Urban farming changes the landscape

Urban farming advocate Will Allen introduces the concept in this YouTube clip:

Life, Art and Chickens, Afloat in the Harbour — an excerpt from the NY Times story;


The social dimension is very much a part of the Waterpod "mix". P: Michael Nagle for The NY Times

“Over two live-in visits a month apart, this reporter became one of the crew, pitching in on the dome cover-raising and daily tasks like feeding the chickens — four hens produce breakfast, lunch and dinner — and tending the vegetable gardens that line the boat’s rails.


The Waterpod is located on a barge in NY harbour. Photo: Michael Nagle for The New York Times

Though it remains docked in one location for two weeks at a time — the Pod, as its residents call it, is currently tied up at Pier 5 in the East River, below Brooklyn Heights — its mooring lines and gangplanks need frequent attention, as do the systems that make it livable. (The less said about maintaining the dry-composting toilet, the better.)


Watering the Waterpod's on-board vegetable garden. Photo: Yana Paskova for The New York Times.

“There’s a never-ending list of things to do: It’s a ship. It’s a farm. It’s an art residence. It’s an installation,” Ms. Ward said.

Read the full story here. See the accompanying slide slow, which the pictures above are from.

“Street Farmer” — NY Times magazine story on Will Allen — an excerpt:

“….Like others in the so-called good-food movement, Allen, who is 60, asserts that our industrial food system is depleting soil, poisoning water, gobbling fossil fuels and stuffing us with bad calories. Like others, he advocates eating locally grown food. But to Allen, local doesn’t mean a rolling pasture or even a suburban garden: it means 14 greenhouses crammed onto two acres in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side, less than half a mile from the city’s largest public-housing project.

And this is why Allen is so fond of his worms. When you’re producing a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of food in such a small space, soil fertility is everything. Without microbe- and nutrient-rich worm castings (poop, that is), Allen’s Growing Power farm couldn’t provide healthful food to 10,000 urbanites — through his on-farm retail store, in schools and restaurants, at farmers’ markets and in low-cost market baskets delivered to neighborhood pickup points. He couldn’t employ scores of people, some from the nearby housing project; continually train farmers in intensive polyculture; or convert millions of pounds of food waste into a version of black gold.

With seeds planted at quadruple density and nearly every inch of space maximized to generate exceptional bounty, Growing Power is an agricultural Mumbai, a supercity of upward-thrusting tendrils and duct-taped infrastructure. Allen pointed to five tiers of planters brimming with salad greens. “We’re growing in 25,000 pots,” he said. Ducking his 6-foot-7 frame under one of them, he pussyfooted down a leaf-crammed aisle. “We grow a thousand trays of sprouts a week; every square foot brings in $30.” He headed toward the in-ground fish tanks stocked with tens of thousands of tilapia and perch. Pumps send the dirty fish water up into beds of watercress, which filter pollutants and trickle the cleaner water back down to the fish — a symbiotic system called aquaponics. The watercress sells for $16 a pound; the fish fetch $6 apiece.

Onward through the hoop houses: rows of beets and chard. Out back: chickens, ducks, heritage turkeys, goats, beehives. While Allen narrated, I nibbled the scenery — spinach, arugula, cilantro.

If inside the greenhouse was Eden, outdoors was, as Allen explained on a drive through the neighborhood, “a food desert.” Scanning the liquor stores in the strip malls, he noted: “From the housing project, it’s more than three miles to the Pick’n Save. That’s a long way to go for groceries if you don’t have a car or can’t carry stuff. And the quality of the produce can be poor.” Fast-food joints and convenience stores selling highly processed, high-calorie foods, on the other hand, were locally abundant. “It’s a form of redlining,” Allen said. “We’ve got to change the system so everyone has safe, equitable access to healthy food.”

Propelled by alarming rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity, by food-safety scares and rising awareness of industrial agriculture’s environmental footprint, the food movement seems finally to have met its moment. First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack have planted organic vegetable gardens. Roof gardens are sprouting nationwide. Community gardens have waiting lists. Seed houses and canning suppliers are oversold.

Allen, too, has achieved a certain momentum for his efforts to bring the good-food movement to the inner city. In the last several years, he has become a darling of the foundation world. In 2005, he received a $100,000 Ford Foundation leadership grant. In 2008, the MacArthur Foundation honored Allen with a $500,000 “genius” award. And in May, the Kellogg Foundation gave Allen $400,000 to create jobs in urban agriculture.

Today Allen is the go-to expert on urban farming, and there is a hunger for his knowledge. When I visited Growing Power, Allen was conducting a two-day workshop for 40 people: each paid $325 to learn worm composting, aquaponics construction and other farm skills. “We need 50 million more people growing food,” Allen told them, “on porches, in pots, in side yards.” The reasons are simple: as oil prices rise, cities expand and housing developments replace farmland, the ability to grow more food in less space becomes ever more important. As Allen can’t help reminding us, with a mischievous smile, “Chicago has 77,000 vacant lots.”…”

Read the whole story here.

An excerpt from a recent Toronto Star story titled “Urban Park Sprouts a City Farm”:

“….A few months into the season, it seems the soil at Keele and Sheppard Aves. is good for growing many things besides strip malls and bus shelters: purple-stalked Cairo cabbage, fluffy dill and a packed row of Bambino and Rosemore lettuce.

This is FoodCycles, the first farm dug doggedly into the city rather than swallowed by it. Built at the edge of Downsview Park, it stretches across almost half a hectare of land and into a greenhouse, where tomato plants explode from pots and volunteers hammer together cedar planks to make bins for worm composting.

It was started in May by a group of young urbanites riding the wave of enthusiasm for agriculture. Armed with $54,000 in grant money, they negotiated a three-year lease with Downsview Park and set to work. Their vision: a city farm that is part business, part education centre, part testing ground for new urban agricultural techniques.

“There is no reason you can’t grow greens in apartments,” says David Wild, who until recently made his living writing for a medical newspaper. He reaches into a wooden box and pushes some earth aside to expose a mass of wriggling worms.

“Smell that,” says Wild, 32. “It smells great.”

“As Will Allen would say,” says Lam, 28, “it’s the best compost in the world.”

Allen’s name comes up a lot at Food Cycles. He is the Al Gore of the urban farming movement that’s sweeping North America. Growing Power, the urban farm he started in Milwaukee, has become a small empire: a $2 million budget, 35 employees, goats, ducks, beehives, fish and a thriving compost system that churns out more than 45,000 kilograms every four months.

Allen, who teaches inner-city youth skills they can use in the new green economy, is the inspiration for the group at FoodCycles.

FoodCycles gardener Ashlee Cooper weeds crops at the urban farm in Downsview Park. Photo: MICHAEL STUPARYK/TORONTO STAR

FoodCycles gardener Ashlee Cooper weeds crops at the urban farm in Downsview Park. Photo: MICHAEL STUPARYK/TORONTO STAR

The compost bin they are building is one of 64 planned. They’ve talked to wholesalers at the Downsview Park Merchants Market about picking up their discarded produce each week and turning it into more than 50 tonnes of compost each year. They’ll sell it, along with their food, at farmers’ markets.

“They give us their waste, we turn it into compost and then turn that into food, selling the food back to them. That’s a cycle,” Wild says. “A food cycle.”

Foodies across the city are watching the experiment closely to see if it is a workable model, both as a business and as a use of city land.

The key difference between Toronto and many U.S. cities, says food researcher Lauren Baker, is access to land. Where places like Detroit are rife with vacant downtown lots, Toronto’s core sprouts condo after condo…..”

Read the whole story here at the Toronto Star website.

From the L.A. Times– City Zoning Squelches Urban Farm, an excerpt:

“In April, Trevino persuaded the owner of a long-derelict former railroad spur next to his Bluebird Cafe on National Boulevard to let him put in 535 tomato plants and 40 fruit trees. A proponent of urban gardens, Trevino envisioned harvesting produce for the cafe and charging patrons to pick their own Early Girls and beefsteaks.

Rafael Ramirez works with tomato plants at the roughly half-acre pocket farm next to the Bluebird Cafe in Culver City. Vincent Trevino and his business partner, Chris Marble, opened the restaurant four years ago on an eclectic stretch of National Boulevard across from where the Expo Line light rail line will eventually pass. (Christina House / For The Times / July 11)

Rafael Ramirez works with tomato plants at the roughly half-acre pocket farm next to the Bluebird Cafe in Culver City. Vincent Trevino and his business partner, Chris Marble, opened the restaurant four years ago on an eclectic stretch of National Boulevard across from where the Expo Line light rail line will eventually pass. (Christina House / For The Times / July 11)

But even as the tomatoes begin to redden in earnest, Trevino’s bucolic dream might be dying on the vine.

City officials have told Donald Barr, the developer who owns the strip of land, that zoning prohibits raising crops for sale within the city limits. Growing fruits and vegetables for personal use is fine, they say. Selling them is not.

Trevino, 45, and Barr, 76, thus have arrived at the uneasy junction of urban and rural. With edible gardens sprouting in yards and vacant lots in metropolitan areas throughout the country, Culver City officials are pondering the implications of a commercial pocket farm in the midst of factories and houses.

Even before First Lady Michelle Obama planted lettuce and snap peas on the White House lawn, the concepts of edible landscaping and the local sustainable foodshed movement were “really taking off in our state and in many places across the country,” said California Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura, an Orange County grower.

As a result, cities across the nation are having to grapple with the concept of urban farming, often with no municipal codes to guide them.

Trevino and his business partner, Chris Marble, opened their yellow-and-blue cafe four years ago on an eclectic stretch of National across from where the Expo Line light rail line will eventually pass. Their modestly priced paninis, salads, wraps and burgers — not to mention delectable red velvet cupcakes — became a hit with area residents and workers.

To help ensure a supply of fresh produce, Trevino and Marble have farmed several acres in Fallbrook in northern San Diego County. Last year, the land produced about 10,000 pounds of tomatoes, along with citrus, figs, avocados, agave and grapes, Trevino said. But commuting to that operation and transporting the produce has proved expensive and time-consuming. When Barr agreed to let them plant on about half an acre of his right-of-way, they seized the opportunity.

The way Trevino sees it, urban sprawl has made it increasingly difficult for shoppers to procure truly locally grown, fresh foods. Even at the ubiquitous farmers markets in the Los Angeles area, many producers truck in their fruits and vegetables.

Creating pocket farms in urban neighborhoods, he said, could provide food and help cultivate agricultural literacy among city folk, who may never have seen tomatoes ripening on the vine or figs dangling from a tree.

Barr said he considered Culver City’s zoning code to be vague. After all, the area is a hodgepodge. His former Pacific Electric Railway spur is zoned for transportation uses, such as parking, which is in short supply in the area. To the west are houses and duplexes. To the east is the Hayden Tract, an industrial zone developed in the 1940s by Sam Hayden, a transplanted glass manufacturer from the East. In addition to makers of beauty products and pottery, it houses design and architectural firms, advertising offices, Internet and media companies and the private Willows Community School….”

Read the whole thing here on the LA Times website.

Photo essay from Time magazine on urban agriculture around the world. Some samples:

Beehive on an urban rooftop garden in Hackney, London. Photo Dan Kitwood, Getty

Beehive on an urban rooftop garden in Hackney, London. Photo Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

Organic rooftop vegetable and herb garden atop a high-rise in Thailand. Photo: Barbar Walton/EPA/Corbis

Organic rooftop vegetable and herb garden atop a high-rise building in the Lak Si district in Thailand. Photo: Barbar Walton/EPA/Corbis

See the rest of the pictures in this series on the Time magazine website.


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3 responses to “Urban farming changes the landscape

  1. Pingback: Urban farming post updated now « The Bovine

  2. i am work in agricuture last 15 years

  3. Can’t ever seem to get enough of all this good food news . Bring it on !!! The more the merrier. Let us celebrate our Local Farming, Gardening and Food Diversity in all its multitudinous forms . Let us make it as easy as possible for human beings to produce or grow fresh , organic food whereever they live whether in the city or the country , whether on a farm or on an apartment balcony , whether in a backyard or on a rooftop.

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