The 20-foot shipping container arrived in the parking lot of the Casa Solana shopping center one day in October. There were no signs on the metal box hinting at what might be inside.

Occasionally, a man would walk in.

Sometimes, late at night, two or three men were outside the container — staring at it, pointing at it, scratching their heads. Once, well after midnight, a half-dozen people were seated around a table near the box. They seemed to be having a frenzied conversation, all centered on the puzzling box in the parking lot on West Alameda Street.

Before long, the container had a transparent second story, an empty greenhouse furnished with one folding chair.

By late November, however, the box grew quiet. It seemed to sit untouched all winter long. And although rumors suggested a high-tech agricultural project was percolating in there, that didn’t become clear until a couple of months ago, when three large solar thermal panels appeared on one side of the box. Then plants began to sprout out of vertical towers installed on the second floor. It was a FarmPod.

“This is how you’re going to get people fed when we have no water,” said Mike Straight, chief executive officer of FarmPod LLC, who dreamed up the idea of putting a fully automated aquaponics system inside a shipping container. “This is how you get fed when you have no land.”

Straight and his fiancée, Siria Bonilla, see the pod, the Santa Fe startup’s first prototype, as a common-sense solution to food deserts. New Mexico, where many people live in remote communities far from grocery stores or farmers markets, has some of the nation’s most expansive food deserts. About 300,000 people in the state, or about 15 percent of the population, lack access to healthy foods, according to recent studies.

Inside the shipping container that makes up the FarmPod’s bottom level, fish grow in three large tanks. One tank holds koi and two hold barramundi, a mild-flavored fish, also known as Asian sea bass, that’s popular in Thai cuisine. Water containing the fish’s waste is pumped up to the greenhouse on the second floor, where it trickles down through the vertical towers, feeding the roots of young plants. The clean water circulates back to the fish.

“It’s a continually flowing cycle that gets better with time,” Straight said.

The entire system runs on solar energy and rainwater.

With an average of just 20 gallons of water a week, some fish food and about 160 square feet of ground or pavement or rooftop, Straight said, one pod could supply more than 100 pounds of food each week to any location where fresh food is scarce: A food bank in Detroit, a school in Santa Fe, a restaurant in Chicago, a small island nation in the Pacific or a rural community in Northern New Mexico. The pod could play a role in disaster relief, Straight said, and it is designed to withstand hurricane-force winds.

“Really,” Straight said, “our goal is to bring food security, food sustainability to places that don’t have it. Food deserts need this.”

And you don’t need a green thumb, construction skills or a computer science degree to build and operate the system. According to Straight, “Anybody who is just mildly handy can assemble this thing” in three days. An expert in information technology, Straight is working to ensure the patent-protected FarmPod can run itself — from temperature controls to water flow to pH levels to feeding the fish.

Although the project is still in the prototype stage, Straight has received about 50 requests for the system, including about 25 in Santa Fe. Most of them are restaurants. He estimates the price range between $35,000 and $46,000, depending on the climate and the pod’s energy needs.

A cool breeze blew through the FarmPod’s bright, second-story greenhouse one recent day. The pod’s computer system opens the windows when it gets too hot, Straight said. Rows of grow towers held ripe strawberries, basil, cabbage, flowering nasturtiums, several types of lettuce, celery and beans ready to be picked.

“I’ve got 600 plants up here in a parking space,” Straight said. He has plans for more: melons and dwarf citrus trees, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and other types of squash.

It only takes about an hour and a half a week to keep the pod going, mostly planting and harvesting. But Straight and Bonilla spend more time there now, fine-tuning the monitoring system, which reports details of the operation to their smartphone apps and alerts them if anything goes wrong.

Plus, they enjoy the space. “It’s very peaceful,” Straight said. “You can sort of hear trickling.”

“This is a very rough model,” Bonilla said, explaining that plans for the pod have continued to evolve. One design has an expanded greenhouse. There’s an add-on in the works for school-based pods — with clear tanks, a large touchscreen computer monitor and cameras so children can view the fish and monitor the operation, “as well as log in at home … and see all the activity,” Bonilla said.

Straight wasn’t always interested in transforming the future of farming. “I’m a computer guy,” he said, adding that he worked in information technology for about 20 years and ran a computer store called Straight-Shooting Technologies in the Solana Center, not far from where he and his team built the FarmPod prototype.

He had long been intrigued by hydroponics — farming without soil — and about seven years ago he discovered aquaponics, a closed-loop growing system that requires no chemical fertilizers and far less water. But operating such a system requires a broad base of knowledge about freshwater fish, plants and technology. He wondered if he could, instead, create a virtually hands-off, off-the-grid aquaponics system that was also “insanely efficient.”

“I had a dream about it one night and just started designing,” Straight said.

The project has involved a number of partners. Straight asked energy management company SolarLogic LLC of Santa Fe for help designing a temperature control system using solar thermal energy and hydronics, or heated water, said CEO Frederic Milder.

Nate Storey, one of the nation’s leading experts in aquaponics, is supplying the lightweight vertical grow towers that will allow the pod to produce more fruits and vegetables in the small space atop the shipping container.

La Montañita Co-op donated space in the Solana Center parking lot for Straight and his crew to put together the first FarmPod. “It’s a great spot with high visibility,” said store team leader Will Prokopiak. He said the project also has generated interest among shoppers at the food market.

Students at Santa Fe Community College, which has its own growing aquaponics program, have been helping to monitor the pod and it is hoped they will contribute their own ideas to the project, Straight said.

About six months ago, the project was infused with funds from investor Anthony Abbate, former owner and current CEO of Southwest Acupuncture College. That allowed Straight and his crew to move beyond the research and design phase. Abbate, a doctor of Oriental medicine, said he has long known Straight, who worked for years as the acupuncture school’s IT specialist. When he heard about the FarmPod project, he immediately became interested.

“It’s an absolutely amazing project,” Abbate said. “I truly believe it’s the future of farming.” He sees in it a solution to hunger worldwide.

He declined to comment on how much he invested in the project but said the money was enough to allow Straight and his crew to not only build the prototype but also begin setting up a manufacturing center in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“We need to be near a port in order to build these,” Straight said. “It’s a lot more environmentally friendly to ship these by boat than by truck.”

FarmPod is currently in negotiations to set up shop on the island of St. Croix, which was economically devastated in 2014 by the closure of an oil refinery. The island also is home to the University of the Virgin Islands, which has one of the nation’s top aquaponics programs. Straight hopes to involve the school’s students in the project.

“They need economic development down there,” he said, adding that the company wanted to set up a plant “somewhere where we can make a difference in the local economy and also keep that carbon footprint low.”

Straight said FarmPod has a team of about six people on staff there, and it will hire some 20 people in the coming months to begin work on the next set of prototypes, incorporating several revisions to the original design.

Eventually, he said, the plant could employ more than 100 workers to build the pods in St. Croix, while the Santa Fe team will continue to work on research and development.

“We’re not a hundred percent sure of what to expect,” Straight said, “but we’re prepared for a very quick scale-up.”

Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or cmiller@sfnewmexican.com.

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