One night after a long day of brainstorming, Brad McNamara got a call from his business partner. “Dude, what do you think about shipping containers?” he heard as he picked up the phone. “I don’t think much of shipping containers,” McNamara responded, skeptical of where this was going.

However, his partner was onto something. While working in urban greenhouse technology, they continued to run into the issue that greenhouses were very cost-prohibitive, explains McNamara. Shipping containers, on the other hand, could be designed to scale much easier than a 40,000 square greenhouse, they realized, and Freight Farms was born.

The concept is simple: Raise crops inside giant shipping containers using hydroponics, a form of horticulture in which plants are grown in water rather than soil. Inside the freights, McNamara and his team have engineered vertical hydroponics systems, making efficient use of the space and energy-efficient LED lighting.

The entire system in each freight is monitored through a control panel, or “a digital monitoring hub,” explains McNamara, in which users can view the air and water temperatures, PH levels and more of their greenhouse. The control panels are connected via internet to both the user and Freight Farms’ Harvest Expert.

“The idea was to make it easy enough that you don’t need a PhD in horticulture,” says McNamara of the control panel. Through data and visual tools, users can monitor their freights, and if something looks out of the ordinary, the Harvest Experts can chime in with a scientific answer to a horticultural problem.

The freights are intended for use by urban distributors, institutional food service providers and large restaurant groups. “The idea behind Freight Farms is to bring local food to a commercial scale,” explains McNamara, noting that one freight is intended to grow 400 heads of lettuce a week.

As far as what can be grown in the containers, McNamara says anything but root crops can be farmed through hydroponics. The first unit released by Freight Farms is a leaf variety, which enables users to grow herbs, lettuces and other leafy greens. The second, to be available in early 2013, will support vine crops, such as cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers.

Freight Farms is currently a part of the MassChallenge 2012 class, and McNarmara says they are “looking for interested investors or the right angel to allow us to leapfrog a little bit.”

For more, check out this video on Freight Farms below.