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TrendWire Vol. 22 Num. 14, July 31, 2008

Vertical Farms and Localvores

 

The Food Channel Trendwire
July 31, 2008 • Volume 22, Number 14 • http://www.foodchannel.com
IN THIS EDITION

Vertical Farming May Be the Next Step in Local Eating

The idea of vertical farms is still relatively new; it’s been around about 10 years or so. In a nutshell, there’s a growing movement to create urban farms that are integrated into the existing landscape in some way. We brought you news of the vertical farm concept in our article on the foodchannel.com website, Vertical farm of the near future. In general, these farms rely on the concept of hydroponics (meaning growing plants directly in water sans soil). So these farms grow food near people, reducing the transportation time and costs.

One of the leading advocates for vertical farming is Dr. Dickson Despommier of Columbia University. His prototype (www.verticalfarm.com for a peek) got a workout last month on the news parody show The Colbert Report (www.comedycentral.com/colbertreport) on Comedy Central. With his trademark humor, Colbert referred to the vertical farms as “crazy farm towers,” but to a growing number of experts, the vertical farms are no joke. In addition to the obvious benefits of reducing the transportation costs associated with trucking food into the city, the group behind the vertical farming movement believes that by creating indoor urban farms we can enjoy a host of benefits, such as these:

  • Improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Reduce the gas costs of running farm equipment necessary with traditional farming techniques
  • Return traditional farmland to nature, improving local ecosystems
  • Reduce crop failures due to pests, drought, hail damage and flood
  • Convert abandoned urban properties into food production centers, reducing urban blight
  • Grow all food organically without herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers
  • Convert black and gray water into potable water
  • Reduce unemployment and homelessness by providing jobs

Long-term benefits could include growing food in extremely arid environments, like the one in Sudan, ultimately reducing hunger and conflict in a struggle to compete for limited resources.

NY Sun Works (www.nysunworks.org) is taking a more integrated approach. With its concept of Building Integrated Agriculture, it recommends building farms into office buildings rather than creating towers solely to farm. The concept was thought of as a revisioning of the greenhouse. With its plan, produce would be planted on the outside of buildings, but between two panes of glass, on hydroponic rotating racks. Throughout the day, the racks would move up and down the building to ensure the appropriate amount of sunlight. Representatives say an urban community would get many of the same benefits as with the stand-alone vertical farms (such as improved access to fresh vegetables and low transportation costs), but the farms would also benefit the tenants of the building by providing insulation, catching storm water runoff and even creating excess electricity to feed back into the power grid.

The vertical farm concept has a few major obstacles to overcome before it becomes commercially viable. The first obstacle is psychological. In many ways, the traditional farm is the backbone of America and evokes quite a bit of nostalgia for many people in this country. Moving away completely from that model will be extremely difficult, assuming it’s possible at all. More likely, at least in the next 50 years or so, would be supplementing the existing agricultural environment with vertical farms. The second obstacle is financial. Current estimates indicate that a prototype for a vertical farm would cost roughly $20M-$30M, and a full-scale farm could cost many times that. There’s also the cost of land in urban areas, which tends to be significantly higher than land in rural areas. But design and research will continue for the concept. In fact, officials in Portland, Ore., and Manhattan are looking at feasibility studies, which could lead to vertical farms in the future.

New Services Growing Up Around the Locavore Movement

It’s no surprise that as the Locavore movement (or eating only things grown or raised locally) continues to grow, a host of services are springing up to help people eat with their conscience. Most services are designed to bring convenience to the world of local eating. The concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is also growing in many communities. Participants buy a share in advance of a farmer’s harvest, then pick up a weekly box of produce.

Here are a few services we spotted recently:

  • MyFarm (www.myfarmsf.com) creates and cultivates an organic garden in your backyard, complete with drip irrigation. The MyFarm crew can even come to your home weekly to maintain the garden (including weeding and harvesting) for you. Depending on which plan you’re on, you may grow vegetables for other MyFarm customers who don’t have a large enough plot to grow the variety they would like. MyFarm takes care of all the details for you. As part of their services you also receive “Local food feasts with chefs featuring foods from your backyard.”

  • The FruitGuys (www.fruitguys.com or 1-800-FRUITME) offer next-day delivery service nationwide of locally and sustainably grown fruit. Prices vary between $32 and $74 a week. At this time, fruit is delivered only to offices, with no residential services available.

  • Three Stone Hearth (www.threestonehearth.com), in Berkeley, Calif., describes itself as a community-supported kitchen and offers full meals (such as Andalusian stew and Chicken and Rice Biryani), all created from sustainable farms.

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