North Carolina Startup Seeks To Crossbreed An Urban Farm With A Grocery Store
Imagine going into a store and picking out your dinner by literally pulling it up by the roots. Sound farfetched? It's not. In fact, it's the behind a North Carolina-based venture called the Farmery.
The project is an effort to blend the convenience of a retail grocery store and cafe with the freshness of an indoor urban farming system operation.
Several prototypes of the system are already up and running, and the Farmery team is now in final talks with investors to get a two-story, 16,000-square-foot version operational by fall of 2015, most likely in North Carolina.
Their plan calls for strawberries, greens, lettuces and herbs to be grown on hanging panels mounted on a track above a shopping area. Several types of gourmet mushrooms will be grown on site in shipping containers. The Farmery will also accept produce from local farmers that might be rejected at other stores due to visual imperfections.
The project was hatched by co-founder Ben Greene as part of his Master's thesis project at North Carolina State University. Greene, a sort of modern renaissance man, grew up on a North Carolina farm and has a background that combines arts, design, engineering and marketing.
Building on his original schematics, Greene began prototyping the project on a farm outside Raleigh. In 2011, he brought Tyler Nethers, a sustainable growing expert, on as a partner to help take things to the next level. The following year they launched a Kickstarter that raised $25,000 and attracted media attention and a sponsorship from Burt's Bees, a maker of natural beauty and hygiene products.
The Farmery team then got to work setting up a mini-farmery in front of the headquarters of Burt's Bees in Durham, North Carolina.
"We were able to prototype a lot of the systems that are inside the Farmery like being able to harvest some of their own herbs. The idea of growing and pulling at the same place and seeing how customers react to that is really interesting," he tells Seedstock. "It's giving us a stepping stone to get to the full-scale Farmery."
The venture aims to give customers a direct connection with the produce they are eating while keeping everything as local as possible. Greene tells Seedstock the model is also built on solid economics.
"We want to be the next generation of natural food stores," he says. "They traditionally perform poorly and a lot of that's because of the way a grocery store makes money … off selling promotional shelf space."
The Farmery plans to generate revenue off the margins of the product they sell, as well as through cafe sales. By growing produce on site, the facility will eliminate middlemen packaging, storage and transportation costs and minimize inventory loss. Greene estimates their store-grown crops will bring in $800,000 in yearly sales, about 15% of the Farmery's total projected revenues.
As for sustainability, the facility won't use any pesticides, chemicals or artificial nutrients. Greene describes it as a "tweaked version of an aquaponics system" recirculating nutrients with live fish and hydroponics, while adding extra organic nutrients to keep things running smoothly.
Ultimately he sees the Farmery not just as a lucrative opportunity for him and his team, but as a new model for urban farming that incorporates both production and retail.
"The farmery is redefining what a natural food store is," he says. "We want to be the next generation of natural food stores. I think regional and national growth is in the deck of cards for sure."