Student Turned Entrepreneur Re-Envisions Local Food


Fresh produce can be hard to come by in city centers, let alone local produce. The corner convenience store may carry the odd potato or onion, but for a reliable source of fresh produce most urbanites are forced to drive, bike or take public transportation to a supermarket, most often well outside city limits.

That could all change in the not-so-distant future.

Meet Ben Greene. He's a student turned entrepreneur from Raleigh, NC. His brain child, The Farmery, promises to bring a whole new way of life to urban locavores.

"The Farmery is essentially a template to celebrate local foods," Greene says. "There's not really a grocery mall designed for urban communities. We make it available to different demographics."

The idea is relatively simple: bring vegetable production, harvest and distribution together in a single location, right in the middle of town. A modified farmer's market, The Farmery eliminates the middle man and brings fresh-picked produce almost directly to the consumer's doorstep.

"The Farmery could be potentially much more financially successful (than other urban farms) and make its way into the mainstream of our economy," claims Greene. "By growing and selling in the same place, you can get a much higher profit margin."

The Farmery is constructed primarily from repurposed shipping containers and greenhouse implements. Hanging from the outside of the containers, herbs, strawberries and greens are grown aquaponically. Aquaponics refers to the practice of raising fish in the water supply to provide nutrients and keep disease in check.

"It's almost impossible to get organic nutrients into your hydroponic growing system, because they go bad so quickly," explains Greene. "This way it eliminates disease in the system, because you're essentially cultivating bacteria to convert the waste in to nutrients, and that bacteria will out compete fungal diseases and other bad bacteria."

Ben chuckles as he explains the benefits of farming fish in grocery stores. "And it's cool," he adds. "People can be surrounded by an ecosystem while they're shopping for their food."

The Farmery is highly efficient on use of space. Something is grown on every available surface. On the inside of the shipping containers: gourmet mushrooms. The customer will literally be able to harvest his or her meal and consume it the same day, without ever having to leave the neighborhood. This is the basic prototype that has been used so far, but Greene has much bigger plans. The future Farmery will include a cafe and a grocery, for those who don't prefer to pick their own produce.

"In an urban environment, you kind of have to have a cafe," says Greene. "We want to sell the experience, as well as the product."

This is huge news for people living in urban environments, who may not have access to fresh produce currently. Anyone who has ever ridden the bus to the grocery store knows how inconvenient, time consuming and labor intensive shopping can be for urbanites. If the corner store does happen to carry fresh produce, it's likely to be expensive and of poor quality. Finding a single organic item in a convenience store is nearly impossible, and trying to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a lost cause.

"It's getting very difficult to not have them [GMOs,] because it's getting into the natural world," Greene laments. "It's kind of sad. It's like, it's in the air, now." But when asked about his official stance on serving GMOs in The Farmery, he bluntly states, "Basically, we're not going to have them."

"The Farmery is essentially a template to celebrate local foods," Greene says. "There's not really a grocery mall designed for urban communities. We make it available to different demographics."

Traditional urban farms, farmers' markets and CSA's provide an alternative to agro-chemical products, but are constricted to a shorter growing season and limited shopping time. Because of the costs of transportation, labor and the loss of spoiled product, the price of fresh, organic produce goes up exponentially when it's available in cities.

"You're looking at 36 percent inventory loss from the farm to the retailer," Green explains, "and we eliminate most of that."

Because the produce is only picked once the customer has made a purchasing decision, loss of product all but disappears. Anything that must be picked before it's sold can be used in the cafe. Other local farmers can drop off whatever product they have, knowing they have access to a reliable customer base, without worrying whether they've brought too much or too little product to today's market.

"The focus is on enabling small, artisanal farmers and enabling that farm culture," Greene explains. "By having a grocery store on site, you have a much higher traffic flow, so you can sell more product."

Because of this vertical integration, fresh, local produce can be sold at a reasonable price point to people living in urban centers. This is very important to Greene, who wants to see his product made available to people of all socio-economic backgrounds.

"After the first store gets going, we want to have a non-profit attached to it," says Greene. "We want to make food stamps worth double (face value) in our grocery stores."

The inevitable result of this food revolution is a closer relationship between people and their food—a truly farm-to-table experience, which has rarely been attainable for people living outside of rural settings. Greene is confident that once urban dwelling people get to know their local food, and local farmers, they'll be hooked and never want to go back to the traditional grocery store model.

"Instead of a supermarket format, where you're constantly trying to accommodate different products, and sourcing them from all over the place when it's out of season, I think instead you should celebrate it when it's in season," he says. "It becomes a reason to come to the store—We have these apples from western North Carolina, for three months. Come check them out—So it's like the store becomes an event, instead of just a place to stock up.

Visit EcoWatch's FOOD and SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS pages for more related news on this topic.

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