For more than 30 years, Williamson Greenhouses has been a pioneer in using state-of-the-art greenhouse technology to revolutionize how tobacco is grown in the Southeastern U.S.
The company’s founder, Burl Williamson, developed a hydroponic growing system that allowed farmers to start their tobacco plants in greenhouses before transplanting them to the field, an approach that greatly increased crop yields and is now standard in the industry.
But as the tobacco industry shrunk in recent years, Tripp Williamson, 31, who is Burl’s son and now runs the company, realized that for Williamson Greenhouses to thrive for another 30 years it would need to use its expertise to expand into new markets.
Enter the CropBox. A shipping container equipped with a hydroponic growing system and software monitoring system, the CropBox is designed to give farmers and nonfarmers the ability to grow crops all year. All they need is enough room to place a shipping container on their property.
“You first look at it and you go, really?” said Richard Holcomb, one of the owners of Coon Rock Farm in Hillsborough. “It’s a beat up old shipping container. But inside it’s really cool.”
Last month, Coon Rock Farm became the first customer to lease a CropBox, where it hopes to grow lettuce and other crops that it can use for its home delivery service, Bella Bean Organics, as well as its restaurant and its CSA.
“It will grow lettuce in the exact same conditions in February as it will in July,” Holcomb said. “From a financial perspective, I’m able to free up an entire greenhouse to do something else in the summer.”
The CropBox’s origins date to 2008, when Ben Greene developed the idea as part of his master’s thesis while attending N.C. State University’s industrial design program. Greene eventually put the concept on the back burner while he and his partner, Tyler Nethers, developed the Farmery, an urban farm and grocery that has operated at American Tobacco Campus and North Hills and will open in Durham in late spring.
Last year, Tripp Williamson approach Greene, 32, about partnering on the CropBox – Greene and Nethers would provide the design and Williamson would handle the manufacturing.
“The CropBox is basically taking out the growing component (in the Farmery) and offering those to anyone who wants to ... use the technology to get ahead in agriculture,” Greene said.
From the outside, the CropBox looks like any other shipping container. But inside it features rows and rows of oasis cubes with 2,800 planting spots. Overhead lighting is provided by high-end fluorescent lights while a 200-gallon reservoir and pump system allows water to circulate. A computer system enables you to remotely monitor the environmental conditions inside the shipping container – the temperature, lighting, water, Ph, CO2 and humidity levels.
Greene and Williamson say the CropBox uses 90 percent less water and 80 percent less fertilizer than conventional farms, as well as requiring no pesticides. It removes many of the variables – extreme weather, insects – that can reduce a farmer’s yields.
“You take the guess work out of it,” Tripp Williamson said. “Our biggest thing is to lower the barrier of entry for anybody that wants to be a farmer.”
Williamson Greenhouses is leasing the CropBox for $1,000 a month for the first 12 months, and then $2,000 a month until it is paid off. The total cost of a CropBox is $49,343. By far the biggest expense is the lights, which can represent as much as 70 percent of the cost.
While several other companies are developing similar products using shipping containers, Williamson said those companies are building higher-end models that are likely to be too costly for a typical farmer to afford.
Greene receives a licensing fee from Williamson Greenhouses, and is working as a business development consultant and helping to introduce the product to his network of farmers. Williamson now has three to four CropBoxes available to lease.
The CropBox uses about twice as much electricity as a traditional greenhouse in the winter. And Greene is aware of the conflicts that may arise in marketing an artificial growing environment to farmers who may pride themselves on their organic, locally grown produce.
But he argues that the CropBox is not as inefficient as one might think, in part because enabling people to grow food locally reduces the fuel used to transport it and reduces packaging requirements.
“It’s probably similar when the whole food chain is added up,” he said.
Greene and Williamson are also confident that the components that make up the growing system will only get cheaper.
Greene said America is at the forefront of indoor growing technology, largely because of the movement to legalize marijuana. Although Williamson Greenhouses isn’t marketing the CropBox to people who want to grow marijuana in states where it is legal, it is benefiting from investments being made by marijuana growers.
“A lot of those guys they can’t put their money in banks. They’ve got to spend it somewhere,” Greene said. They end up spending their money on high-end equipment which eventually drives down the cost. “We’re sort of catching the back end,” Greene said.
For example, the high-end fluorescent lights and software monitoring systems used in the CropBox were first developed for marijuana growers.
Greene and Williamson believe the potential market for the CropBox is vast because the world’s food needs are growing while the land available for farming is shrinking. Investors from Saudi Arabia have already visited Clinton to check out the CropBox prototype.
Greene said Saudi Arabia, which has a scarcity of water, is eager to find more efficient ways to grow crops, particularly because a head of lettuce there can cost $4.
But the most immediate market for the CropBox looks to be local farmers seeking to make more efficient use of their land. Later this month, Whitney Farr, a farmer in Greer, S.C., is expected to receive a CropBox.
Farr grows soybeans, wheat and hay on more than 1,000 acres that he owns and leases. He learned about the CropBox when an advertisement popped up on his Facebook page.
Farr, 31, knows he will need to experiment with other growing techniques and diversify into higher-end specialty crops. His farm sits just 5 miles from the BMW auto plant, and land that was once farmed by his grandfather has since been replaced with subdivisions.
“Given where agriculture is headed in 20 to 40 years, things have got to change,” said Farr, who plans to grow strawberries in his CropBox. “We’re losing land at such a high rate we’ve got to find other ways to grow it.”
For Holcomb of Coon Rock Farm, the CropBox offers a solution to the variability of the local food supply throughout the year. Holcomb’s Durham restaurant, Piedmont Restaurant, only serves locally-sourced food, but many of his customers want salad in the summer when lettuce doesn’t grow very well in the North Carolina heat.
While Coon Rock will start out growing lettuce in its CropBox, Holcomb said he plans to experiment with as many crops as possible.
“This is very much a try something new and figure out how it’s going to work,” he said. “My gut is that this is going to work out extremely well.”