With every new generation comes complaints from the previous generation and the one before that things just aren’t the same as they used to be. And, this couldn’t be more the case where farmers are concerned.
Waste not, want not, is the premise behind the Crop Box, owned by Williamson Greenhouses, and designed by Ben Greene, of the Farmery. Greene’s technological prowess, reinforced by a Masters degree in product design, wasn’t enough to conceal his farming roots. Instead of dismissing the lifestyle he left behind, he decided to find a way to improve upon it, by designing a system that could exponentially increase the number of farmers.
The bigger, the better mentality of big Agri-business and the yesteryear “get big or get out” threats by politicians like the former Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, are falling on deaf ears as a new generation of farmers begins to cater to the philosophy that more sustainable growing practices could create a more sustainable world, complete with healthier people and a healthier planet.
But, the fact remains, that, worldwide, we consume 11.5 million pounds of food every minute. And, while vivacious and eager to change the face of farming, young farmers are still a drop in the bucket with the average age of industrial farmers creeping toward 60. As farms get smaller and the number of new farmers continues to crawl along, farmers, officials, and corporations in the business are biting their nails.
Greene says it’s time for an overhaul.
“How can I build a business model that’s accessible for new farmers and entrepreneurs to break into?” – Greene
As the designer and craftsman behind the Farmery, a vertical farming system/food market, and now the Crop Box, a mechanized, indoor vertical hydroponic growing system; Greene demonstrates how supplementation can serve the new world of farming.
The Farmery - "What happens when you grow and sell your food in the same place?" Produced by Public Address System and featured on National Geographic. Winner of the 2013 Smithsonian In Motion Contest.
Having spent much of his childhood on a farm, he was keen to the acres and acres of farmland going fallow around him. He couldn’t help but wonder who would take over and how.
“It was this gnawing question: How can I build a business model that’s accessible for new farmers and entrepreneurs to break into?” Greene said.
The Crop Box was his answer.
His partner in the Farmery, Tyler Nethers, skilled in sustainable development and hydroponics, helped to develop it.
Their prototype, housed in a shipping container, sits in the parking lot of Williamson Greenhouses in Clinton, NC, looking pretty much like one would expect a shipping container to look – industrial, white ridges, no frills. Inside though, it looks like every farmer’s dream, with lush, green, blemish-free lettuces and herbs spilling over shelving units stacked four high on each side.
The Crop Box system boasts optimum conditions for fruit and vegetable plants like strawberries, greens and herbs, and vine growers.
While Greene feels that the simplicity of the repurposed steel container mirrors the sustainable philosophy it caters to, he says the possibilities are endless:
“…solar paneled roof, windows, patio area, living exterior walls like the Farmery….shingles on the roof…stacking these things three high…a teleporter to take you floor to floor,” he says, with a smile.
From left: Benjamin Greene, Tyler Nethers, Tripp Williamson
In the end, though, he says it’s the simplicity in design that makes this growing system so seamless.
Looking at the logistics, the Crop Box seems too good to be true. There’s no digging, raking, hoeing, or weeding. You couldn’t break a sweat if you tried with temperatures hovering in the high 60s. And, all monitoring and watering is mechanized via specially designed monitoring software.
“Every single environmental factor, everything that could influence a plant’s growth is collected and transferred into data that’s accessible on an iphone,” says Greene.
As great as this relatively hands-free scenario may sound to some of us, it’s one of the biggest arguments against the Crop Box.
While the Crop Box uses 90 percent less water than conventional farms and greenhouse operations, 80 percent less fertilizer, no pesticides, and yields as much as a one acre field or a 2,200 sqare foot hydroponic greenhouse, the importance of digging in actual dirt is like the importance of drinking water for most with a propensity for farming, leaving many advocates of organic and sustainable agriculture skeptical of hydroponic systems.
“I like planting in soil, and I know Tyler does,” said Greene. “But, land use is out of control, and you can grow as much here as you can on an entire acre of land.”
Most young farmers, at least initially, get into farming to experience the land, feel the elements, and get their hands dirty.
“This may not have the ‘thrill’ of being a farmer to the fullest extent,” said Greene,” but, it also doesn’t have the heartbreak.”
Greene argues that while most people have an innate desire to grow their own food, many don’t have the resources or the knowledge to start.
“I wanted to find a way to make farming accessible. There are too many roadblocks in the current model.”
Tripp Williamson, of Williamson Greenhouses, was ready for the next best thing when he found about the Farmery, Greene’s first brain child. Williamson had been entrenched in the tobacco industry, an industry many farmers and business owners were easing their way out of.
His father revolutionized the tobacco industry back in the day with a low-maintenance, virtually hands-free greenhouse tobacco growing system. But, the glory days for tobacco growers have passed, and Williamson has begun branching out.
Williamson now leases individual Crop Boxes stocked with the crop of choice, including the latest, greatest, recently legalized herb, medicinal marijuana, for $999 per month, with all the bells and whistles. It’s also available for purchase at a cost of $49,347.
The Crop Box has created some noise in the world of specialty growers since its inception in early 2014. From meetings with gourmet greens growers in NYC to conversations with the son of Saudi Arabian Prince Alaweed Bin Talal and his counterparts, the Crop Box is attracting aspiring farmers and businessmen and women limited by space and environmental constraints.
“The only downside,” says Greene, “is that it’s not energy efficient. I’m not shy about saying it.”
Lighting, technology, heating and cooling, may, at first glance, seem to take a few notches off the Crop Box’s super-sustainability belt, but Greene says the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
“It’s much more energy efficient than traditional farming,” Williamson said. “On the same scale, energy use is always going to be less here than in traditional farming.”
Greene says that the Crop Box makes up for this and then some.
“You don’t have the logistical issues, or the fuel consumption that goes into shipping and distribution. And, almost 100 percent of the food you grow can be consumed. 34 percent of the food grown on conventional farms is thrown out sometime between being loaded on the truck to the time it’s pulled from grocery store shelves.”
An energy efficiency option is not off the table though.
“You can make this a completely sustainable system,” said Greene, whether through the pricier route of installing solar panels or purchasing solar energy from California.
Greene thinks it could, in fact, be the next, most sustainable food cultivation option, given consistent technological improvements in the lighting industry.
While Crop Box farmers won’t be basking in the natural elements, Greene says the option is a no brainer for young farmers, restaurants, and specialty markets.
“This is the Golden Retriever of farming,” he said. “It’s a sure thing. It’s safe, affordable, and it’s only going to get better.”