributing to these initiatives. The agriculture industry is facing an aging crisis; the average American farmer is in their late 50s, and only a tiny fraction of the younger generation is drawn to the field. In bringing his son on board, Spear is working to reverse this trend. During the first year Nanue’s was operating, the pandemic forced most restaurants to close, so Spear donated 80 percent of his produce to food banks. And because the container farms are, by and large, inherently eco-friendly, Nanue’s is helping to reduce the environmental burden of food production, whether or not it’s Spear’s main mission.

While the priorities that Spear shared are more personal—honoring his heritage, watching things grow, making his mark on the local restaurant scene—sustainability is still sustainability, even if it’s a side effect.

Freight Farms, then, is technology at its best: get into it for your own reasons, and better the world in the process. 

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Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.com.