food Program

Innovative Agriculture

Will Allen, urban agriculture leader

Throughout the country, sustainable farmers are using innovative techniques to produce and distribute food. Food is now being grown on rooftops, in community gardens and anywhere there is space. Agricultural innovation runs across the food spectrum: from aquaponics to food hubs. These new models are changing the way food is grown and distributed and it seems the sky is the limit when it comes to projects to increase locally grown, sustainably produced food. Coast to coast, agricultural entrepreneurs are working toward food independence both for city dwellers and rural residents. Read on to learn about the projects that inspire us.

Urban Agriculture | Colleges and Universities | Cooperative Distribution Networks | Innovation in Home Gardening | Aquaponics | Beginning Farmers

Urban Agriculture

Farming is no longer confined to rural America; food is now being cultivated in dense urban areas anywhere there is space. Urban farmers can be found on city rooftops, in small backyard plots, and in vacant lots growing food for their communities.

Urban Farms

Farms in urban areas are becoming increasingly prevalent, providing food for high population areas (and often low-income areas), beautifying communities and bringing people together to work with their neighbors.

  • City Slicker Farms- Oakland, CA: The mission of City Slicker Farms is to empower West Oakland community members to meet the immediate and basic need for healthy organic    Gfood for themselves and their families by creating high-yield urban farms and backyard gardens. The Community Market Farms Program takes vacant or underutilized land and transforms it into market farms. The Backyard Garden Programbuilds food self-sufficiency by empowering low-income households to grow fresh produce where they live
  • Growing Home- Chicago, IL: "Growing Home's mission is to operate, promote, and demonstrate the use of organic agriculture as a vehicle for job training, employment, and community development. Growing Home develops innovative urban and other agricultural initiatives with economic development potential. In 2010, Growing Home's Wood Street Urban Farm grew and sold over 11,000 pounds of local, USDA Certified Organic produce, with over $45,000 in earned income."
  • Vertical Farming(proposed): Dickson Despommier's design of a large-scale vertical farm built to conserve space and grow food in America's cities. Vertical farms facilitate year-round production of vegetables that are safe from crop failure, allowing for food to be grown in dense urban centers.

Rooftop Farming

These farms make efficient use of scarce urban space and also have a positive environmental impact; in addition to providing extra insulation for buildings (which reduces energy use for heating and cooling), rooftop farms capture precipitation. This helps reduce stormwater runoff, which can overwhelm sewage treatment facilities and pollute waterways during heavy storms.

  • Brooklyn Grange: "Brooklyn Grange is a commercial organic farm located on New York City rooftops. We grow vegetables in the city and sell them to local people and businesses. The goal is to improve access to very good food, to connect city people more closely to farms and food production, and to make urban farming a viable enterprise and livelihood." View our video of Brooklyn Grange on Ecocentric.
  • Eagle Street Rooftop Farm: "On the shoreline of the East River and with a sweeping view of the Manhattan skyline, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is a 6,000 square foot green roof organic vegetable farm located atop a warehouse rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. During New York City's growing season, the farmers at Eagle Street Rooftop Farm supply an onsite farm market, and bicycle fresh produce to area restaurants." View our video of Eagle Street on Ecocentric.
  • Uncommon Ground: a certified organic rooftop farm that serves its own restaurant.
  • Cloud 9 Rooftop Farm: Partnered with Self-Help and Resource Exchange (SHARE) a nonprofit organization focused on food access and education, who offered Cloud 9 a space to farm on the roof of their food distribution center.
  • Gary Comer Youth Center Roof Garden: an urban farm that produces more than 1,000 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables each year.

Urban Hydroponic Operations

Hydroponics is a technique used to grow plants without soil. The Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) is the most common type of hydroponics, where the plant has a constant flow of nutrients. This technique is best for salad greens. Other systems, such as ebb and flow and drip systems are good for larger plants like tomatoes. To grow food without soil on a large scale, such as Gotham Greensin New York City, complex systems are in place and can feed large populations.

Hydroponic vegetable in farm


Farming in Small Spaces

Farms don't have to be enormous! Urbanites are growing food efficiently on less than an acre - sometimes even without soil.

  • "Blotting" in Detroit- Residents of Detroit are producing food in vacant city lots adjacent to homes.
  • Tenth Acre Farm- Built in an unused parking lot, this urban farm grows vegetables in raised beds in order to avoid contaminated soil, and to allow the operation to be easily moved to a new location if the owner sells the property.

Innovation in Urban Livestock

Raising animals humanely can provide a useful source of local food. Legislation varies by municipality but it's becoming increasingly common to see backyard chickens and bees on city rooftops.

  • Urban Beekeeping- Andrew's Rooftop Honeyis sold at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, by beekeeper Andrew Cote who keeps bees on rooftops, balconies and community gardens in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

    working bees on the honeycomb

  • Backyard Poultry- Victory Chicken helps New Yorkers become backyard chicken farmers by delivering laying hens and installing a coop in just a few hours.

Colleges and Universities

Many institutions are now sourcing local food in dining halls, working with farmers to establish on-campus CSAs,    Gand even creating student-run farms and vegetable gardens.

  • Real Food Challenge: "The Real Food Challenge serves as both a campaign and a network. The campaign is to increase the procurement of real food on college and university campuses, with the national goal of 20% real food by 2020. By leveraging their purchasing power we can catalyze the transformation of the larger food system. The network offers a chance for students and their allies (those working on the campaign along with those who've yet to sign on) to make connections, learn from one another, and grow the movement."
  • Yale Sustainable Food Project: "The Sustainable Food Project manages an organic    Gfarm on campus and runs diverse educational programs that support exploration and academic inquiry related to food and agriculture."
  • Bon Appetit Management Company's guide for students: This guide will help student gardeners establish a successful relationship between campus food service team and student gardens.
  • Hoophouses:they provide storm and frost protection and extend the growing season for northern farmers. In warmer climates, they provide sun protection. Hoophouses also reduce wind pressure on seedlings, and provide more humid growing conditions, which increases carbon dioxide levels, resulting in higher yields and better tasting produce.

Cooperative Distribution Networks

Although consumer demand for sustainable food continues to grow, sustainable farmers often lack access to traditional food distribution networks, which cater primarily to large-scale industrial farms. In order to overcome this challenge, farmers are working together in cooperatives as well as developing innovative improvements of old models. One example is winter CSAs    Gthat offer root vegetables and greens (along with eggs and meat if the farm raises livestock). Some CSAs supplement produce from neighboring farmers or other specialty items to build community.

  • Winter CSA Shares:This offers a farm a steady income throughout the winter to prepare for the high season.
    Garden of Eve Farm, Riverhead, NY offers a winter share composed primarily of stored produce such as root vegetables like beets, carrots, and potatoes.
  • Dairy Cooperatives: groups of dairy farmers who come together to reach a larger and often geographically diverse group of customers. Two examples:
    Hudson Valley Fresh, New York
    Organic Valley, Wisconsin
  • Food Hubs: businesses that serve as wholesale distributors for local farmers seeking to get their products in retail stores and restaurants.
    USDA info on Food Hubs - A guide to existing food hubs across the country.
    National Good Food Network Food Hub Resource Guide - A guide for food hub managers and staff that includes best practices for continuing to solve distribution challenges.
    Ecotrust Food Hub- Portland, OR
    Local Food Hub - Charlottesville, VA

Innovation in Home Gardening

Innovation in agriculture isn't limited to the commercial level. Twenty first century home gardeners have become savvy at growing food efficiently.

  • Food, Not Lawns: Edible Estates is one such ongoing initiative "to create a series of regional prototype gardens that replace domestic front lawns, and other unused spaces in front of homes, with places for families to grow their own food."
  • Permaculture:a philosophy of integrative principles that draw from agroecology and organic    Gfarming, emphasizing self-maintained systems that are sustainable and aesthetically pleasing.
  • Home Composting: a practice that enhances soil and reduces landfill waste, through a backyard compost pile or bin. Some cities even have compost drop - off sites. The Lower East Side Ecology Center in New York City is one such organization. Other resources:
    New York Department of Environmental Conservation
    Cal Recycle

Tools for the Home Gardener

Window Farms: This small vertical hydroponic growing system company has an open source platform and instructions to create your own window farm using plastic bottles.

Subirrigated Planters (SIP) - planting box used in container gardening. The bottoms of these planters have reservoirs of water, which is soaked up into the soil above through capillary action.



A recirculating system of plants, nutrients, and fish. According to the Aquaponics Source, "Aquaponics is the marriage of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soilless growing of plants) that grows fish and plants together in one integrated system. The fish waste provides an organic    Gfood source for the growing plants and the plants provide a natural filter for the water the fish live in. The third participants are the microbes (nitrifying bacteria) and composting red worms that thrive in the growing media. They do the job of converting the ammonia from the fish waste first into nitrites, then into nitrates and the solids into vermicompost that are food for the plants."

Organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm


Examples of aquaponics operations
Recirculating Farms Coalition
Growing Power Aquaponics
Urban Tilapia Farming in Baltimore
Sweetwater Organics

Beginning Farmers

As farmers are getting set to hang up their straw hats, it has become increasingly important to train and provide support for a new generation of farmers. The U.S. farm population has dwindled and the average age of farmers continues to rise. Forty percent of the farmers in this country are 55 years old or older according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The American family farm is in desperate need of a new generation to continue to produce local food. For every one farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older, according to USDA. See our New Farmers page for resources.

More: GRACE's blog, Ecocentric, has featured many food activists engaged in innovative agriculture projects across the country. Read on and be inspired!

Rockland Farm Alliance
Julie Bass
Slippery Slope Farm
Doug DeCandia
Gotreaux Family Farms