March 26, 2014
Based in North Carolina, The Farmery is an urban farm and market where they use the entire structure to grow and sell food. At once both farm and retail market, The Farmery ensures a consistent supply of locally grown produce, diverse varieties and extremely fresh produce – all while removing the complex journey that food usually has to take from the field to the shelf. We talked to founder Ben Greene about the challenges of redefining the traditional grocery business model.
What was the inspiration behind creating this business?
There was a lot of demand for local food but no one was really meeting the demand. I was pursuing my masters at North Carolina State in product design, and I was trying to find a problem to solve that hadn’t been solved through the lens of design, and it seemed like local food was this issue that there was no real solid solution to. Agriculture is one of the few industries that hasn’t really been touched by design, and so I saw an opportunity to apply the techniques and skills I’d learned in my program to food. I broke down the food chain to find where the opportunities were and it seemed to me that customers care most about the farm. Through years of research and experimentation, The Farmery evolved into what it is today. It’s easy to grow food and yet hard to grow it economically in a completely new way. We have a mini Farmery located in front of Burt’s Bees headquarters thanks to a sponsorship from them and $25,000 from Kickstarter. Then we pressed forward with the 8,000 square foot, full-scale footprint store. Our base is in Raleigh, but we also have guys in Denver, Ashville, and Durham, and I’m currently living in San Francisco for a few months participating in a start up focused on urban solutions.
How is your business unique from others that are investing in the local food movement?
We are a grocery store that is specifically designed to go in urban areas, and we are designed to sell food that is sourced locally, and we grow them on site.
We are redefining what a grocery store is. We grow about 15% of the products in the actual store in the shipping containers that are above your head as you are shopping and walking through, and we have vertical hanging panels hanging on the outside of these containers so you can see these panels growing food. Then we bring these panels down to the floor below and consumers can participate in the harvest of their own food. We also grow gourmet mushrooms on the inside of the containers where there is no light. The rest of our selection is coming from local farmers. We noticed that a lot of local retailers tend to run out of locally produced food which hurts the brand, and the customers were going there to find it and they couldn’t find it. At the Farmery you can always find something locally grown. In fact, it’s the most local. It’s right upstairs.
How have you been able to merge commerce with sustainable business practices?
Commerce and sustainability go hand in hand with what the Farmery is.
Maybe it’s my generation, but sustainability is on everyone’s minds these days in all business programs. It’s a hot topic. For us, sustainability is partially about reducing our energy costs, so by combining the growing and selling in the same facility you are also combining environmental controls for the business. There is a cost to light some of the products in the winter, and then the light trickles down into the store below and also lights the store. Meanwhile, the heat from the store below rises to the floor above, and that eliminates a heating bill for the top floor, as well as eliminating the need to go through energy codes and HVAC. It lowers our cost down to $45/square foot on the top floor, while the bottom is $145/square foot. By saving energy, it saves construction costs dramatically.
Why is eliminating or reducing the number of steps in getting our food from farm to table so important to the food industry?
Growing and selling at the same site saves transportation, packaging and middle men, but most importantly for us it eliminates food loss. There is typically an inventory loss of 36% from the farm to the retailer. If you can eliminate that food loss you can actually make money from growing food. This process lets us respond to what customers want, and have a few extra days to sell that product.
We need large scale farms but we also need smaller scale farms as well with people who are willing to experiment more. There is a social impact too. In the South East there are no grocery stores in urban areas. These areas are called food deserts. Grocery stores can’t shrink their footprint because they focus on promotional allowances and their footprint has to be 50,000 feet. They focus on the high diversity of less frequently purchased products, and we focus on a smaller selection of the most frequently purchased products, like perishables, and that allows us to open a much smaller store in an urban area to feed a population that would not normally have access to a store like that. We currently have a mini Farmery in downtown Raleigh and it is 200,000 square feet. Our target is to have several 8,000 square foot locations in many urban areas across the country.
What's the future of the company? Where do you think you'll have the biggest impact?
I think setting a new business model will really have an enormous impact. You can go out and be a food activist or you can change the whole industry by demonstrating why something like this can be successful. We’ve received an overwhelming response, and lots of press. And I think it’s a matter of getting the first one going and then the industry will see that they don’t have to reply on the current model that they work in. We are rolling out the first store next year, and doing the second store year after that. We hope to grow at a rate of four stores a year.
What can retailers learn from your success?
Innovation is more than putting a greenhouse on your store roof, because that doesn’t take into account the recipe of how these things work together. I don’t want to just put a greenhouse on the roof. I want people to experience the food, and that’s why the store is designed the way it is.