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Ben Greene

That apple you ate for morning tea – do you know where it was picked? How about those strawberries you’ve been snacking on? Or the lettuce in your sandwich? For many of us, there’s a big disconnect between the food we eat and where it comes from. Industrial designer Ben Greene wants to help foster that relationship between you and your food. Five years ago he began designing a concept known as The Farmery – an urban farm and market where the produce is grown on-site and practically forms part of the decor. With the initial stage funded on Kickstarter last year, worldwide interest in The Farmery has been exponential, meaning that Ben might just realise his dream of changing the world’s food culture. 

Ben Greene grew up in the natural beauty of the mountains of North Carolina. The most prominent memory of his childhood, however, was not so idyllic – seeing his father pour all his soul and heart into his organic farm, only to lose it all when Ben was eight.

Having watched his father work so tirelessly, Ben spent many years afterwards wondering what it was that made the farm fail. “He had such a great story and he was producing good products,” Ben, now 30, says. “I understand now that there were other factors at play, but I still had that emotional connection. I wondered why local food couldn’t happen on a small scale and exist when so many people wanted it.”

Following a stint in the military and completing his arts degree in sculpture, Ben began studying industrial design at university. When it came time to do his master’s thesis in product design, he knew exactly which path to explore.

Despite having no background in farming – except for what he’d watched his father do as a young lad – he began the design of an urban market and farm that would produce and sell locally grown food. “I just knew that it needed to happen. There had to be a business model for local food to bring it to the forefront of the economy,” he explains. “But no-one approaches it from a design perspective. They approach it from science and engineering – they don’t start from the customer and ask what they want. And I think what customers want is to connect with food rather than have it grow more efficiently – it’s about the experience.”

Ben’s idea, known as The Farmery, was a design based on shipping containers with aquaponics growing systems, as well as freestanding greenhouses. Each of the four shipping containers would be outfitted with a gourmet mushroom growing system on the inside and growing panels on the outside walls where herbs, lettuce, greens, strawberries and other small crops would grow. The premise was to create a new kind of urban market where the produce was grown on-site, not only reducing food miles, but also allowing customers to be surrounded by the ambience of their food growing when they buy it.

Ben spent about four years on a farm outside Raleigh, North Carolina, prototyping the growing systems for The Farmery. Earlier this year, he and his business partner Tyler Nethers were given the opportunity to open a smaller-scale version, known as The Mini-Farmery, in a single six-metre shipping container covered in plants in downtown Durham, North Carolina. Selling food grown in The Mini-Farmery, as well as food from local producers, the boys have created the ambience of shopping at The Farmery on a smaller scale, allowing consumers to experience what is to come.

As for the real thing, Ben and Tyler have been overwhelmed by interest in their innovative project. The duo is amid negotiations with investors from the USA and beyond to build the first full-scale version of The Farmery, which will likely come into being in early 2015.

The millions of dollars that are being negotiated are a far cry from the $25,095 the boys initially raised on Kickstarter in September 2012. Ben says he wasn’t surprised they reached their Kickstarter goal, mainly because he refused to stop until they did – enticing backers with promises of age-old banana-pudding recipes and heirloom seeds. “I got all my friends to kick in the money to push us over the goal,” he says. “But it’s definitely encouraging to have people from all over the world just wanting to contribute to the idea without necessarily any personal benefit to them.”

No doubt there are still many obstacles ahead, but Ben says the biggest one he’s had to overcome so far is starting from scratch. “A lot of people say they start with nothing but I really had nothing. I had no farming experience, no money, no equipment and no land to prototype anything on because I was living in an apartment.”

He admits to wanting to give up during those difficult times, but couldn’t let his supporters down. “There were so many people encouraging me and there was so much enthusiasm behind what I was doing from friends and people who didn’t even know me,” he recalls. “And I’d already made obligations to people, so I didn’t even really have that choice to give up!”

These days he’s happy to call himself a success. “Just to get to this point from where I started is incredible. It’s amazing that I even got here. I wasn’t expecting so much attention from the people who have given it to us. And even if I change the world just a little bit, it’s still success to me.”

He’s especially proud of the team that he and Tyler have built – including some of the most innovative developers on the American east coast – to help achieve their vision for The Farmery. “I want people to feel like they’re being celebrated in The Farmery,” he says of the vision. “And to not only shop for food, but be immersed in it and understand it. A lot of people complain about the prices of organic food because there’s really no justification when they’re purchasing it. So with The Farmery, I want people to understand the value of the growing process – not just to pick it off and consume it, but to think about it and make better choices about their lifestyle.”

As the man who sparked the idea for The Farmery, Ben’s dad still remains one of his greatest inspirations. “He’s a preacher now and he’s started some churches – a church is a lot like starting a business. You’ve got money and people you have to manage and you’ve got a creative movement. I think starting a church is probably harder than starting a business! I saw my dad start all these churches and he would never make any money, but he would do it for the mission. I was always inspired by that – starting something because you believe in it and not to make money. You can make money in a million ways. I could quit The Farmery right now and go and make a decent living, but that’s not the challenge. The challenge is changing cultures and influencing people and that’s my ultimate goal – to change food culture.”

Once the first iteration of The Farmery opens its doors, Ben hopes that the concept will spread worldwide, starting a global movement for the appreciation of the true value of good food. “Food is the most intimate product you can possibly buy,” he says. “It goes in your body and reminds you of your childhood and is part of your identity.”

Having learned many lessons in the five years since he first began designing The Farmery, there’s one that Ben treasures most. “Just shoot for the highest possible goal you can shoot for and if you fail halfway, you’ve still accomplished a lot more than if you tried to do a small goal.“