Glimpse at China’s Organic & Urban Agriculture Pioneers

A blog post for ECO City Farms from Dec. 8:

 

Organics Inside Greenhouse with Earthen Wall (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)

This is a follow-up to the November post “Our Global Food System,” where one of the featured reports focused on what Chinese consumers think of organic produce. Today, I will share another report on China that focuses on the organic farmers. It is called Organic Farming in China, featured on PRI’s The World report.

The report follows Michael Pollan (author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma”), Robert Kenner (director of “Food Inc.”) and Corby Kummer (food editor at the Atlantic) during their trip to China. They visit several organic farmers and share what they are learning. For example some farmers use earthen walls in their high-tunnels to capture heat during the day to maintain optimal temperature for the plants. The report also focus on the different practices Chinese organic farmers implement in raising free range chicken. Finally, the report also focus on whether these operations are scalable to make it into a self-sustaining operation.

Urban agriculture is not new. People have cultivated small plots of land ever since our species have stumbled onto agriculture. The key to the modern urban agriculture movement is to learn from practices around the globe and incorporate elements that makes sense for your region. Click here to read this short report to learn about how a segment of the Chinese population is looking to grow organic food.

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Urban Agriculture in NYC

My post for ECO City Farms on 12/1/2011:

Brooklyn Grange Farm is on top of a six-story building in Queens, NYC

Green Roofs has many positive benefits. It utilizes unused space on top of buildings in urban areas. The roof will double as an insulator for the top floor by regulating the temperature and mitigate urban heat wave issues. Such a roof will absorb excess water from a heavy rainstorm and slowly release it, which can help minimize flooding. But can you make green roofs an edible garden or a commercial farm? There are two examples in New York City, Brooklyn Grange and Gotham Greens, that is piloting commercial farm operation on rooftops in this fast moving metropolis. I will highlight innovative aspects of both models and share some articles written about each company.

Brooklyn Grange is a commercial organic farm operating on top of a six-story building in Queens, NY. This operation has approximately one-acre (40,000 square foot) with roughly 1.2 million lbs of soil. They grow tomatoes, salad greens, herbs, carrots, fennel, beets, radishes, beans, and other plants. This operation is funded by a combination of private equity, loans, grassroots fundraising events and Kickstarter.com. The business has a 10 year lease with a NYC based private real estate holding company. The produce from this operation is sold directly at several weekly farmstands across the city as well as local restaurants. Three things I like most about Brooklyn Grange are it is a for-profit urban farm, uses soil as the medium to grow their produce, and the low reliance on cutting edge technology.

FOOD CURATED: The Brooklyn Grange: NYC\’s Newest & Biggest Rooftop Farm

Gotham Greens is also a commercial organic farm operating on top of a two story industrial warehouse building in Brooklyn, NY. But, it takes place with-in a 15,000 square-foot hydroponic greenhouse facility that produces about 1.5 million tons of produce. They produce includes lettuce (baby butterhead, red leaf, green leaf), swiss chard, bok choy, arugula, and basil. The company sells their produce to chef in NY and high end grocery chains like Wholefoods Market. Right now their biggest challenge is meeting the demand for their products. There are two things I like about Gotham Greens model. First, they decided to focus on producing greens only, which can lead to quicker turn around each cycle. Second, the hydroponic system requires more infusion of technology and that brings in a different segment of the society into the urban agriculture mix. However, this approach is capital intensive and therefore has a higher barrier to entry.

A peek inside the Gotham Greens greenhouse

I really like both models. In my opinion, Brooklyn Grange speaks to the purist approach where as Gotham Greens speaks to the technology enthusiasts that believe in alternative methods to intensive agriculture. The two primary questions that needs to be addressed are: how much money do you want to spend, and how do you want to add the nutrients and minerals needed to grow the produce. Once you figure that out you need to identify the distribution channel that will help you break even.

Read the following articles to learn more about either of these urban agriculture business model:

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“Micro-farming” in Detroit

My short article I posted on ECO City Farms blog on 11/23/2011:

Detroit is generally known as the Motor City because the U.S. auto industry. Over the years this city’s economy has shared the same fate as the U.S. auto manufacturers. As Detroit rises out of the ashes, many of its residents are beginning to seek out ways to farm the vacant lots and open spaces within the city limits. The residents are starting to use urban farming as one way to reconnect the next generation to the city’s agricultural roots. In this post I will discuss two reports that provides a broad scope of the urban agriculture movement in Detroit.

Paul Weertz

The first report is called “The Gift of Detroit”: Tilling Urban Terrain, by Jon Kalish of the NPR (featured on the Weekend Edition on October 2, 2011). What I liked about this report are it identifies what are some of the possibilities of making a profitable venture within urban landscape and also some of the challenges. For example, Paul Weertz farms approximately 10 acres within Detroit. He grows about 1,000 bales of alfalfa. Another example focuses on Brother Nature Produce, which farms on 12 abandoned lots. It is operated in a co-op model amongst 27 families. However, the challenge is Detroit do not have clear policies with urban agriculture ventures within the city limits. If the city government wanted to reclaim the property for a future development or levy fines for having vegetation that is too tall they can. Listen to this report here or read about it here. See what other examples you can pull out from this report.

Malik Yakini of DBCFSN and D-Town Farm

The next report, called Detroit Urban Agriculture Movement Looks to Reclaim Motor City, (as featured on Democracy Now on June 24, 2010), focuses on how some groups are working with city government. In the video, Malik Yakini gives a tour of the D-Town Farm while speaking about the farms mission and the importance of urban agriculture in revitalizing Detroit. The farm is located in Rouge Park, one of the largest parks in the city. Yakini’s organization Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), secured a 10-year lease with the city to operate their four acres organic farm. DBCFSN is organizing to educate and take action in their community by influencing public policy, and promoting urban agriculture and healthy eating habits. You can view this story here and take some time to follow some of the other stories on revitalizing Detroit.

As urban agriculture develops in Detroit and the city’s economy begins to improve, there will be policy barriers to sustaining such operations. Having allies with the municipality and creating policies that legalize urban agriculture enterprises in Detroit by incorporating these enterprises into the city’s zoning code will be essential.

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Our Global Food System

A blog post from ECO City Farms I wrote on November 8, 2011:

On November 1st, while listening to PRI’s “the World” segment on the local NPR station, I heard two short five minute reports on our food system. Our food system is reliant on a global supply chain that imports and export food from the around the world. These two reports put the spotlight on China.

The first report, titled “Why some Chinese worry that buying organic isn’t good enough“. The story was eye opening because it gave me a perspective of what organic production is like in China. You get to hear the Chinese consumers perspective on organics products and some of the challenges they have to deal with regarding food purchases. Click here to listen to the report.

The second report, titled “Do you trust produce from China?” focuses on how Chinese products are increasingly filling up the shelves of American supermarkets. According to Mitch Lipka, the consumer columnist with the Boston Globe and Reuters, says 7% of our juices have Chinese produce. Can you trust Chinese products when there are reports of contamination and exploding watermelon? Follow the link above and listen to the report.

The food that we buy and eat has a global impact. Changing the way our food system works is a complex process. The objective of these two report is to provide some insight on how our food system works, both in the U.S. and in China. I hope you enjoy listening/reading these two reports. We would love to hear your comments and feedback on the two stories.

Baby in supermarket (Photo: fazen/Flickr)

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The Book of Embraces

A blog post for Provisions Library on September 19, 2011:

One of my favorite authors is Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguyan journalist and historian. He has an amazing way to write about history from the perspective of the loser or the victim. His books read like a novel. Perhaps you are familiar with his books: Memory of Fire (a triliogy), We Say No, or Open Veins of Latin America, which I am currently reading (tell you more about it in another post. But I just discovered that the Provisions Library also has the Book of Embraces, in our collection.

The Book of Embraces is a collection of parable, paradox, anecdote, dream, and autobiography of Galeano’s travel while he was in exile. Galeano is at his best when he writes in short bursts. “Celebration of Contradictions” on page 124 is one of my favorite:

“Idiot memory repeats itself as tragic litany. Lively memory on the other hand, is born every day, springing from the past and set against it. Of all the words in the German language, aufheben was Hegel’s favorite. Aufheben means both to preserve and to annul, and thus pays homage to human history, which is born as it dies and builds as it destroys.”

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

I like this anecdote because it represents art and social change, what Provisions focuses on. Art pushes the envelope by questioning. A new art movement is building while destroying the achievements of the past and present. Similarly, social change programs tries to fix the problems of the present system by bridging the gap, but these initiatives create new challenges.

It is amazing how Galeano is able to capture the moment and the future in what he presents.

To be continued…

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Dutch Approach to Water Management

A blog post I made for Provision Library on 9/14/2011 summarizing an event I attended at the Resources for the Future:

 

Today I attended a morning discussion called “Managing Extreme Events in our Rivers and Coastal Areas: Reflections on the Dutch Approach,” presented by Resources for the Future and the Royal Netherlands Embassy. My two biggest takeaways from the discussion are:

  1. Water management will be a critical aspect of modern civilization in the 21st century,
  2. Governments need a system wide approach that seeks collaborative partnership with businesses, NGOs, and government agencies.

Wim Kuijken, The Delta Programme Commissioner

The highlight of the discussion was listening to Wim Kuijken, Delta Commissioner of the Netherlands, speak about their new Delta Programme to improve flood risk management and access to sufficient freshwater amidst changing climate. This is a national initiative that seeks collaboration from multiple stakeholder groups.

The Delta Programme is critical in preserving the Dutch way of life because the Neatherlands is located on a basin that includes three major rivers flowing through the nation into the North Sea: Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt. This region is historically susceptible to flooding because of extreme climate and below sea level altitude, which leads to erosion and increased salinity. New challenges stem from increase in population and climate change. With over 16 million people in the country smart spatial development is a challenge and river discharge from industrial activity. Meanwhile climate change is creating more extreme weather, increase in intense rainfall in the region and rise in sea level.

The new delta program’s objective is to address safety for now and in the future. The program brings together the national government, provincial government, water boards, and municipalities. The project requires active participation from social organizations, knowledge institutes, and commercial enterprises. Currently there are three national programs and six regional programs.

The Commissioner summed up the program in what he calls the 5 Dutch D’s: delta programme (safety), delta decisions (future), delta commissioner (systematic change), delta funds and delta bills (policy). Some of the actions implemented include strengthening the existing infrastructure of dkyes, dams and floodplain; creating smart spatial development in the floodplains to mitigate extreme weather events; and passing bills that create long-term policies to continue the risk management aspects of this initiative. One aspect of the program I found really intriguing is how the program is creating a fund to provide €1 billion per year for delta management. This is critical in ensuring that vision the Delta Programme created is able to continue beyond the initial project.

The Dutch Delta Programme is definitely something other countries should study. With population growth and climate change having access to freshwater and managing floods will play a big role in maintaining economic and social stability. Water management programs cannot be something that is pushed by businesses or citizen organizations. It has to be a systematic approach that requires active participation from all levels of governances. With oversight from government, businesses have too much freedom to infringe on human rights by purchasing access to water tables for the benefit of the corporate entity. Or people might develop properties and tap into scarce natural resources without concerns of long-term impact. Netherlands Delta Programme attempts to find a balance between all the stakeholders. The program seeks collaborative approach that seeks the inputs of the citizen, business community, municipalities, and regional organizations. That is why it is a model that others should study.

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Movie: Gimme Green (Green Unplugged)

This is a repost from a blog entry I made for Provisions Library on July 18, 2011. Please note, the film is the perspective of the producer. The facts presented in the film should be questioned. Comments from this post wanted validity of some of the statistics presented in the film. If you have a trusted source that provides information on the lawn industry please leave a comment, to either support and/or counter the information presented in the film. Here’s what I wrote:

Ever wonder why Americans are obsessed with tending to their lawns? Gimme Green, a documentary featured in the Green Unplugged film festival, attempts to explain. This 30 minute film, produced by Isaac Brown, focuses on America’s obsession with having a perfect lawn and its collateral impact.
Brown presents the lawn industry’s stakeholder perspective of the importance of a great lawn through interviews with homeowners, community organizers, and employees of the lawn care industry. The interviews are interlaced with facts about the negative impact of the lawn industry on the U.S. ecosystem and its citizen. To understand the enormity of the lawn industry here are some facts I found intriguing from this film:
  • Every day more then 5,000 acres of land are converted to lawns in the U.S.
  • Americans spends more than 40 billion dollars each year on their yards
  • Every day more then 5,000 acres of land are converted to lawns in the U.S.
  • Americans spends more than 40 billion dollars each year on their yards
  • Lawns are the largest irrigated crops in the U.S. and covers 41 million acres
  • Americans apply more than 30,000 tons of pesticides to their yards every year
  • 17 of the 30 usual lawn pesticides are detected in groundwater

Are these facts disturbing? This is just the tip of the iceberg. Lawns replace native plant species that impacts the native insects and social composition. One alternative to lawns is planting a companion garden that pairs flowering plants, herbs, and, vegetables together. This will eliminate the need to mow your lawn and spray chemical pesticides. Your monthly grocery expenses will be reduced because you will grow some of your own food. Finally, you are creating a microcosm of a complex system fashioned similar to a healthy natural ecosystem. For example, tomatoes, basils, and French marigold are great companions. Basil helps tomato plants grow and adds flavor to the fruit while repelling pests such as thrips, flies, and mosquitoes.

Thrip; Source: Legambiente Arcipelago Toscano

Meanwhile marigolds are excellent at repelling nematodes and whiteflies. Gold Harvest Organics provides a comprehensive introduction to companion planting.

Soybean cyst nematode; Source: Agriculture Research Service USDA

Another alternative to lawns is a native plant garden that includes species adept at growing optimally in your region. A native plant garden reduces the amount of water needed to maintain it. These gardens will also attract insects and microbes that will self regulate the soil composition and the root system under ground with out strong petroleum based chemical pesticides.

Click here to view Gimme Green and other films from the Green Unplugged film festival.

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