After several of Brandi DeCarli’s loved ones passed away in 2008, she panicked. “If I don’t go after the things in life I want, when will I?” she asked. The Californian moved to South Africa to fulfill her “Big Impossible”: working with wildlife on a small game reserve.
“Tracking and monitoring everything from lions and leopards to hyenas and elephants was one of the most humbling and igniting experiences I’ve had,” said DeCarli. “It also helped me understand the challenges that many communities in underdeveloped areas face.”
One of the most concerning challenges: access to fresh, healthy food.
When DeCarli returned to San Francisco 10 months later, she was eager to continue work in the nonprofit sector. A friend introduced her to Scott Thompson, who had 16 years of nonprofit work under his belt, and the two eventually had an epiphany. Why not outfit a shipping container for off-grid farm production?
With that idea, Farm from a Box was born.
“It’s the Swiss Army knife of sustainable farming,” DeCarli said.
Inside each modified shipping container is everything a farmer needs to start a 2 acre farm. Basic tools are included, but so are solar panels, a water pump that can connect to either a ground source or a municipal water supply, cold storage space and a micro-drip irrigation system. There’s even internet connectivity.
“We’re taking advancements in agricultural technology which are often made with large-scale farms in mind and bringing them down to small-scale community farmers,” DeCarli noted. “They’ve been a disappearing breed for a long time.”
That’s a serious problem, and not only for locavores.
An estimated 70 percent of the world’s food comes from small, rural farms, yet they’re the most defenseless against climate change. “Droughts have a massive impact on small farmers, since they usually don’t have the infrastructure that can help stabilize their crops through changing weather conditions,” said DeCarli.
Farm from a Box allows a farm to be self-sustaining, no matter the location or climate. So far, five are up and running around the world. More are on the way as the systems become commercially available this year. And while they start as a powerful utilitarian tool to provide infrastructure, every Farm from a Box has the potential to become far more.
“Our system can act as both a stabilizing anchor and a path to food sovereignty,” explained DeCarli.
They can increase the biodiversity and health of the environment, help rebuild areas after a disaster and strengthen rural economies.
The answer to the world’s food problem isn’t simply to grow more. “It’s how we can better integrate food production into the tapestry of our communities,” DeCarli clarified.
For instance, after the housing market crashed, a 5 acre plot of land in the middle of a suburban subdivision in West Sacramento, California sat and sat. In 2017, thanks to Farm from a Box partnering with the International Rescue Committee, it became a bustling urban farm run by dozens of refugees from Nepal and Bhutan. Fifty different vegetables are grown on the plot.
“It’s an agricultural oasis,” said DeCarli. “Local restaurants and chefs purchase crops grown there. Neighbors come and get to know the farmers. It’s revitalized the community in a beautiful way.”
On the opposite side of the country, on a Virginia property that George Washington once owned, another Farm from a Box teaches military veterans the skills required to be a farmer.
“It’s really healing for them,” DeCarli said of the program run by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. “Again, the farm becomes the nexus of rebuilding a stronger sense of community and tying people together.”
She and Thompson invite each box to be named by its farmers.
“It gives it soul,” explained DeCarli.
The urban farm in Sacramento, California? “Karma.” The veterans in Virginia named theirs “Independence.”
“We could never have come up with names so poignant and beautiful,” DeCarli said.
Meet more environmental innovators here.