Professor Dickson Despommier is a dreamer and I applaud him for it.  So do many others.  Since I first posted in August about Despommier and his vision of growing food in urban skyscrapers, this blog has gotten hundreds of hits a week under the search term, “vertical farming.”  Sometimes it comes up as “vertikal farming” and I know that the Germans are curious, too.

Last night, before a sold-out crowd, the professor and other experts presented a panel entitled, “Designing Urban Farms to Feed New York” by the Municipal Art Society.  In addition to Despommier, the panel was moderated by the Washington Post columnist Neal Pierce, and included:

  • Colin Cathcart, a Brooklyn-based architect with a deep portfolio in sustainable building.
  • Jenn Nelkin, Greenhouse Director for Gotham Greens, the first hydroponic rooftop farm in New York.
  • Nevin Cohen, assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the New School.  From the event literature: “His current research focuses on urban food policy, particularly innovative planning strategies to support food production in the urban and peri-urban landscape…”.
  • Dan Albert, a landscape designer out of Seattle who was part of the team that developed the conceptual Eco-laboratory, a self-sustaining building that produces its own energy, food and water.

From the evening’s discussion I learned that we are going to address our problems of food supply and climate change in many different ways.  While Despommier advocated for vertical farming, Nevin Cohen suggested growing food on urban public lands, among other ideas.  What if cities grew fruit and nut trees in the parks that the public could harvest?  Later in the talk, Cohen got cheers when he said that he still likens farming to soil, not purely hydroponics.

Jenn Nelkin offered a conciliatory acknowledgment that the answer is going to be in some of all these solutions.  (And there were many more.)  In fact, Nelkin continued, for experts in these topics, the nuances are still very much in development.  Often when she’s in a conversation about her rooftop farm, she’s asked, “Which type of hydroponic system are you using?”  The answers are evolving on many levels.

The tipping point will come when the financing solidifies.  All the panelists agreed there is a growing demand for safe, sustainable, urban food production.  We’re still searching for ways, however, to make the food affordable to the broad population and provide a good living wage to workers.  Regretfully, one of the audience questions that did not get discussed was, “Can urban farmers afford to live in New York City?”  I personally believe their role will be as important as doctors dispensing medicine, so I would hope so.

The theme of the night was big vision.  Let’s imagine what the future can hold:  Blooming verdant skyscrapers, apples from down the block, factory rooftops full of produce, and a good portion of the urban population ready to have our hands in the dirt.  As my friend Michael Beneville says when he hears a good idea, “Let’s dream that into existence.”

The French take on vertical farming for Paris. Courtesy of verticalfarm.com

The French take on vertical farming for Paris. Courtesy of verticalfarm.com.

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Knowing where our food comes from is about slowing down.  So let me begin with the fog.

It comes in the night and settles into the mountain.  When daylight opens, it lingers to watch.  On this autumn morning, the fog is the quiet keeper of the garden, Project Sprout, at the base of Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Morning at the Garden

Morning at Project Sprout

The garden was started in the way of many lesser ambitions:  high school students talking in the hall between class.  Yet one student’s simple observation was the catalyst for something extraordinary.

“I realized that our biology class never went outside in the whole year.  It didn’t make sense.  And food is our closest connection to the natural world,” said Sam Levin, Class of 2011 at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Sam, along with two other students, Nathalie Akers and Sarah Steadman, started the garden two years ago as a way to relate to their environment.  With the encouragement of Mike Powell, a guidance counselor who also leads the school’s Green Team, they partnered with a local non-profit group, Project Native.  Since then, they have gained one part-time staff member, Bridghe McCracken, a landscape designer who specializes in organic gardens, and a team of regular volunteers.  Project Sprout now grows fresh produce for the nearby elementary, middle and high schools.  At the height of its recent harvest, the garden produced 200 pounds of vegetables each week for the school cafeterias.  On average, the garden yields anywhere from 50-100 pounds weekly.

“I would never have expected to do this before.  I find it fun coming to the cafeteria knowing that I helped harvest and grow this food.  It just boggles my mind.  Now I feel sure of what I’m eating,” said garden volunteer Isabel Mitchell, Class of 2012.

Project Sprout is also an outdoor classroom for the middle school gardening class and the high school greenhouse class.  The elementary kids make regular visits, too.

“It’s powerful for a young person to watch a seed become food.  A kindergartener will try a spicy radish, for example, when they have been a part of growing it.  They would have never eaten one before,” said Bridghe, “I think growing food is essential to understanding our place in the world.”

On the day I visited, the volunteers were planting leeks and arugula, among other things, to be harvested in February.  As the winter comes in, they will protect the garden with a moveable hoop house.  Every aspect of the garden–organic planting and rain water irrigation, for example–contributes to its mission of environmentally-conscious living.  “We’re beyond carbon neutral,” explained Bridghe with a chuckle.

Now the team is armed with a 10-year plan; in six years, this will include fruit from their newly-planted apple tree orchard.  The students of Project Sprout will do it all: plantings, fund-raising events, field harvesting at 6:45 am, and more.

“What means the most to me is that it’s student run.  People think we just sit around and play video games all day,” said Sam.

Shelling Soybeans & Learning Early

Shelling Soybeans & Learning Early

Planting for Winter Harvest

Planting for Winter Harvest

Rainbow Chard Ready To Go

Rainbow Chard Ready To Go

These Apple Trees Will Have Fruit for the Class of 2015

These Apple Trees Will Have Fruit for the Class of 2015