New Soil Needed to Grow Urban Farms

May 1, 2010 at 9:49 pm 1 comment

Farming is on the cusp of radical change. Just ask any of the urban farmers who participated in a panel discussion moderated by NPR’s Leonard Lopate last month. “The new generation of farmers is going to come from folks who live in cities,” said Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, a national nonprofit organization that runs farms primarily in urban neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Chicago.

It sounds strange, but here’s how the theory goes. The loss of farmland and farmers, coupled with people moving to cities worldwide, will accelerate the need to grow food near or in cities. “We can’t afford to be shipping food at cost to the environment,” said Allen. “We have to grow food closer to where people live.”

The panelists almost convinced me. Annie Novak, co-founder of the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, spoke about how to boost the harvest of herbs and vegetables on the 6,000-square-foot rooftop farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Fritz Haeg, a Los Angeles-based artist, showed a video about his project to transform lawns into vegetable gardens throughout the country. So far, he’s created “Edible Estates” in eight locations, including one in front of a community center in Manhattan. And Growing Power’s Allen talked about the 11 urban farms his organization runs in Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison.

As optimistic and impassioned as they were, they danced around the challenge facing urban farmers: scaling up production. Allen talked about the need to “grow soil” by turning the millions of pounds of city food waste into compost — the stuff that makes for bountiful harvests. Compost is also needed to fill garden beds built over once-contaminated soil.

“We need to grow hundreds of thousands of pounds of new soil,” said Allen. “We can’t scale up until we grow soil.”

Still, the speakers insisted on a future world with much more urban farming. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, one of the panelists and a crusader in the push to reform the city’s food system, talked about the limitless opportunities in Manhattan for rooftop farms. “You can look up,” he said, “and see magic on rooftops.”

It’s a little pie in the sky, but a fun and thought-provoking discussion nonetheless. You can listen to it here. The “Edible Estates” panel discussion was held at WNYC Greene Space in Manhattan on April 8.

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

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