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Urban Farming

Approaches to sustainable agriculture in several of the world's largest cities

by CH Editors in Food + Drink on 20 April 2012

More than half the world's population now lives in cities, but when it comes to feeding them, trucking in the necessary amount of food isn't a sustainable process for any metropolis. Growing out of the need for better solutions, urban farming is becoming an increasingly common approach, whether resourceful groups and individuals are planting vegetables in a container on their back porch or are harvesting land as part of the burgeoning agricultural community.

With Earth Day around the corner, we decided to check in with seven farms in cities from Hong Kong to Cairo to learn more about their methods, and their outlook on the future of the industry.

Brooklyn

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"There have been backyard and rooftop farms here forever, but the current community of farmers, beekeepers, composters, etc., is driving an agricultural renaissance which could significantly change the way this city produces and consumes much of its produce. While urban farms will never replace their rural counterparts, they can contribute to the health of the local ecosystem and mitigate the intensive resource use of growing urban populations."

The Brooklyn Grange Apiary Project will soon open with 30 hives, led by beekeepers Chase Emmons, director of special projects for the expanding Brooklyn Grange empire and Tim O'Neal of Borough Bees. Emmons and O'Neal will have a team of 12 apprentices working under a pay-it-forward program, wherein they'll each take on an apprentice of their own to train the following season. Located at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the forthcoming commercial apiary marks an expansion of the Grange's four existing hives used to pollinate their acre of crops at the flagship farm in Long Island City. According to communications manager Anastasia Plakias, "bees can exponentially increase crop yield and quality, and the honey we harvested was a delicious added benefit."

So delicious were the results that the Apiary was born, which aims to meet the demand for local honey and, says Plakias, "provide the city's beekeepers with a local source of bees more acclimated to New York's environment." The challenges of loading hives in close city quarters increases the risk for their handlers being stung, but their hard work pays off for the rest of us—urban honey is known to pack a distinctly tasty flavor. Look out for the sweet stuff at their two weekly farmstands, Smorgasburg on Saturdays and in the Brooklyn Grange building lobby on Wednesday afternoons from 16 May.

Montreal

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"Cities could be self-sufficient in their food production if enough rooftops were utilized. At the very least, the average consumer is far too distant from their food sources, and the link between grower and consumer must be made closer and unshuttered. Consumers should know who their farmer is, how their food is grown, and have every assurance in the traceability and safety of the food they eat."

Lufa Farms is based around a strong desire to provide local produce to the urban community of Montreal, founded by Mohamed Hage after he discovered the difficulty of finding fresh fruits and vegetables in a large metropolis. As a solution he built a 31,000-square-foot prototype farm on the roof of an office building where all produce is grown organically and chemical-free, and will be the first of many if Hage gets his way. Lufa currently grows tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants and 22 other varieties of vegetables, including new additions like white pickling cucumber and kohlrabi, but the selection changes regularly.

Beyond the physical location Lufa offers a unique distribution program. Similar to Community Supported Agriculture programs that bring food from farmers outside an urban center, Lufa grows its food on an urban farm and then directly distributes its produce to recipients at drop-off locations in the city. This leads to a situation where, the company promises, "everything for customer baskets is harvested the same day as it's delivered and is delivered directly to consumers at drop-off points," for a system that truly embodies the most direct farm-to-table system possible in an urban space.

Manhattan

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"We’re very conscious of the materials we use, so aside from hand cultivators, shovels, gloves and hoses, we try to build what we can from recycled materials."

Riverpark Farm grows out of Alexandria Center in New York City, utilizing all 15,000 square feet of their available space to accommodate a year-round growing season. Riverpark Restaurant serves up the farm's bounty under the vision of chef Sisha Ortúzar, and chefs commune with farmers to get a huge variety of seasonal ingredients from soil to plate. While still a fledgling effort, the union has produced a cornucopia of foodstuffs from shishito peppers and watermelon to pickling cucumber and tri-star strawberries. Challenged with space and a fickle clime, Riverpark uses space-saving techniques such as intercropping and advanced seeding to increase yield.

Noting that the team is mostly composed of urbanites, Riverpark is nevertheless ready to employ the materials at hand. "We compost using our clean food scraps from the kitchen along with egg shells, oyster shells and coffee grounds, using both traditional hot and vermi-composting systems."

Milwaukee

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"We encourage more and more people to not only support businesses that are using good, locally grown produce but to also grow their own. We are supportive of all the other endeavors in our region and have shared our expertise and experience and hope to see urban farming displace the need for giant agri-business and food importation."

Sweet Water Organics started with the humble lettuce sprout. The exponentially growing outfit now farms four acres that sprawl over an old crane factory and adjacent land in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee. While very much focused on greens (they produce 15,000 pounds per year), the farm also grows mushrooms and other produce in the summer months. The fruits of their labor is peddled off to co-ops, restaurants, groceries and sold at the local farmers' market.

"Our main systems are aquaponic raft set-ups," explains Todd Leech. "We also used raised beds, and coir medium sprout planting." Sweet Water is dedicated to staying "as native as possible with all plants," TK says, providing local consumers with crops outside of the standard fare. The farm also produces fish, a native species of perch acting as star of the operation.

Berlin

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"We are still amateurs on an adventure to find out what we can manage to do on our own. This urban garden is for us a form of living in the city, it is not just about nature and the countryside, it is also about places with a high density of exchange, different cultures and  forms of knowledge."

Prinzessinnengärten is a 6,000-square-meter farm in the middle of Berlin focused on the aspect of biodiversity. "We have a lot of old and rare varieties, for example, 16 varieties of potatoes that you will not find on the market any more," co-founder Marco Clausen tells us. "This we do also to make people aware of the problems of global industrialized farming, of monopolies of seed distribution and the rapid decline of diversity." Plants grow in industrial vessels like recycled crates and rice bags, in a vertical garden or potentially soon, an aquaponic system.

For Clausen and the 20-person Prinzessinnengärten team, urban farming isn't so much a solution for the demand for food, it's more of a place for social learning. They feel the farm "functions as a catalyst of cultural change", and by showing practical alternatives, they can "make people living in the city aware of the food production system they depend on."

Cairo

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"Urban farms create green spaces that are scarce in cities, hence contributing to the oxygen production in the micro climate. Additionally plants grown on rooftops absorb a large amount of heat that would otherwise be absorbed by gray rooftops and black asphalt roads which is transmitted as radiation back into the environment increasing the temperature in the city."

Schaduf is comprised of seven small, vegetable-focused rooftop farms in Cairo, run collectively by brothers Sherif and Tarek Hosny. Using hydroponic and aquaponic systems, their five-person team grows leafy greens—they've produced about 2,000 heads of lettuce in the past year—strawberries, red cabbage, local peppermint and a foreign variety of chicory endives, among other crops. While they do sell at local farmers markets, their greater goal is to move low-income individuals out of poverty by providing them the opportunity to own a profitable rooftop farm. Each is roughly 6x6 meters square, the micro farms allow them to detect problems more easily, and more carefully manage the irrigation systems. "It's crucial that we do not have any water leakages to the rooftop," Sherif explains.

Concerned with Egypt's rapidly increasing water shortage, they use a no-soil system that consumes less water than traditional agriculture methods. They are also developing another system "based on permaculture techniques and philosophies", says Sherif, that they will share with families already growing livestock on rooftops—a popular method in Cairo. Sherif affirms, "We want to try to integrate that existing practice with growing healthy vegetables."

Hong Kong

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A stable city must be sustainable in every sense. It is extremely important that developed cities still produce their own food and support local agriculture. Imported foods is an unstable system that depends on a lot of external factors beyond an everyday person's control."

HK Farm is a flourishing new community-driven urban farming collective founded in March 2012 by former Brooklyn Grange farmer Michael Leung and a team of aspiring farmers, artists and designers. Focusing on rooftop farming and the important benefits of locally grown food, HK Farms is in the process of expanding the presence of urban farms in Hong Kong. Currently operated by a team of three, their 4,000-square-foot farm is getting off the ground growing a variety of herbs, with plans to expand with new vegetables to the lineup.

With a strong focus on DIY projects, all the growing containers were designed and built by the staff and ecologically conscious elements are being installed from the start, including a rainwater collection system. But as with any labor of love it is a long and extensive process according to the founders, "It was extremely hard work to accomplish the initial building of the farm, whilst balancing our own personal work and projects, and normal lives….We don't consider ourselves farmers (yet)."

See more images of the farms in the gallery below.

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