With all the media surrounding industrial agriculture and its corresponding technologies — GMO crops, toxic pesticides, deadly fertilizers — it might be easy to lose sight of the fact that many people around the world are working hard to create alternative ways to meet our growing food needs in ways that REDUCE our impact on the environment and REVERSE climate change. All we have to do is eat the food they grow — the most delicious of tasks. This post is for them, the true heroes of our generation.
Urban farms, vertical growing methods, and other sustainable living choices are emerging as viable ways to provide fresh food in dense city environments with minimal transportation and resources. Dickson Despommier, the “father” of the vertical farm concept, summed up the key drivers of the movement toward urban farming in an article published in the New York Times in 2009.
“Population increases will soon cause our farmers to run out of land. The amount of arable land per person decreased from about an acre in 1970 to roughly half an acre in 2000 and is projected to decline to about a third of an acre by 2050, according to the United Nations. Irrigation now claims some 70 percent of the fresh water that we use. After applying this water to crops, the excess agricultural runoff, contaminated with silt, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, is unfit for reuse. The developed world must find new agricultural approaches before the world’s hungriest come knocking on its door for a glass of clean water and a plate of disease-free rice and beans. Imagine a farm right in the middle of a major city.”
Here’s a list of our favorite urban farms that are nourishing their communities NOW — using very little resources and all the overhead space they can reach.
“Grow. Bloom. Thrive.” -Will Allen (Founder of #10 on our list. Awarded 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME in 2010)
Top 8 Innovative Urban Farms to Sprout on Earth
1) Sky Greens Farms in Singapore
The world’s first commercial vertical farm of its magnitude. The rising steel structure is able to produce 1 ton of fresh veggies every other day for sale in nearby supermarkets — helping the dense Asian metropolis grow more food locally. The tiny country of Singapore currently produces only 7% of its vegetables locally, so it imports most of its produce from other countries. The farm itself is made up of 120 aluminum towers that stretch thirty feet tall. Only three kinds of vegetables are grown there, but locals hope to expand the farm to include other varieties. The farm is currently seeking investors to help build 300 additional towers, which would produce two tons of vegetables per day. Although the $21 million dollar price tag is hefty, it could mean agricultural independence for the area. And although the produce costs 10 to 20 cents more than other veggies at the supermarket, consumers seemed eager to buy the freshest food possible – often buying out the market’s stock of vertical farm foods.
2) The Pasona HQ office building in Tokyo, Japan
One project that is already growing food for its employees. In what could be the first farm-to-desk project of its kind, the rehabilitated building design grows most of its own food including rice, broccoli, squash, tomatoes, and more. The living walls on the exterior give the building a modern environmentally-friendly look and help reduce the building’s energy needs. Through their urban farm headquarters, the Japanese company is also supporting the education of Japan’s next generation of urban farmers who work in internships to learn about food production.
3) The Roots on the Rooftop in downtown New Orleans
This farm grows organic herbs using aeroponic vertical towers on the rooftop of Rouses Market on Baronne Street. It’s the first grocery in the United States to build an aeroponic urban farm on its own rooftop. A constant flow of water, air, and nutrients through the vertical aeroponic Tower Garden allows the herbs to grow twice as fast, while taking up less space. Parsley, basil and cilantro are among the herbs the farm is growing to package and sell on the building’s ground floor. The innovative garden is the outcome of a beneficial partnership between Rouses and New Orleans-based company A.M.P.S., which has been providing the technical expertise and management services to the grocer’s cutting-edge garden. “We want to show that people can create businesses where they can make a good living and simultaneously do good things to help other people and the environment,” says the entrepreneur behind the project about the impact he hopes to make on the community. The rooftop endeavor has put New Orleans at the forefront of innovative solutions to urban farming, and has shown the positive results that come when established companies work with the city’s emerging entrepreneurs.
4) Vancouver’s Local Garden
Built on the roof of a parkade at 535 Richards Street in the heart of the city. With its innovative growing system they can yield 4 times more than field grown produce and be at 10 times the productivity. A system of 3000 trays is built on a converter belt where in approx. 18-24 days they are able to grow their produce including baby greens, baby kale, other loose leaf greens. Handpicked at the peak of freshness and delivered the same day to local restaurants and grocers, Local Garden is able to provide the freshest tasting produce available without the loss of any vitamins, minerals or nutrients. Produce grown at Local Garden Vancouver are distributed to stores and restaurants mostly within a 10km radius of its downtown location. This significantly cuts down on vehicle emissions and results in a fresher product.
Local Garden in Vancouver, Canada
5) Green Sky Growers in Winter Gardens, Florida
A rooftop aquaponic farm on a multi-story building in the city. The plants draw nutrients from a rooftop pond filled with tilapia, forming a closed ecosystem. Ryan Chatterson (now of Chatterson Farms), facility supervisor for the farm, says all waste generated by the fish is recycled, via natural methods of decomposition. The farm’s main client is a restaurateur housed in the same building. For the in-house restaurant, sourcing fresh produce is a mere one-minute commute in an elevator to the top of the 3,000 square foot, multi-rise warehouse. The remainder of the produce is sold to a restaurant situated across the street. “We have pretty much zero miles from farm to plate,” Chatterson says. “We are producing a premium product for a premium market.” He’s not trying to compete with what he calls, “the guy selling 50-cent heads of lettuces from California.” Instead, the farm works closely with the restaurant owners and plants according to a schedule that best suits their needs. He turns down around six restaurants a month. “They call us looking for produce, but we don’t have enough. It’s nice to be on the other side. We’re not having to market the business, it markets itself.”
6) The Greenhouse Project, New York City
An urban farm that sprouted from a strategic partnership between a small group of parents and educators and New York Sun Works, a NYC-based non-profit organization that builds innovative science labs in urban schools. The 1400-square foot smart and sustainable hydroponic urban farm opened in the fall of 2010 on the third-story roof above the Manhattan School for Children. The farm is a laboratory, a dynamic classroom in which city kids learn where their food comes from, how much energy is used to produce it, and the relationships between diet and health, food and the environment. To date, about 1200 elementary and middle school students have participated in the project, a hands-on classroom and science lab that encourages the city’s youth to think globally and act locally. The main issues the program aims to address include climate change, the efficient use of water and energy, how to build greener cities, and how to grow a secure and healthy food supply.
7) Sweet Water Organics in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
This urban farm operation sprouted inside a former industrial factory in 2008. Emmanuel Pratt, the 35 year old cofounder of the farm and its educational arm — the Sweet Water Foundation — transformed the vacant building into an aquaponic wonderland in which nitrogen-rich waste from tilapia-filled tanks fertilizes a variety of vegetables and herbs planted overhead. Sweet Water Organics and Sweet Water Foundation sit side-by-side, in a 10,000+ square-foot factory that formerly assembled mining cranes in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. The farm sells the fish and veggies to area restaurants —but not before this Chicago State University professor uses them to teach an important lesson about sustainable urban agriculture. 100 miles south, At Chicago State University, Pratt is a Professor of Urban Planning and the Director of the recently birthed, Aquaponics Center on Chicago’s South Side. Pratt repurposed the deteriorating factory into a means to educate everyone from kindergartners to graduate students about how to grow organic produce in the midst of urban decay. After Chicago State oversaw the purchase of the old factory, Pratt began to assemble the Mycelia Project, the overarching name for his hybrid art-meets-agriculture experiment. “When you take the concept of blight and flip it on its head using fish and vegetables, you can show that there’s new life in spaces that have been idle for 20, 30 years,” he says. Pratt has expanded the program to 50 schools in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit through his Sweet Water Foundation to inspire new generations of urban farmers across America. We love his motto—a play on a derisive description of areas in decay and what he envisions passerbys of the former shoe factory will proclaim:
“There grows the neighborhood.”
8) Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The last but certainly not least urban farm on our list is Will Allen’s Growing Power facility. The first time I EVER learned about aquaponics was shortly after watching a video interview of this revolutionary farmer thinker:
Mr. Allen started his first urban farm in a “food desert” in Milwaukee nearly two decades ago. The Community Food Center he first started in the heart of his city now serves as a model for how to grow food with no chemicals and minimal fossil fuel inputs—and with favorable cash-flow. His main 2-acre Community Food Center is no larger than a small supermarket. But it houses 20,000 plants and vegetables, thousands of fish, plus chickens, goats, ducks, rabbits and bees. Allen’s program offers innercity youth and teens an opportunity to work at his store and renovate the greenhouses to grow food for their community. What started as a simple partnership to change the landscape of the north side of Milwaukee has blossomed into a national and global commitment to sustainable food systems. Like Mr. Pratt, Allen’s operations have also expanded into nearby cities — primarily Chicago, Illinois and Madison, Wisconsin.
Urban farm projects grow communities and nourish hope. The best ones will produce more innovative leaders like the farm masterminds featured in this post.