Written by The Business Journal Staff
Fresno-based drip irrigation manufacturer Netafim recently formed a strategic partnership with Bay Area startup Farm From A Box, whose founders aim to seed sustainable “micro farms” in some of the world’s most remote and economically disadvantaged areas.
Dubbed the “Swiss Army knife” of sustainable farming, the solar-powered Farm From A Box kit comes in a modified 20-foot-long shipping container loaded with all of the necessary components to create and maintain an off-the-grid two-acre farm.
Based in San Francisco, Farm From A Box was founded by Scott Thompson and Brandi DeCarli, two social-minded entrepreneurs and business development specialists with extensive experience in the nonprofit sector.
“Being based here in the Bay Area, we’re in an interesting environment,” DeCarli said. “We’re surrounded by companies making software and aps. But we’re actually producing a hardware system.”
Thompson and DeCarli’s company is registered as a so-called “benefit corporation,” but the pair actually call their for-profit company “a social enterprise.”
“We’re taking a market-based approach to solving a social need,” DeCarli said. “We’d like to do well by doing good.”
Thompson has worked for nearly two decades with intergovernmental agencies and NGOs, including the United Nations. He met DeCarli after both had just returned from working in Africa.
The idea for Farm From A Box was hatched during a series of lunch meetings between the entrepreneurial pair. “We talked about it more and more and finally decided to go all in and start working on the project full-time three years ago,” DeCarli said.
One global food expert described Farm From A Box as “taking the concept of ‘Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime’ to a whole new level.”
“Adam,” the first Farm From A Box prototype, was recently installed at Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma County and another model unit, dubbed “Lucy,” will likely soon be set up somewhere in Sub Saharan Africa, according to DeCarli.
Depending on the level of technology inside, the Farm From A Box units sell for $25,000 to $45,000.
Kits include a double set of solar panels and an off-grid inverter, a transformer and distribution box with deep-cycle batteries for energy storage, water filtration equipment and pumps to run the Netafim drip irrigation system.
A 3,000-watt generator backs up the array.
The turnkey kit can also be equipped with high-efficiency LED lighting, secured storage, a mobile charging area, Wi-Fi and remote monitoring.
Seeds and basic farming hand tools are also supplied.
According to DeCarli, the most expensive versions come with mapping and sensing capabilities, while the lower-end models are more rudimentary.
“We’ve engineered them to effectively double in size when they are delivered to the site,” DeCarli said.
Now accepting pre-orders as they prepare to ramp up production, DeCarli said inquiries for the units are coming from all over the U.S.
“We’ve had calls from people in Hawaii and even Canada,” DeCarli said. “Surprisingly, we’re getting a lot of interest from the East Coast too. That’s not a region you typically associate with farming.”
Several schools in the Central Valley have also contacted Farm From A Box requesting more information, according to DeCarli.
“There’s a huge potential for this box to be used on school sites,” DeCarli said. “It would be a great way for a new generation of farmers to be able to learn about agriculture and things like photosynthesis and drip irrigation.”
Farm From A Box also plans to offer customers in-person or online training in sustainable farming techniques — and how to operate a small farm as a moneymaking enterprise.
DeCarli and Thompson hope to begin turning a profit themselves within a year.
“Since we’ve decided to bump up production and concentrate most of our initial efforts here in the U.S., we think we can reach the point of profitability a little sooner than we’d originally planned,” DeCarli said.
While working to pin down a location for production — “We’re still not sure if we want to be on the West Coast or someplace more centralized like Houston” — DeCarli said she and Thompson are also looking for additional investment capital.
“We’re really hoping to connect with like-minded people and be able to continue to expand as quickly as possible,” DeCarli said.
DeCarli called the tie-up with Netafim “a great partnership between two entities with a shared goal.”
Zeev Barylka, Netafim USA’s marketing director, agreed. “The partnership with Farm From A Box is a natural fit for Netafim,” Barylka said.
Netafim was started by a group of Israeli farmers and agronomists in 1965. Today, the company operates factories and offices in more than 120 countries, with their U.S. operations headquartered in Fresno.
“Since Netafim first introduced drip irrigation to the world 50 years ago, food security and access to water have become the most pressing issues facing the global community,” Barylka said. “Both Farm From A Box and Netafim are focused on enhancing agricultural productivity to help the global population overcome these challenges in order to create a more sustainable future.
George Lurie | Reporter can be reached at:
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