Somewhere, deep into hour two of shoveling, I started to have visions of fierce machinery tilling vast fields.  A part of me understands why big companies took over farming:  It’s hard work.  But in evading the process ourselves, we lose a vital understanding.  Where better to remember than at school?

BK Farmyards is the inspired urban farming initiative by Stacey Murphy and Bee Ayer.  They describe it as “decentralized” — they plan to farm several lots around Brooklyn, including private brownstone backyards.  Right now they are digging their flagship project, a one acre farm at the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights.

On a recent Saturday, a crew of about twenty people, including many members of the Farm Club, continued to crack open the school’s front lawn.  They’re early in the weeks of growing food for the school’s 20-member CSA.  By fall, the farm will be incorporated into the health, science and art classes.

But one day at a time.  At the end of this Saturday, Bee happily summed up the group’s accomplishments: “We have our first crops in the ground – kale, beets, carrots, salad mix and marigolds, sunflowers and zinnias.”

Continued below

Bee Ayer Instructs Students On How To Create New Soil Beds

Acting on Instructions!

Like the nascent plants, many of the students involved are freshmen.  They will be the stewards of this farm for their whole high school experience.  Imagine the learning curve coming up for everyone.  Kassandra Midy, Class of 2014, said it best with a few words and dirty hands, “I was scared of worms last week, but now I’m holding one.”

At one point, Stacey took a minute to take it all in.  “This is months’ worth of talking and planning.  To see the physical evidence of all of the work and all the fund raising is pretty incredible,” she said.  Pointing to the active shovels nearby, she continued,”It’s as simple as that person turning over the soil.  This feels really great.”

Now would you like to be a part of it?  I bet you would.  If you’re in New York and ready to work it out in the dirt, BK Farmyards is the perfect place.  You’ll work hard, enjoy yourself, and sleep like a baby when the day is done.  They have volunteer work days every Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm for the next several weeks.  Click here for the full calendar and details!

The Front Yard Becomes a Front Farm

Learning from Bee Ayer & Her Mad Skillz

Digging in for The High School for Public Service

Pausing a Minute to Pose

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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.

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.