Reflections on Dirt and High-Tech Urban Farming

May 18, 2011 at 3:41 pm Leave a comment

New York City’s urban farms and community gardens have never been more popular.  In 2005, they were still relatively unknown.  Now they’re part of city farm tours.

Just this month the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and other officials hosted a tour of the borough’s farms as part of Bronx Week.  The $25 tour included stops at three of the borough’s most popular farms and gardens, including the one-acre Finca del Sur.

Today’s urban gardening movement thrives thanks to the community activists and idealists of the 1970s who dreamed of turning empty lots into something wholesome.  Their visions grew along with the gardens.  They soon started to see gardens as a way to bring what they called “food justice to the food insecure,” a mouthful for a simple idea:  they wanted to feed the hungry.  Activists believed community gardens could help the city’s poorest citizens gain access to better food and move away from the fast-food chains that dominated their neighborhoods.

The urban farming movement gained even more momentum as people grew more eco-conscious and demanded local food.

It’s grown so much in recent years it’s produced a new offshoot – one that offers a high-tech version of urban agriculture.  This new type of agriculture is radically different from that which the original urban farmers have and continue to practice.  It doesn’t need land.  What it needs are buildings — such as this fanciful skyscraper dreamed up as giant dragonfly on the tip of Roosevelt Island — to grow food indoors.

But is high-rise farming in keeping with the values of traditional urban farmers who like dirt?  Is it sustainable, and can it produce food that people can afford?

These questions are building tensions and rivalries among different groups.

Let’s take rooftop farming, which can be done “conventionally” by spreading soil on a roof, or through hydroponic greenhouses, the modern, sci-fi way of growing food.

“Many more roofs would qualify for the hydroponic version of farming than would quality for soil-based farming,” said Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor and proponent of indoor farming, on CNN.  He argued that hydroponic greenhouses are more lightweight than soil-covered roofs.

Hydroponic greenhouses don’t require soil or much water to grow food, but they do need sunlight or artificial lighting.   The rooftop greenhouses that have appeared so far on city rooftops are one-story buildings that get sunlight directly.  But multiple-story greenhouses or growing facilities that rely partially or entirely on artificial lighting are on the horizon.

Big Box Farms, a New York City-based start-up company that plans to open an indoor farm in a warehouse in Brooklyn, for example, will rely on LED lighting that will be controlled remotely via iPhone applications.  And the urban farm proposed for the Bathgate section of the Bronx features rooftop greenhouses as well as industrial loft-type buildings that grow vegetables in a mist, or aeroponically, under LED lights, 24/7.

Indoor farming facilities try to compensate for their huge energy demand by using renewable energy.  The proposed Bathgate urban farming facility will have an on-site generation plant that will be fueled at first by natural gas and then switch over time to renewable energy that the facility will produce from landfill waste.

Even if these new farming ventures find a sustainable way of powering their operations, they need to do so profitably, a big challenge, say skeptics. Critics also worry that hydroponic and aeroponic produce will be too expensive for most people.

What does this all mean for the future of urban farming?  Will this new offshoot of urban agriculture suck the life out of plain old community gardens?

Many entrepreneurs no doubt will explore high-tech indoor farming, trying to do good while making money.  But that won’t diminish the importance of traditional community gardens.  As long as there are neighborhoods without access to healthy affordable food, there will be community gardens on the ground ready to deliver food justice.

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Entry filed under: City Farmers, Community Gardens, Local Food Production, Rooftop Gardening, Urban Agriculture. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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