September 2009

Lately, whenever we’re surprised by new uses for common surfaces, it’s usually in the name of advertising.  For example, these days the simple act of opening an airplane tray table brings us face-to-face with an ad.

Now the reinvention of everyday surfaces is becoming the vanguard of sustainable food.  From suburban yards to warehouse rooftops to ocean waters, many overlooked places are the new “ground” for growth.

Last week at Agriculture 2.0, Bruce Kahn, Ph.D., of Deutsche Bank, stated that the world does not have enough productive land to feed the coming population boom.  According to Kahn, even if we improve the global land output to 90% productivity, the shortage will still exist.

A New Field?

A New Field

David Tze, of Aquacopia, an investment firm for seafood farming, later responded that Mr. Kahn’s statistics didn’t account for food production in the world’s oceans.  Imagine if the sea were as prolific as the land in providing people with protein sources.  Another presenter, Norbert Sporns of HQ Sustainable Maritime Industires, Inc., underlined the immediacy of this point.  His company, a member of the American Stock Exchange, has a full line of packaged meals based on the fish tilapia, farmed using “zero toxins.”  According to the company website, “Total U.S. consumption of tilapia products has risen from less than $20 million in 1992 to nearly $560 million in 2007.”  Consumer demand – based on want, not yet need – is in full swing.

The Sky Vegetable System

The Sky Vegetable System

Back on land — where my heart resides — Sky Vegetables plans to grow city food on large scale rooftops.  The clean system runs on solar and wind power to energize its year-around hydroponic greenhouse.  Rain water collection barrels gather water for the crops.

This company corrects several big problems in our current food system:  It brings fresh produce to under-served, but eager, urban communities.  It does so by shortening the miles and gallons of gasoline needed to deliver good food.  As a closed-loop system, using clean and recycled water, it does not put pesticides or toxic run-off into the area.  Add in the benefits of a green roof for the host building and its energy savings from excess solar and wind production, and we have a growing system that I believe our children will know well.

SPIN Farming: Front Yard, Front Farm

SPIN Farming: Front Yard, Front Farm

Lastly, SPIN-Farming is radical in its simplicity.  Take the land you have and grow on it.  SPIN-Farming operates as a franchise, largely by providing learning materials for the SPIN system.  The good news is the cost of entry is very small: $100 bucks will get you started.  In the words of one of the company’s founders, Roxanne Christensen, SPIN “removes the two big barriers to entry for new farmers – land and capital.”  Now the future looks better for the annual block potluck party, too.

Note:  All companies mentioned here were participants in the conference, Agriculture 2.0 in New York City.

Last week, in one of the most densely populated places on Earth, 150 people addressed a topic usually left to pasture:  The future of agriculture.

At one point, Melina Shannon-DiPietro, Director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, asked the audience, “How many of you have worked in a garden in the past month?”  Over three-quarters of the room raised our hands.

Shannon-DiPietro also said that Yale University currently offers 30 classes related to food and agriculture.  As recently as 2003, that number was zero.

What is happening here and why now?

The group in the NYC room was attending Agriculture 2.0:  The Conference for Innovators & Investors, hosted by NewSeed Advisors and SPIN-Farming.  There is much to explore, and for now, a few facts have percolated to the top:

  • Many estimate the world’s population will grow to 9 billion by 2050.  As a result, the Asset Management arm of Deutsche Bank foresees a 50% increase in global caloric demand.  We aren’t ready.
  • Every year, as the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, the agricultural run-off creates a vast “dead zone” in the water.  The dead zone can get as large as the state of Mississippi and nothing survives in it.
  • Tod Murphy of the Farmers Diner said that as Americans consume food carted from thousands of miles away, we eat about 19% of our country’s fossil fuel usage.  Robert Fireman of Sky Vegetables framed the issue another way:  Every year, the average American intakes 350 gallons of oil with his meals.

We have never had issues like these before in human history.

But innovators live in the solution.  We have also never been as connected and accessible to one another as we are now.  Thus, in the spirit of the pioneers at Agriculture 2.0, we have never had opportunities like this before.  More to come.

Sustainable agriculture usually implies organic methods of growing.  Many of us deride the use of technology – in the form of pesticides, for example – as one of the toxic practices currently used in farming.  But in the call to grow food more cleanly, some people hear the chant to abandon modern advancement all together.  Over the summer, Blake Hurst, an industrial farmer from Missouri criticized what he termed, “agri-intellectuals” for “demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food.”

I don’t believe that is the demand at all.  We don’t want a return to the past; we are advocating for something new.  Today in New York, we’ll investigate the possibilities at a conference entitled, Agriculture 2.0.  Hosted by the investment group, New Seed Advisors, it is “the first conference for sustainable agriculture innovators and investors.”

The changing state of food production is an evolving conversation.  I look forward to reporting on the events of today.  Stay tuned.

A New Marketplace in the Neighborhood

A New Marketplace in the Neighborhood

Please leave your felt-lettered activity board at the door — this is a different church basement.

Yesterday, at the Church of the Messiah in Brooklyn, the church basement became the Greenpoint Food Market.

It was opening day of the weekly event, founded by Joann Kim, to provide a space for local cooks to sell their packaged goods.  In evidence of the enthusiasm for local and artisanal food, over 30 vendors sold items from chicken paté to Korean pancakes to deviled eggs, with many more people hovering around the tables to sample and talk with the chefs.

Amelia Coulter of the cookie company, Sugarbuilt, was one such vendor who is both a chef and an artist in equal measure.  A native of New Mexico, her cookies have delicate taste influences from the Southwest — chocolate red chili, for example.  Visually, the baked creations are intricate replicas of favorite sights:  sugar skulls from the Mexican Day of the Dead, rod ironwork in Greenpoint, and playful hipster mustaches, among other things.

“I’m inspired by my passions – here it’s architecture,” Amelia said, holding up a square cookie.  “All of these ironwork pieces are from my favorite actual ironwork in the neighborhood.  All of these designs have a history.”

As I walked around the church basement, I remembered something I saw years ago:  A man on very, very tall stilts walking through the fields of Bread & Puppet in Vermont.  As he took slow, long strides, he called down below:  “Art is food!  You can’t eat it, but it feeds YOU!”

Yesterday, in the down below, the neighborhood feasted on art in all ways.

Local Food that Honors Local Sites

Local Food in Honor of Local Sites

Delicious and Beautiful

Delicious and Beautiful

A Moustached Amelia Coulter of Sugarbuilt

A Moustached Amelia Coulter of Sugarbuilt

Groundswell Wasn't the Only Press!

Groundswell Wasn't the Only Press!

This is Harlem

This is Harlem

The crown jewel watches over the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street.  She’s surrounded by other lovelies–fine tomato vines and lush collards–but they don’t invite the same attention.  Nobody has anything on this peach tree.

She’s in the William A. Harris Garden, founded from an abandoned lot in 1977 by Mr. Harris, a retired sanitation worker.  According to Danny, a garden volunteer and Mr. Harris’ neighbor, for years he went through their lobby carrying fruits and vegetables.

Danny would ask, “Where did you get those?”

“Down the street in my garden,” Mr. Harris always replied.

“I thought he was crazy, so one day I had to check it out for myself.  And, sure enough, he had this whole thing growing,” Danny explains, gesturing over the lot.

Mr. Harris has bad knees these days, so his daughters take care of the garden.  Lori Harris is directing a big event this Labor Day weekend:  The Annual Peach Cobbler Cook-Off.  The neighborhood is going to find out who’s worthy of their peach tree.

The contest has three simple rules:

1) You have to pick your peaches from the tree tonight.

2) Everyone has to cook his cobbler in the same size pan.

3) You have to get your cobbler to her on time tomorrow to be judged.  Or else you’re out.

What do you win?  “Nothing but the bragging rights,” says Lori.

By the looks of this tree and the taste of one of the peaches, that’s plenty to go on.

Ripe for the Picking

"We'll put our peaches up against Georgia any day," says Lori Harris

A Native of Bracey, Virginia, Mr. Harris Transformed This Old Lot

A native of Bracey, Virginia, Mr. Harris transformed an abandoned lot