Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Urban Ag Status Update

It seems like just yesterday I was sitting in a room with Newark's Deputy Mayor, Stephen Pryor, where he voiced Newark's support and pursuit of Vertical Farming in his town--our slogan, it was decided, would be, "Bringing the Garden Back to the Garden State."  Then Chicago's Mayor Daley trumpeted the same message from his mayoral throne, only to announce his abdication from the position a few short months later.  In New York, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has been very consistent in his advocacy for Vertical Farming.  And it makes sense that he should be: New York City is the most densely populated US city with more than 70,000 residents.  Unfortunately, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been more tepid in his support. 

I know it's easy to think that things are very stagnant in this sphere, that the naysayers are winning.  Actually, they're not, and I'm going to look at a few recent initiatives that bode well for our ultimate goal of a Vertical Farm-fed world.

First of all, media coverage of vertical farming and the broader topic of urban agriculture has been way up in the past few months.  Inhabitat, Financial Times, Sustainable Industries and the Wall Street Journal have published stories within the past month exploring the subject.  It seems like every day there's some new story published heralding the wave of urban agricultural projects.

The Gazette focuses on the Chicago project, Plant Chicago, directed by developer John Edel, which will soon begin to grow food inside of a warehouse at 1048 W. 37th St. in Bridgeport, just outside of Chicago.  This is going to be huge for urban agriculture: a tangible example of high-intensity aquaponics being done inside a city. 
And then there's the new company EcoVeggies, which leases an aeroponic growing technology from AeroFarms, a company run by Ed Hardwood, whose past experience include working on Controlled Environment Agriculture at Cornell University.  EcoVeggies was founded by three ex-Wall Streeters, which is important because it shows that finance-types see value in this industry.  If money makes the world go 'round, then having these guys on board is a good leading indicator of where we're headed.  The New York Times reports:
“The produce will be sold and used in the areas immediately surrounding Newark to start with, and then we expect to be able to service the [New York, New Jersey, Connecticut] area...We have a substantial pipeline of prospects and expect to close on a commercial- size growing facility soon," Richard Charles, one of EcoVeggies’ founders, wrote in an e-mail.
Point is, this is a good business now, and the prospects are looking even brighter down the road.  Venture capital is taking note.  (21Ventures, a New York City-based VC firm focusing on clean-tech companies, is behind EcoVeggies.) 

But that's not all.  Agirculture 2.0, whose tagline is, "Where the sustainable agriculture industry is being defined, built and funded," is only in its infancy, and already it's attracting major players.  The annual conference, sponsored by the investment banking and advisory firm Newseed Advisors, brings together tech start-ups poised to capitalize on the burgeoning demand for urban agriculture with VC firms who've begun to drink the Kool Aid.  By all accounts, it's a major success.  (FYI, Dr. Despommier was a speaker at the most recent gathering.)
As venture capital looks to fund promising start-ups, there are existing payers that are quietly laying the groundwork for a robust ecosystem.  Players here include Anna Lappe, the writer and founding principal of the Small Planet Institute, Annie Novak and Ben Flanner, and their Eagle Street Rooftop Farms and Brooklyn Grange Farm, respectively, and Lee Mandell of Boswck Farms, where they're focusing on integrating hydroponics into the middle school classroom experience.  Then we've got Gotham Greens, which will hopefully have its rooftop greenhouses up and running very soon.  And this is just in New York City.  There are other players like Sky Vegetables and Cityscape Farms who, like Gotham Greens, have a head-start on up-and-coming urban agriculture companies, but aren't quite as far along as their non-hydroponic peers.  These guys set-up shop about a year ago, so they're that much better positioned to take advantage of favorable government policies aimed at propelling development in this sector. 

You've got action in Cincinatti.  You've got Growing Lots and Growing Power in Milwaukee.  You've got innovative "green" architects pushing the envelope.  You've got waste-to-energy action in New Zealand.  The pieces for vertical farming are really lining up.

The Financial Times recently reported on the progress being made in Seattle, which, in January, dubbed 2010, "The Year of Urban Agriculture."
The [Seattle City Council] has relaxed planning regulations to let buildings be 15 feet higher for rooftop greenhouses, and is encouraging people to grow food in places where gardening was previously deterred, such as house fronts.
One objective is to shorten the food chain and encourage local farmers to supply the city. To this end, planning permission has been granted for food processing plants, warehouses and farmers markets, which previously required weekly permits with inspection and charges.
It might not seem like much, but any action on the part of the government should be viewed as hugely positive.  Seattle is progressive in its push for urban agriculture, and more cities should follow its example.

Urban agriculture will benefit from people pursuing urban agriculture, is one of the lessons we've learned over the past year.  As communities become knowledgable about the food chain, they become excited at all the local possibilities.  Then governments respond to this excitement because they realize that re-election could depend on whether or not they enact policies in support of urban farming.  So all this momentum really is just going to keep building onto itself like a snowball. 

I'm not sure when we'll ultimately see vertical farms. Newark might come through for us.  Maybe Mark Zuckerberg's generous donation to that city will free up some funds to pursue VF.  We might have to keep at it like we've been doing for a bit longer, building up awareness and support for urban agriculture as a general theme.  That works for me.

Because at the end of the day, this is a question about values: do we value cheap food at the cost of our health, or are we willing to invest in smart farming options and an agenda to promote food education and healthy eating habits?  For me, and probably for most readers out there, the choice is simple.  If you agree, then tell people; spread the word.  The more people know about urban agriculture, the more, I'm finding, they love it.  And love can change the world.

(for this and more cool images, check outresults from the HP Skypine 2020 Online Competition.)

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