A new type of farm for the Triangle

System aims to ‘solve a big problem for small farmers’

ajames@newsobserver.comSeptember 7, 2012 

  • Want to help? To watch a video about the Farmery and to support the project on Kickstarter, go to www.thefarmery.com.

— After three years of experimenting with new ways to grow food, two 29-year-old Raleigh men are ready to launch the Farmery – a food production system made out of shipping containers that combines a farmers market and greenhouse.

Benjamin Greene and Tyler Nethers are a design and farming duo who hope to raise enough money and get permission to build their invention in either downtown Raleigh or Durham. After they patented their design, their names started echoing in urban farming circles and among researchers at N.C. State University.

“We are trying to solve a big problem for small farmers,” said Greene, who grew up watching his farmer grandfather get squashed in a battle with a supermarket who wouldn’t buy his produce because he lacked the supply of bigger farms.

Greene, an artist, studied sculpture at Clemson University and is an Army veteran of the war in Iraq; the Farmery is a modified version of his master’s thesis project in industrial design at NCSU. Nethers has taught classes on urban gardening and grew endangered species for the Army in Hawaii.

While holding down day jobs to support their dream, the two have spent their spare time growing vegetables in two shipping containers in Clayton, where they’ve developed a prototype of the Farmery. They currently sell vegetables to several local restaurants.

As of Friday, 82 “backers” had pledged $2,704 toward the Farmery’s goal of $25,000 through the online philanthropy site Kickstarter. Greene and Nethers won’t receive any money unless they reach their goal by Sept. 28.

Most produce in supermarkets in North Carolina comes from California, said Gary Bullen, an agricultural economist at NCSU. Despite the cost of shipping food across the country, the vegetables still cost less when they reach the shelves because they come from large, industrial farms. For small farmers, it’s nearly impossible to compete.

Bullen said he is skeptical the Farmery will increase profits for farmers.

“They already have the option of selling at farmers markets, which are always looking for more farmers,” he said.

But the Farmery will be able to treat new farmers differently than farmers markets, Greene said. The men say half of the produce sold from the Farmery will be grown in-house, with the rest coming from small farmers who can also offer jam and other homemade goods in the marketplace. When farmers have a bad harvest, the Farmery will be able to meet the supply gap with their own produce.

“Flexibility is key to meeting the demand for the local food craze,” Greene said.

Some of their plants will be grown hydroponically, without soil. Food and water are fed directly to the roots, requiring less water and space. In addition, the plants will be grown vertically, a trend among urban farmers who try to maximize space by growing up instead of out.

Vines of vegetables will line the walls of the shipping containers, making the marketplace a living store. The same lights used to power the marketplace will be used to grow the food.

“We’re like agricultural deejays. We spin the technology with other unexpected parts of the food system to create our own special remix,” Greene said.

The self-contained retail growing unit will eliminate costs that present challenges to traditional farmers, such as fuel for transportation, packaging, and distribution.

‘Ahead of our time’

One local urban farmer, Josh Whiton, director of Raleigh City Farm on North Blount Street on the north side of downtown, said he thinks it may be too early for a project like the Farmery.

“His innovation is so advanced it’s ahead of our time,” said Whiton, whose project seeks to transform unused land downtown into “farmland.”

Whiton said there is no shortage of land downtown now, but places like the Farmery will be necessary at some point when space for outdoor gardens becomes scarce.

But the Farmery may meet a need beyond its original aim: providing fresh produce in neighborhoods where it’s hard to find, said Maurice Small, who was hired to help the Interfaith Food Shuttle this year after his success with urban farming in Chicago, Cleveland and elsewhere.

“It is a perfect solution for food deserts,” Small said.

The USDA defines a food desert as an urban neighborhood or rural town without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. In Southeast Raleigh, where Small’s outreach is based, many residents have limited access to a car and are not able to get to grocery stores, relying instead on convenience stores.

Nethers said if the Farmery can get the support it needs to move into an urban center, the ultimate goal is to make them “as common as the corner store.”

James: 919-829-4870

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