Ben Greene has converted shipping containers into a farm. The long, hollow boxes, one with transparent walls for the cultivation of fresh produce and herbs, one empty and moist for growing gourmet mushrooms, sit on a farm in Clayton, beyond the noise of the city, and, as Greene shows me what he’s building, eventually he talks his way to a far off vision, the thing in the architectural renderings he sent the week prior. He puts up his arms and maneuvers the boxes, one on top of another, with bright-eyed descriptions, and he tells me he’s going to drop the whole living project in the heart of a city, Raleigh, maybe Durham, and build an experience around fresh food.
Greene was studying sculpture at Clemson when, at the age of 20, he was deployed to Iraq in 2003. He served as a combat engineer during the invasion and for a few months post-invasion. After his service, he returned to the States and completed a Master’s in Industrial Design at N.C. State. Industrial Design, or product design, is the complex intersection of art and engineering. From art to war to design to where he is now, on a farm in Clayton repurposing shipping containers. Not the most linear narrative, he says. But art influenced by the utilitarian necessities of wartime engineering, mixed with a formal education in design, makes the emergence of the Farmery a plausible destination.
Greene graduated in 2009 in the heat of the recession and had an idea and decided to go for it. He has since found a day job, working as a product designer, but with his business partner Tyler Nethers, the Farmery moves forward.
The shipping containers we walk through are the result of a year of research followed by three years of trial and error. The mushroom growing system began as a series of burlap bags, which rotted. Hand-sewn compost socks, which lie in a pile beside the box like remnants of the error part of the trials, came next. Greene learned the socks were a favorite of one particular fungus gnat and during a growing period he cultivated an ecosystem for all the little pests a mushroom farmer would least want around his mushrooms. Now, the mushrooms grow in plastic bags stuffed with hay. The mushroom container, fitted with a moisture and ventilation system, will turn a full crop in about two weeks.
In the greenhouse container, the one with bright rooms protruding from either side, his growing system began as a network of PVC pipes packed with clay pellets that retained water. The PVC experiment only grew basil—a lot of basil. Next he devised a system with Styrofoam walls. This trial produced a good product but looked less appealing. Greene thought the industrial appearance would make customers hesitant to pick food directly from the walls once it was in a retail setting. Currently, the walls, or vertical growing panels, are lined with sheets of felt pockets stuffed with potting soil. The panels slide and rotate for easy planting and harvesting. Water flows from a reservoir into an irrigation system that waters the walls from the top and the water cascades over the felt walls to hit each pocket. Peppers, herbs and lettuce grow from the felt pockets. Eventually, he says, fish will be kept in the well to contribute nutrients and the fish poop will help control bacteria because fish poop competes against negative bacteria to impede its abundance.
The current design also allows for the use of compost, which Greene says is important to the overall narrative of a sustainable growing environment and assures the Farmery is not completely dependent on hydroponics.
As Greene talks about the project, he bounces between the language of a one-time sculptor and a businessman with an idea he believes can sell a lot of food. He talks about importing a certain sea bass and creating a moving river through the container for purposes both practical and aesthetic, and he talks about investors, those he has and those he needs. Up to this point, the Farmery has survived on his and his partner’s credit cards and the support of a few donors who share their vision for the project’s potential.
“They call us a vertical farm, but I see it as a way of connecting people with their food,” Greene says. “We think the biggest problem with growing local organic food is on the retail end. A little label that says organic isn’t enough to justify why it costs twice as much.”
He wants to bridge the gap between price and the public perception of what that price involves. He wants to connect people with food, let them see it growing and be a part of the harvesting, and highlight the care put into organic produce. Greene wants to build a story or, as he describe it, “an emotional experience.”
“I feel like I’m foremost expert in the world’s least profitable industry,” Greene says, when asked about the current state of the Farmery from a business standpoint. But he is hopeful. “Really we just want to open one in the Triangle or in North Carolina and get that one done and start on the next one.”
As it stands, he is operating largely on a currency of ideas, and while calls with large specialty grocery stores have emboldened him and provided legitimacy for the operation, the long-term profitability of the venture is yet to be defined.
He speaks at length of the flexibility of the design, the potential for its inexpensive construction and the Farmery’s ability to create a destination for shoppers, regardless of where it lands. The idea is singular—a food destination that grows and sells food at the same location—and eliminates the rising costs of transportation, packaging and middlemen from the buying process. The only remaining hurdle is funding the Farmery’s completion.
A Kickstarter campaign is currently underway to fund a third prototype container, which will house the retail element of the Farmery. The goal for the Kickstarter is $25,000 and had raised over $8,000 as of September 17.
Ben Greene has turned boxes into a farm and as he stands on land a family allows him to use for the cultivation of his idea, land where truffles grow in the distant shade, he speaks about the Farmery the way a sculptor talks about a sculpture not yet complete. He can imagine it finished and knows, in time, everyone else will see what he has in mind.