As a kid, Ben Greene hated farming.
He remembers long, hot summer days spent on his parents' farm in a small mountain community in western North Carolina, pulling weeds or picking green beans. His dad, a landscaper and Southern Baptist preacher who grew crops and kept cattle, was the force behind the farm.
Greene didn't mind the toil so much. He actually enjoyed working with his hands and spent time fixing cars and "tinkering with things," as he puts it. He went on to become a combat engineer in Iraq. Rather, the fruitlessness of his family's operation irked him.
"My parents had an organic farm, but the economics never panned out," says Greene, now thirty-three. "The farm was never that successful. It gave me a very real perception of farm life."
That lack of productivity and profit inspired Greene to create what he hopes is a better system for farming and food. His innovative "farm-at-table" mobile kitchen, The Farmery, serves meals made from locally grown food—so local, in fact, that most comes from a "CropBox," a regionally produced shipping container converted into a greenhouse, beside The Farmery's Airstream kitchen.
The Farmery opened in January in front of The Frontier, a large, collaborative space in Research Triangle Park. The businesses are a perfect pair, as The Farmery's mission aligns with The Frontier's own quest for innovation and "respect for RTP's environmental roots." It's the first public restaurant within RTP's borders, and, though it pays rent as a park tenant, Greene emphasizes that the relationship is symbiotic.
"They approached us," he says.
Indeed, on a recent and unseasonably cool weekday afternoon, a small line already lingered outside the Airstream a full hour before the lunch rush. Inside, three employees bustled around the shiny, bullet-like space, busily preparing salads, melts, wraps, and bowls.
Astroturf covered the ground in front of the kitchen, while flower boxes in bloom decorated the perimeter. To the left of the Airstream, a twenty-foot-long CropBox appeared ready to burst from inside with plants and herbs. Sheets of peat moss mixed with latex and covered in felt—a "peat moss sponge," Greene called it—draped the container's exterior, with peppermint and other greens sprouting from its seams.
Inside, rows of blue and red LEDs cast a near-magenta glow on the walls. The air was thick with moisture. Rows of kale and arugula spanned the length of the room on either side of a walkway, just wide enough for one person. It was like navigating between a crowded array of bunk beds, with pillows and sheets replaced by little seedlings and streams.
Back outside, regulars and new recruits awaited lunch. Nick Brown works at an RTP consulting firm. After ordering the "pig, shrooms, goat flatbread," he explained that he has been coming to The Farmery for several weeks. He discovered it while looking for a nearby grocery store. Like Brown, most of the day's patrons worked within RTP. Though a few picnic tables surround the Airstream, the morning's damp weather sent them back to their nearby offices or to The Frontier's communal area, food in tow.
Esther Thompson's employer, the Army Research Office, had recently moved into The Frontier building. The consistent recommendations of coworkers, and the convenience, finally sent her to The Farmery for the first time.
"The setup is inviting," she explained. "It makes people want to see what's going on."
Emily Zhang had just finished a free yoga class inside The Frontier when she approached the trailer. She frequently gets the "superfood bowl," a colorful assortment of greens, tabbouleh, sweet potatoes, beets, and noodles.
At $10.25, such bowls are the menu's most expensive items, meaning the food at The Farmery is harvested-that-morning fresh and rather cheap. Greene also designed it, unlike his parents' farm, to be financially sustainable. The concept of The Farmery helps make the food affordable while generating enough profit to pay his employees about twelve dollars per hour. This model lacks the third-party distributor relationships that can boost prices and lead to lost inventory, Greene says. The makeshift greenhouses use the same amount of energy as a walk-in cooler.
"This means that it costs the same amount of money to grow food as it does to refrigerate it," he explains.
The idea for The Farmery emerged as Greene was finishing his master's degree in industrial design at N.C. State. The program encouraged him to solve a social problem in an industry not known for integrative design. Bouncing off his childhood experience, Greene picked agriculture with the hope of adding more value to produce by serving it on site—at once, the premise and promise of The Farmery.
"The stuff we use in the menu is harvested just a few hours before we serve it," says Greene. "We try to harvest every day, and nothing is more than two days old."
Aside from the idea itself, the CropBoxes are the key. Greene found a similar contraption—essentially a robotic shipping container that grew lettuce—in Israel in 2008. But the design was too expensive and prompted Greene to "dumb things down a bit," he admits. Williamson Greenhouses in nearby Clinton builds this version, and Greene thinks The Farmery is the only business to incorporate the CropBoxes into an active cafe.
In addition to the CropBox that sits beside the RTP Airstream, Greene maintains a larger version near Raleigh's Angus Barn, where he harvests even more produce. And he has a mushroom-growing room near a local Harley-Davidson dealership. While he admits The Farmery can seem a little disconnected now, he plans to expand the current setup within the next several months by adding as many as four big shipping containers and a new greenhouse-based eating area. And though people can only buy completed meals for now, he hopes The Farmery will soon sell produce on-site, too. His idea is open for expansion.
"This is a continuation of the local food movement. I want to make farm-to-table more approachable; I want to make it more mainstream," says Greene, standing near his Airsteam. "I want people to feel more connected to their food."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Content Farm"