Urban Farming and “The Government”

Thursday of last week, I had the pleasure of attending the New York City Council Committee on Land Use public hearing for a bill to “develop a comprehensive urban agriculture plan,” introduced by Rafael Espinal, City Council Member from Brooklyn. (details of the bill can be found at http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3106769&GUID=C1DA662E-E6E5-471D-91FF-170F1B12332A&FullText=1 ) The bill is light on specifics, being more of a requirement for the Department of City Planning (DCP) to come up with a plan that would include, at minimum, the following 9 items:

  1. catalog of existing and potential urban agriculture spaces
  2. classification and prioritization of urban agriculture uses
  3. identification of potential policies to promote agricultural production within the city
  4. identification of zoning rules and building codes that merit reconsideration to promote urban agriculture
  5. integration of urban agriculture into the city’s conservation and resiliency plans
  6. estimate of direct and indirect job creation and impacts from urban agriculture production
  7. determination of the feasibility of creating an Office of Urban Agriculture
  8. expansion of the availability of healthy food in low-income neighborhoods
  9. youth development and education with regard to local food production

The hearing included testimonies initially by two DCP representatives and then by a number of residents involved in urban farming and community gardening in the city.

In their testimony, the DCP insisted that this should have been handled as a city management issue and that legislation was not necessary as they claim that current laws already cover everything mentioned in the bill.  Council Member Espinal was essentially scolded for not consulting with them before introducing the bill. Land Use Committee Chairman David Greenfield was less than satisfied with this response and supported Espinal’s claim that they had, in fact, contacted DCP a number of times regarding specific projects but that permits were always issued ad hoc instead of coming from a dedicated DCP policy. A lively debate ensued in which Chairman Greenfield doggedly questioned the DCP representative about which specific codes and regulations applied to urban farming. He, along with Espinal (and everyone else present) just wanted a clear set of guidelines for what they should, could, and couldn’t do to grow vegetables and possibly sell them to others in the city – much like they have in Boston.

Greenfield brought the whole issue home with an anecdote about his 10-year-old son wanting his school to put what I assume would be a substantial container garden on the roof of their school building. But this requires the school and/or its students to invest way more time and energy in learning about the city’s building and food distribution codes than they were willing to take on. Couldn’t they just get some guidance from the administration to make this process less intimidating? The DCP representative was quick to disclaim DCP’s responsibility or capacity to provide such guidelines. The school or the students would have to learn all possible pertinent codes and rules from all of the various NYC departments/offices on their own. Greenfield was incredulous at this expectation. The DCP representative was not apologetic. She didn’t exactly expand her fan base during this exchange.

To cynics, this must sound like just another example of typically hyper-bureaucratic big government making it impossible for a resident to grow a few tomatoes and sell them to their neighbors. And if all that existed in NYC government was this bulky administration with an insensitive by-the-book DCP, then governmental nihilism might be understandable. But that is not the form of government used to keep NYC running, as we got to experience that day. This poorly understood topic needed a broader conversation and that’s what we were getting.

Urban agriculture is primarily a grass-roots movement (pun intended). Right now these are projects and businesses with a very local operational impact but a city-wide cultural opportunity. Involvement by local Representatives (i.e. City Council Members) is a natural in this case. This is exactly why they exist and their job is to make sure the administration is properly serving their constituents, so it was heartening to see them so engaged.

The rest of the hearing focused on how and why this bill should be passed. Arguments for its benefits and requirements to succeed were presented and some of the testimony pointed to Boston’s Urban Agriculture Rezoning Initiative, Article 89 ( http://www.bostonplans.org/planning/planning-initiatives/urban-agriculture-rezoning ), as an example of the type of comprehensive approach NYC should take. As well, a number of other major U.S. cities have already taken measures ranging from policies encouraging the development of urban farms to comprehensive zoning rules to allow mixed-use food production on and around buildings ( http://seedstock.com/2014/05/27/10-american-cities-lead-the-way-with-urban-agriculture-ordinances/ ). Each city approaches urban agriculture a little differently to suit their individual size, climate, economy, demographics, etc.

At first glance, NYC would seem to be lagging behind these others, and in many ways it is. But again, it has characteristics that differentiate it in important ways. From my experience over many years of providing green roof consulting and building energy analysis for projects in NYC, key features include:

Size and density – This is the country’s largest and most densely populated city. Part of the reason for the high density is that most of it is bound by water with Queens and The Bronx being the only boroughs with city limits bordering other towns where there might otherwise be some peripheral open areas for expansion or green spaces as in Chicago. This means that zoning and land-use rules and allowances are particularly sensitive issues.

Government – New York is the only city made up of multiple counties; each borough is its own county. This is mostly organizational and will have little effect on city-wide zoning allowances for urban agriculture. However, it could impact how each borough approaches approval or opposition to it. Manhattan and Staten Island probably each have very different views on what an urban agriculture policy should look like. The point is that NYC has a much bigger and more complicated government than any other U.S. city.

Architecture – NYC has a long history of utilizing its rooftops, sometimes in dramatic fashion (http://www.messynessychic.com/2017/03/17/new-yorks-incredible-lost-rooftop-theatres/ ). If you walk through Manahattan and look up, you will probably see trees growing on the edges of roofs and terraces. So the idea of expanding a container garden into a micro-farm should not be foreign to the Dept of Buildings. But it also means they have many decades of experience expanding codes and the bureaucracy associated with enforcing rules that, for some reason, seem stricter about lightweight greenhouse construction than heavy tree containers.

New York City can work through these complexities from 2 different directions:

Administrative initiatives – DCP can ask for funding to work with those in the food industry, including traditional producers, restaurants, grocers, and urban farmers along with other city departments and the Mayor’s Office to craft a dynamic policy governing pertinent laws and create a set of guidelines for those involved in urban agriculture.

Legislation – City Council can pass laws requiring DCP and other city agencies to take specific action and provide the necessary budget.

From my observations at the Land Use Committee hearing, the latter is going to be the more likely path as evidenced by several witnesses who expressed a common frustration that the administration is simply not taking this issue seriously. The urban farmers and their Council Members want more than just a zoning or rule change here and there, but actual planning and a comprehensive policy. The administration needs to be making compliance easier, not more difficult, for anyone wanting to get involved in urban agriculture.

What should not be lost in this discussion is that the administration does have some legitimate concerns that must be addressed in the guidelines. For example, DCP pointed out that it is unlawful for food grown on one residential lot to be sold on another lot – it then becomes a commercial entity subject to commercial zoning and regulation. This may seem onerous for many micro-farmers, but right now it is how the city controls health and safety when selling food products. Determining acceptable Local Law variants to everyone’s satisfaction will not be easy. Again, it’s a big city and exceptions to these rules really can add to the bureaucracy.

For a city as large and complex as New York, the realization of an effective urban agriculture plan will depend on it being handled carefully and reasonably. I believe that if this urban agriculture plan is created successfully, the scope will be such that other cities, and even states, will do well to reference it along with urban agriculture initiatives in other cities.

The Challenges of the Great Outdoors

The view from our 35th floor apartment balcony in Manhattan was magnificent. We loved watching the most amazing sunsets and dramatic storms approach from the west. Well, except that the storms would pretty much trash our tomatoes, dill, and whatever else grew taller than the balcony wall and would wash out sprouting plants if the rain was particularly heavy. Even when the weather was good, the fairly constant wind drew an impressive amount of water from all the plants.

Our next apartment was on a 4th floor with a spacious balcony that was quite sheltered, so we didn’t have to worry about storms damaging our plants. This time the assaults came from other directions in the forms of insects (and not enough of the good kind), airborne fungi, and limited sun exposure. Our pPod prototypes shifted from serving as plant shelters to rather effective plant hospitals when the damage began to take a toll.

Sounds like a lot of hassle just to have some herbs and a few vegetables growing outside. My cousin began to think the same thing when I set him up with a container garden and started giving him advice on how to deal with mildew and white flies. With his response of “You’re taking the fun out of gardening!” I knew that it was time to let nature take its course and, fortunately, it was reasonably kind to my cousin’s neighborhood this year.

So imagine your very livelihood being dependent on an entire field of crops surviving hailstorms, plagues, and pestilence. Seed and soil quality can be reasonably well established at the beginning of a growing season, but once sowing is done, nature’s potential onslaught and your ability to respond turn farming into a bit of a gamble. After many generations of farming in the U.S., the result is a federally subsidized $15 billion crop insurance industry and an entire section of our federal tax code being dedicated to the unique risk management of agribusinesses.

Everyone who tries to grow any type of food or flower outdoors has to deal with some aspect of the complexity of nature. Healthy plants can handle the challenges for which they are adapted, but only to a certain extent. Of course, as with humans, a qualitative stress such as the introduction of a new disease can be devastating. But quite often, the problem is quantitative, such as too much or too little rain. Even with insects and micro-organisms, the balance between the harmful and beneficial ones varies from year to year, sometimes past a tipping point. And that’s without human interference.

Interfering with nature is a tricky business. Unless we want to revert to being strictly hunters and gatherers of our food, modifying a patch of land for cultivation is our only path for survival. I use the word “path” because the transition from simply planting and harvesting a crop to managing a modern farm continues to evolve.

Bronze Age hedges, Cornwall (cornishhedges.co.uk)

Irrigation was one of the first manipulative innovations which eliminated the risk of drought, and walls were utilized early on to control animal and human traffic through fields, orchards, and gardens. High hedges and tree rows were also used as wind blocks. Later, chemicals were applied to additionally inhibit the flow of insects and effects of airborne seeds, fungi, bacteria, etc.

Of these advancements, the one that has led to the greatest control of a growth environment is that of the enclosure. From stone walls to greenhouses, concepts for putting a physical barrier between a plant and whatever might keep it from thriving have tracked engineering advancements throughout history. Some of the earliest accounts from the Roman Empire and Korean Joseon Dynasty describe what were essentially barns with translucent oil cloth stretched between joists in place of the roof and then closed up during particularly cold weather.

        Kew Gardens “Palm House” greenhouse

As plate glass windows were developed in Western Europe, greenhouses took a leap closer to modern CEA structures.

Full greenhouse enclosures not only allowed temperature control, the physical barrier minimized the need for chemical weapons in the battle against pests and invasive weeds. Focus could then be on maximizing plant health and product quality.

Today, we have the technology to completely control every aspect of a plant’s interaction with the rest of the world, resulting in higher yields with higher quality and less waste. But just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. Currently, the business case for clean-room-type hydroponics is difficult to justify for much more than leafy and micro greens. Even conventional greenhouses are not cost effective for orchards or grain crops in the vast majority of situations. Many people are also of the opinion that an overly sanitized farming process removes desirable flavor from vegetables. I have to confess that I prefer field peppers to greenhouse peppers if they’re not too beat up.

I believe that we are at the point where the real challenge is no longer in figuring out how to control agricultural environments, but rather in deciding the most intelligent way to approach each situation. Commercial farmers are already grasping how to assess the risks and rewards of adopting and investing in CEA methods. Urban farmers and other micro-farmers are learning this as well, though with a different set of constraints and unknowns.
More on the details of CEA business strategies coming up.


Filling a Big Gap

I’m walking into the garden center at Home Depot and the first thing I see is 2 long rows of pots and planters in dozens of different styles and sizes. Everything from small plastic containers to beautifully glazed 50 gallon planters. These hundreds of plant containers are bought by nearly as many people for their home growing each month.

And they are planting more than just flowers. At an increasing rate, people are growing their own herbs and small vegetables, according to the latest National Gardening Survey. This survey supports other reports indicating that nearly 20 million Americans have active indoor or outdoor container gardens, including as many as 3 million who are trying some type of hydroponics.

Unfortunately, these surveys do not address how or if the outdoor container-grown plants are protected from the elements, i.e. storms, wind, bugs, etc.  You can buy a small greenhouse at Home Depot but it will probably not fit on a typical balcony, or be appropriate for a terrace, deck or rooftop.

I assume you are familiar with greenhouses – specialized structures with glass walls (typically now clear plastic panels) designed to let in as much sunlight as possible and then hold in heat when needed or vent the heat during warm weather. To a great extent, a greenhouse is a managed environment for growing all kinds of plants and one of the oldest forms of controlled environment agriculture (CEA).

However, the environment in a greenhouse is not necessarily completely controlled unless it also has air conditioning, supplementary heat, artificial sunlight (grow lights), circulation fans, and humidity control. Most serious commercial greenhouses have these features where and when they are necessary. Going even further with CEA, hydroponics techniques control growth media as well by replacing soil with very specific exposure to air and nutrient-rich water. All of these concepts have found their way into technologies available to individual consumers as well as commercial markets.

Commercial farmers also have use for very simple plastic film coverings with no additional environment control. This is often referred to as “modified environment agriculture” (MEA) since they have a limited effect on light, temperature, and humidity. Some overlap exists between what is considered CEA and what gets called MEA, so a bit of latitude in terminology may be in order when talking about a plant enclosure that incorporates partial control of its environment.


Now, looking at these two industries – home gardening and commercial CEA/MEA – what is missing is a controlled-environment outdoor plant enclosure small enough to fit on a balcony, yet also expandable to help commercial growers who want a compact version of their CEA greenhouses for starting plants and enhancing low-profile plant growth. This could be seen as a niche market, but a pretty big niche that includes:

  • Home growers in cities, suburbs, and even rural areas
  • Restaurants and grocery stores capable of growing their own produce and herbs on their rooftops or terraces
  • Micro-farmers and urban farmers
  • Specialty and research farms
  • Schools, hospitals, and other facilities where people pay attention to food quality and education

At Ponix MicroAg, our goal is to become a major CEA resource for all of these people and businesses as we bring pPod compact enclosures and complementary products and services to these markets in the near future.

To learn more about Ponix MicroAg, our initial design, the pPod, and other developments we are working on, visit our website at www.pponix.com .

Thanks for checking in!


Here we go…

Welcome to the inaugural blog post for Ponix MicroAg!

We hope you find the discussions here helpful and interesting. Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is a rapidly expanding segment of the farming industry and it provides a technical foundation for DIY hydroponics and other controlled environment home gardening. Considering all the different kinds of people growing a wide range of plants in every imaginable type of location, this exploration will cover a lot of territory.

Post topics will range from Ponix MicroAg products and company information to technical overviews of common industry issues to the social impacts of how and where we grow food, herbs, and decorative plants. I’m looking forward to seeing where the conversation takes us and getting more insights from your comments so that we can all gain a greater understanding of new ways to grow food in the 21st century.

Thanks for checking in!



Lit pPod prototypes #5 & #6