Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Urban Agriculture Conference at The New York Horticultural Society

Love and urban agriculture have so much in common.

Think about it.

Just like the early stages of love – meaning there is the flirtatious gamble on exciting, new confrontations, the early passion, and the-where-have-you-been-all-my-life affirming commitment – so it is not off the mark to read the opening sentence on the flyer for The Horticultural Society of New York’s (HSNY)
recent conference on Urban Agriculture where it posits the question, “Is Urban Farming here for the long haul, or just the latest iteration of a ‘back to the land’ reflex that occurs whenever the nation or economy is threatened?” to see the parallelisms of love and urban farming and long-term relationships.
This manifesto of sorts could be the opening salvo of an online dating strategy.   (Substitute You for Urban Farming and back to the land for the steady lover and you catch the drift!)

But when it comes to Urban Ag, HSNY is all business.  They are no one-night stand!  The organization rightfully claims they have been cultivating urban gardeners since 1902 – so they are the Oprah-like poster child of long-term commitment and can claim a home field advantage on this subject.
Urban Agriculture Conference

It was an energized, cosmopolitan-peppy, sold-out audience that filled the Hort’s midtown headquarters for the all-day educational and entertaining event. 
Anticipation fairly crackled as attendees greeted one another -- eagerly embracing the too-early (i.e. hot) spring – and each other -- while serving up the healthy breakfast provided by The Hort. 
Overheard clutches of conversation were riffs on the themes: “Can you believe the herbs are up already?” to “There’ll be hell to pay with the ‘bugs’ this summer” to “My clients think we should start planting annuals now!” and “Does anyone need more proof of climate change??”       
All rather natty horticulture exchanges, don’t you think?

The Urban Ag Conference Line Up

The day’s agenda was a “Who’s Who” of urban farming and gardening. 
As an aside, does one read a difference in those terms or is the urban environment where the two acts: gardening and farming are rendered two sides of the same coin?

George Pisegna, Director of Hort, Introduces Conference at The Hort
George Pisegna, Director of Horticulture and the genius who toils to put these fascinating programs together opened up the Conference.  

Thomas Fox, Keynoter and author of “Urban Farming: Sustainable City Living in Your Backyard, in Your Community, and in the World,” (available at Amazon and on the Kindle. I got that version) was the ideal candidate to address the audience with his talk:
Urban Farming in 2012:  Anything New Under the Sun?”

Following a delicious and equally healthy lunch was the Panel Discussion, moderated by Camilla Hammer, Farm Manager, Battery Urban Farm The Battery Conservancy

Panelists: Erika Brenner, Farm Educator Dekalb Farm
Annie Novak, Founder and Director, Growing Chefs
Phyllis Odessey, Director of Horticulture, Randall’s Island Park
Eun Young Sebazco, Horticulture Manager, Randall’s Island Park
Britta Riley, CEO and Founder, Windowfarms
Zach Pickens, Farm Manager, Riverpark Farm at Alexandria Center 

Tom started the book in 2001; finished it in 2010. 
His talk was as much about the making of the book as it parallels the evolution of the world of urban farms as it was about the state of urban farming.

The moniker “urban farming” didn’t even exist when he started his research and writing, he said.

There was a Brooklyn rooftop farm, and the first urban CSA and pretty much nothing else.  His research took him from no material to everyone’s doing it, with urban farming-as-phenomena.

His book opens with the Google search results that go from three to thousands…

So what is creating this new status of urban framing?
Tom outlined what’s driving Urban Ag, with the starting gate of 2011:

1. The attacks on the World Trade Center caused many New Yorkers to move away. He cited a friend who relocated to Atlanta and subsequently felt drawn “back to the land.”  But then she also realized “food as crop” and was dissatisfied, nay disgusted with the choice of perishable food being offered for sale.   
She asked, “Is this the legacy we want to leave to our children?”  She came to farm her food.

2. Wars and economic problems  - there is precedence of this crisis that leads to gardening. Think Victory Gardens. The recent recession jumpstarted the practice of urban gardening.  In any economic crisis there is a want (need?) to grow our own food to save money.

3. China and the World Trade Organization –First we lost a lot of jobs when we stopped being the people who made things with our hands, leaving that to China and things like food here became cheap.

4.  Climate Change – It rains less frequently but more intensely and this is bad for agriculture.  Climate change will continue and will only get worse.  Tom said we can see the affects climate change has created and called out proof of its consequences in an article he found in an insurance industry press story on this – noting it was not covered in the popular press.
This discovery caused quite a stir in that business is already baking the climate change element into their spreadsheets and yet the mass population is not even accepting the fact that climate change exists! 
Moreover, there is a land grab presently going on in Africa, according to Tom.
Rain-fed cropland is already being farmed. Now, so many resource-poor countries are buying up millions of acres to lock in their land insurance for growing food. 
The land grab effort underscores a country’s insecurity.

Tom continued: The Slow Food movement started in Europe and like past immigrants, soon made its way to the US.
The organization is a grass roots effort to promote local food traditions and to combat industrial and unsafe food practices.

In 2003 Europe reacted to its Mad Cow disease but scientists still can’t figure out where the cow came from due to the complicated fabric of cross-networked food sources.
Now the Slow Food movement is making its way to China in reaction to its health scares and as a partial solution to that country’s food scandals, including salmonella outbreaks in eggs there – that are shipped elsewhere…

“It’s all very disturbing,” lamented Tom.  “All these examples point up the precariousness of our food supply.”

Part of the allure of urban farming is to reclaim the food supply.

Food Mantra

Food is radical. Food is power.
“This is a mantra that can be applied to most every urban farming experience,” claims Tom. “If you don’t control the food, you don’t control life.”

Most of this country’s “life” or food – comes from California’s Central Valley, and Latin and South America.
But, Tom suggests, fruits and vegetable can be grown locally. 
At this point, he noted the rice that was grown at Randall’s Island.
We’d learn more about this successful, revolutionary urban farming experience later from Eun Young and Phyllis – the Randall’s Island food farming heroines and geniuses behind this brave and creative experiment.

From a perspective of cultural anthropology, Tom pointed out the history of how farming changed mid-century -- after World War II.
At that time, it was considered a favor to get people off the farm. Working with one’s hands is wonderful yes, but tough.
Here, Tom showed a Gifford Pinchot sign he came across that celebrated this notion: getting farmers out of the mud and onto paved roads!

As in ‘preaching to the choir, Tom said the pendulum has swung the other way – and we now have nearly every city practicing urban farming.

There are generations of kids who have been exposed to growing their own food through the efforts of passionate citizens and organizations including public parks: i.e. Randall’s Island, botanic gardens, and GreenMarkets.  “Often, these kids go off to become professional farmers,” said Tom.  

Cities have built-in advantages, he said.  There is the ‘heat-island’ affect that can extend the growing seasons. 
In addition, cities can offer protection from winds and provide ready access to technology to better implement farming approaches such as hydroponics, and drip irrigation and greenhouses and window farms.
“In many ways, urban farms are more efficient than rural areas.”
He cited Lake Mead where the water levels have been steadily dropping due to less than average snowfall feeding the Colorado River.  Can’t miss that bathtub ring badge of water loss.

The Ogallala aquifer supplies 30% of the country’s total irrigation water and yet its waters have been so tapped that the trees there are drying up, Tom noted.
This aquifer, by the way, nourishes the “breadbasket of America” and has been dragged back unwillingly into the news recently because there are those who argue to allow the construction of the Keystone pipeline to carry oil to the Houston refineries from Canada, thereby increasing the risk, to say the least, for environmental disaster and loss of food security.  Does anyone remember the Gulf oil spill? 

And India has frequent blackouts due to the strain put on the grid by the overwhelming use of water pumps needed to extract water…  


OK, so the audience was already sold on the idea of urban farming, and were spellbound by the history and stories of farming romance engendered by working with the land…

Now the pragmatics were wondering about that place where the road hits the rubber, er, tractor tire.

How much money can one expect to make or how much yield will urban farming produce??

Tom says 20-30 pounds of tomatoes and cited Gotham Greens and others who claim they can earn $50K on a half-acre to 100 tons of produce yield from one-third acre. 
It all depends on the way the land is farmed. 
Shanghai, for example has a population of 23 million and produces 90% of its eggs and 50% of its chickens and pork, and more than two metric tons of wheat and rice.   “Something to aspire to,” he noted.

New York has 52,000 acres of back yards. 
An exciting development is “Distributed Farms” – where farmers do a lot of work on homeowners’ space who set aside land for farmers to work their land, with the homeowners having shares – similar to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.  This could be a Home Supported Agriculture or a HAS!

Further, New York City has 14,000 un-shaded rooftop that can be farmed. This can also be considered an added advantage for building owners and landlords because the rooftop farms offer insulation that can benefit heating and cooling costs.

There is 11,000 acres of brownfields and vacant lots in NYC. 
Riverpark – celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s Kips Bay restaurant overlooks a garden that was a “stalled” commercial development and is a good example of this enterprise.

In general, it was noted edibles can be grown in containers and raised beds to safeguard against ground pollutants, as is done at Riverpark’s farm.

Just look around – food can be grown most everywhere: in community gardens, patio containers and windowsills and on fire escapes – (the last being illegal, of course, and shouldn’t be promoted as a place to grow anything.)

Talk about Job Creators

Unlike some big shots, who claim they know business only to lay off workers or shut down plants, farming on the other hand does indeed generate jobs. 
Tom said it is a difficult metric to determine, but delighted the audience not only with his research and results, but also in his sheer pluckiness in finding the data in a Kellogg Foundation Report from which he extrapolated his work.

So here it goes:  The USDA says for every $1 million in sales, 13 jobs per million are created so therefore, urban farming can expect to provide 13,000 jobs! 
Major cities that can contribute to urban farming jobs are Detroit, San Francisco, Boston and New York that combined are one-third of the US population. 
“It’s an Agricultural Disneyland” Tom declared. 

How to Foster an Agricultural Disneyland – and get a Tool Library!

No “Land of the Future” amusement here, rather buying locally grown food and encouraging local restaurants that support local farms. 
“It is a great cachet for the restaurants,” said Tom.  “And many of the chefs get to help determine what’s grown – so they get an exclusive” to offer to the customer.

Another way to get urban farming going is to recognize zoning laws need to change.  City planners need to consider the height of buildings; consider having limits not apply to greenhouses.  “We could be looking at 12,000 acres of commercial rooftop use for farms,” noted Tom.

Our goal should be 15% of our food supply be grown in our own breadbasket. We can even grow apples -- just like they do on Randall’s Island, he observed.  

“Start with vegetables as opposed to livestock, “ grinned Tom while offering another tip to get urban farming in place.
Push for more community gardens and farmers markets with Tool Libraries as GrowNYC has.

Tool Libraries? 
What a great idea.  Tool libraries lend the garden instruments needed to till the land and can reduce overhead costs for start up efforts.

Another kick-starter is to allow for cottage industries.  For example, the Bronx Community Farm wanted to sell their produce but didn’t have a way to do business with a GreenMarket.  But after the city lent a hand, the Farm can now sell food commercially and make money to fund their operations.

Sure to enable urban agriculture is to support Farm to School programs to promote nutrition, careers, etc. 
Note: many master chefs recognize cooking is transformative – they work diligently for children’s gardening programs including chefs that are featured in this Examiner’s book, Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook
For example, chefs Bryan Futerman and Joe Realmuto build greenhouses and teach cooking and sponsor fundraising for their Spring Seedlings Project they spearheaded in 2008 to teach kids about growing their own food and quality of what they cook and eat.

Here’s a nice story about their efforts in the East Hampton Patch:

Chef Bill Telepan’s Wellness in Schools (WITS) helps city schools produce healthy menus. Other Celebrity chefs, including Marcus Samuelson, lend a hand to teach and train school kitchen staffs. WITS aims to foster “healthy eating, environmental awareness and fitness as a way of life for kids in NYC public schools.

What’s on the Horizon?

When asked what’s new under the sun, Tom delivered on the keynote’s headline provocation and didn’t hesitate to say he thinks there is great momentum, there are more ways to engage and to complement traditional agriculture along with plenty of ways to be sustainable. 
He also offered examples of successful Distributed Networks and shared the fact that Bryerson in Canada has a Distance Learning program.

He believes the future of urban construction and urban farms will be part and parcel of each other.  Urban farms will have become part of the construction building criteria and lexicon.

Agri-Tourism will become a popular form of travel entertainment, too.

For more information from Tom and his world of Urban Farming, visit his website:

Tom Fox, author & Urban Ag Conference Keynote Speaker

Next up is the Panel Discussion review filled with insight and tips from “some of the most productive and innovative projects in the city’s urban farming community,” as profiled in The Hort’s flyer.
They should know.

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