San Francisco Startup Offers Solar-Powered Farm Out of a Box (Land Not Included)

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How can local agriculture be developed most effectively in rural areas, particular in places at which electricity and/or water are scarce? The San Francisco-based creators of a new benefit corporation offer an original solution that they call Farm from a Box. It consists of a 20-foot shipping container that includes literally everything one might need (except land and seeds) to create a functioning two-acre farm totally powered by solar. The concept’s co-creator, Brandi DeCarli, has been quoted as calling it “the ‘Swiss-Army knife’ of sustainable farming.”

Depending on the purchaser’s requirements, the container may include not only conventional farm implements, but weather tracking devices, batteries, seedlings, high-efficiency LED lighting, internal cold storage and a mobile charging area. Each unit is capable of producing crops for one hectare of land (2.47 acres), which can supply food for as many as 150 people. The kits are modular and can easily be customized, depending on the ecology of the particular area and the purpose of the farm (e.g., a school, a hospital, a private landowner). Everything is powered by solar, generating up to 3kW. This is capable of powering a water pump for drip irrigation, a WiFi system for remote monitoring and the farm equipment itself. Since 10 high-efficiency solar modules, inverters, a transformer and a 3000-watt backup generator are included with the kit, the farm can function completely off the electric grid.

Three types of training materials are also included on the following topics: 1) sustainable farming basics (e.g., crop rotation and composting), prepared with the assistance of Dr. Miguel Altieri, a professor of Agroecology at the University of California at Berkeley; 2) technological help for the accompanying equipment, and how to maintain and troubleshoot it; and 3) the enterprise of farming, including how to maximize the income generated from the farm. Kits cost within the range of $50,000 – 60,000 per unit, depending on the complexity of the proposed system.

DeCarli first worked with her future partner in the enterprise, Scott Thompson, when both were assigned to a project that was to use shipping containers as infrastructure for a youth sports and education center in Kenya. When that plan fell through, they applied the shipping container concept to the problem of local food insecurity. The company’s website states, “We sought the advice of some of the best minds in agriculture, biodiversity, irrigation, sustainable energy, and international development. We spoke with farmers, women, governments and some of the largest aid providers in the world.” DeCarli, in an interview, said, “We want to develop this as a rapid response transitional food production system.”

Farm from a Box’s partners, which DeCarli in a podcast interview called her “superheroes,” include Netafim, SMA, Cisco, Grundfos, Sierra Wireless and Trojan Battery Company. She particularly praised SMA, for providing the inverters, and Trojan, as four Trojan AGM batteries serve as the system’s energy storage solution.

Marko Wittich, SMA executive vice president of sales for the Americas region, said, “SMA is proud to partner with a company whose goal is to bring independence to communities around the globe by providing the tools they need to sustain themselves, both nutritionally and financially.”

The organization’s pilot project, which is nicknamed, logically, “Adam,” is located at Shone Farm, part of Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma County. DeCarli claims that Shone Farm is “more efficient than we had even planned” with high production output. The organization has additional test farms in California and a veteran-partnered site in Virginia, as well as a number of other potential sites lined up outside the U.S. DeCarli hopes to sell the concept to aid agencies and others as an alternative to food distribution.

DeCarli said, “The more that we actually localize our food production, the more that we empower ourselves within our community, to be able to grow and sustain our own crop, the better we will all be, within the states and internationally.”

 

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