The freshest fruits and vegetables are the ones you pick yourself right from a plant. Entrepreneur Ben Greene wants to bring that option to urban shoppers across America.

Most consumers have to go out of their way to find fresh, locally-grown food. Meanwhile, small farmers who want to serve consumers interested in local food can try to reach them by selling through grocery stores. But Greene says the small farm, local food message is lost in the bustle of contemporary retail.

“The bottleneck for small local farmers was in the retailer,” Greene said. “A lot of retailers are not telling the story of the small local farmer effectively.”

Greene’s new company puts a fresh twist on the business of selling local food. Greene envisions downtown sites that both grow and sell produce in the same spot. His Raleigh-based startup is called The Farmery and he’s now got a prototype set up in downtown Durham.

The concept came to Greene while he was studying for his master’s degree in industrial design at N.C. State University. He thought of his grandfather who grew vegetables but had a hard time marketing them. Greene said the memory spurred him to find a way to use design to improve how food is marketed and sold.

‘Living walls’

A downtown Farmery site would consist of stacked shipping containers with a greenhouse constructed between them. Food would be grown in the greenhouse as well as on the shipping container itself – plants grow from planters affixed to the walls of the structure. Customers can walk through the structure as easily as they navigate grocery store aisles. But instead of picking food from a shelf or a display stand, Farmery shoppers can view fruits and vegetables on these “living walls” and pick what they want right off of the plant. A small store at the base of the shipping containers would house other grocery items.

A prototype of The Farmery’s retail concept is now up and running besides Burt’s Bees Durham headquarters. There’s no greenhouse; it’s just a single refurbished shipping container that Greene set up in July at the invitation of the American Tobacco Campus. The prototype, living walls and all, is now open for anyone to stop by and shop. The Farmery is not an American Tobacco tenant and Greene said his market will be located on the campus temporarily as an exhibit. Burt’s Bees, which has been a supporter of local food, is a sponsor.

Not all Farmery produce is grown on site. The Farmery started with the idea of supporting local food and the effort includes working with local farmers. In addition to growing and selling food at Farmery sites, Greene said locations will also coordinate with local farmers and offer them an urban retail site to sell their produce.

Growing and selling food in the same place simplifies the supply chain and eliminates the transportation costs that contribute to the retail price of all food. But Greene does not aim to compete on price with large grocery chains like Food Lion and Kroger. The Farmery’s target customer is a Whole Foods shopper – someone who has interest or concerns about how and where food is grown. Farmery products are premium products sold at a premium price, comparable in price to organic fruits and vegetables.

Organic comparisons

Farmery-grown produce isn’t organic, at least, not officially. Greene doesn’t use pesticides or chemicals on the plants but that’s not enough to be certified organic. There is no organic certification for something grown on a wall, Greene explained. But he adds that the Farmery doesn’t need the organic label because customers can see for themselves how the food is grown.

Standing as potential obstacles for the Farmery are the shipping containers themselves. Using shipping containers makes it easy to construct sites quickly and Greene adds that they’re also easy to modify. But shipping containers are barred in some downtowns, including downtown Durham. Greene spent four months talking to city officials to get permission to locate his prototype in Durham. The model site is not in view of the street and covered in plants it doesn’t even look like a shipping container — two factors that smoothed over city objections. But Greene concedes that The Farmery could run into similar site and zoning obstacles for future locations.

Still, investors are showing interest in The Farmery concept. The startup is currently raising $250,000 from angel investors to finance the first fully-fledged Farmery location. After that Greene has set a $3 million target to support construction of additional sites. Greene doesn’t know yet where the first location will be, though each angel who has invested so far each wants the first Farmery site to be in his or her city. Consultants are helping Greene determine the best market for the first site.

“I would like it to be in Raleigh-Durham but we ultimately will do what’s best for The Farmery,” he said.

Editor’s note: The American Tobacco Campus is owned by Capitol Broadcasting, parent to WRAL TechWire.