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Will Allen, urban agriculture leader

Innovative Agriculture

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

I. 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. 

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.

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.

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. 

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.

II. Colleges and Universities 

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

III. 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  that 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.

IV. 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.

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.

Examples:

V. Aquaponics

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  food 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.”

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

VI. 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
Bed-Stuy Farm
Doug DeCandia 
Gotreaux Family Farms

Glossary

    footnotes

    1. CSA
    2. Organic