DIY vs Commercial Farming

Gardening is a 7 billion dollar industry in the US with about half of that accounting for the cultivation of stuff someone would like to eat. If this produce is then sold, is it still just “gardening”?

We know a lot about the purchase of seed, fertilizer, soil mixes, starter plants, tools, and such, but unlike large-scale corporate farming, we know very little about various distributions of produce that have always existed downstream of garden supply sales. I don’t mean the ridiculously huge zucchinis that get left on neighbors’ porches every summer because what else are you going to do with them. For every ton of baseball bat sized squashes grown each year, approximately 4 loaves of zucchini bread are actually baked. The rest becomes compost.

I am referring to people who maintain a booth at a farmers’ market or even in front of their homes selling fruit, vegetables, and herbs that are grown on a small plot out back or in a community garden. And now we should include micro and leafy greens grown hydroponically in a grow room. Even when these sales are more formal than cash or barter transactions, they are not clearly represented in major industry surveys.

Sometimes a thing becomes something else simply by changing its name. If Joe grows fantastic Nardello peppers on a ¼ acre of his back yard and eats them all himself, you would be right to say that he is an avid gardener and enjoys eating what he grows. But if he sells all his Nardello peppers at a local weekend market, he becomes Farmer Joe, or more accurately, Micro-Farmer Joe. The peppers don’t care who eats them; nor do the garden supply companies as they are pretty much only care about the potential for another ¼ acre of land being used to consume their products.

The ones who do care that Gardener Joe became Micro-Farmer Joe are local chefs and foodies who are ecstatic that they now have a source of fresh Nardello peppers that are otherwise not available at their local grocery stores. And when everyone gets bored with Nardello peppers and begins clamoring for Corno di Toro peppers, Micro-Farmer Joe picks up on this trend shift and starts growing Corno di Toro peppers, JUST LIKE BIG-TIME COMMERCIAL FARMERS.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, New York City requires anyone producing and then selling any kind of food products to have one or more types of license or permit to do so legally, even if you just want to sell your terrace grown tomatoes at a vegetable stand on the corner. Local Law 2018/046, enacted in January aims to simplify licensing for gardeners-turned-micro-farmers and we have every reason to believe it will be an effective program. Several other cities in the US have already established ordinances that specifically encourage micro-farming by streamlining land-use regulations, processing requirements, and sales permits.

And unlike large-scale commercial farmers, it is very easy for Micro-Farmer Joe to go back to being Gardener Joe and just grow what he, and maybe some of his friends and neighbors, will eat without money ever being involved (except maybe a bet on who can grow the ugliest gourd). That would be too bad for the more creative chefs in town who love having a regular supply of fresh and unusual ingredients. But then another micro-farmer will pick up their business.

This is the beauty of distributed agriculture. The production of much of the produce we buy, or would buy if it was available, can scale very differently than staple crops like wheat and corn. A great example is with herbs: a micro-farmer can justify offering loose herbs or small bundles of a greater variety than larger operations which have to ship bigger bundles or expensively packaged herbs to cover production costs that are only suited to high volume operations. I hate having to buy mint either by the fistful or in a couple of overpriced tiny plastic packs when I just want enough to make a few mojitos. A micro-farmer growing several different herbs and harvesting them with little or no support labor can more easily afford to customize quantities and not worry about how they will ship.

At first glance, micro-farming can look like little more than a new label on an old practice, but hydroponics, advanced greenhouse equipment, and serious urban agriculture efforts dramatically expanded its potential and continue to change how many of us buy produce – or grow our own food.

Ponix MicroAg pPods™ will provide an ideal intermediate environment for both gardeners and micro-farmers. We get consistently positive responses from people who want pPods for growing herbs on balconies in New York, starting plants before the end of winter everywhere from Boston to Peoria to Sacramento, establishing more mature plants for micro-farms in Atlanta, growing micro-greens on a deck in Seattle, or keeping a favorite patio plant safe through frosty winter nights in North Carolina. We are excited about providing a versatile option for growing all kinds of plants for multiple purposes and look forward to what Micro-Farmer Joe grows in his pPods!

E Pluribus Unum Food Supply

Let’s consider disruptive innovations. Examples that justifiably get immediate attention are smartphones, streaming video, LED lighting, digital photography, and pretty much anything else digital or involving the internet. But a deep dive into the history of farming is often needed to appreciate the impact of disruptive innovations in agriculture. Here are a few historical examples that completely changed how we grow and get our food and are often taken for granted in the 21st century:

  • Jethro Tull’s seed drill was instrumental in launching the British Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century
  • combine harvesters eliminated multiple steps in processing grain after harvesting beginning in the late 19th century
  • industrial refrigeration revolutionized food storage in the early 20th century
  • tractors eliminated the use of horses, mules, and oxen to pull field working equipment by the mid-20th century
  • no-till farming has displaced traditional tilling for many types of crops over the past 40 years and has had a huge impact on soil preservation and other ecological improvements

And now, we can add controlled environment agriculture (CEA), which includes hydroponic and vertical farming.

Every once in a while, I come across an article emphasizing the disruptive significance of CEA, particularly indoor vertical farming, implying that it could someday replace traditional farming with even cereal crops being grown indoors. A few months ago, a Forbes article quoted an up and coming hydroponics CEA company on the west coast as saying “Research shows that hydroponic farming could well be the future of global agriculture, combining the benefits of local outdoor organic farming with the high yields of large-scale agricultural production.” The impression that this could apply to all farming gets reinforced by news of projects where crops such as rice are grown in modern multi-use buildings.

Is it theoretically possible that all of our food could be grown indoors? Yes. Is it optimal? Probably not (at least not for the foreseeable future on Earth – farming on Mars is another story). We can gage that opinion against the limits of farming technology over the years. Let’s take a closer look at that select list of historical disruptive agricultural innovations:

  • Seed drills & combines: only apply to annual (or semi-annual) plants grown from seed in rows. Granted, this includes staple crops such as corn, wheat, and barley that comprise the bulk of our farmland, but not to other essential food sources like fruit trees and vines. Although, several types of orchard harvesting machines are in use and continually being invented.
  • Refrigeration is only required for fresh produce and meat.
  • No-till farming does not work for root vegetables.
  • Tractors are not necessarily practical for greenhouses – a rapidly growing farming segment – or micro-farms.

Ah, yes. Micro-farms. At first glance, they seem to be mere gardens for which the word “farm” is a bit grandiose. Yet, what if micro-farms were utilized strategically such that their combined effect was to reliably provide specific types of crops, such as herbs and micro-volume specialty produce, to local customers at a lower price and higher quality than “real” farms? This is a concept that is taking shape in many cities where local markets for produce grown in local lots or on building rooftops and terraces is being created.  Organizations such as Urban Farming are working to transform what has been a type of business sustained largely by esthetics and community support into a serious form of distributed agriculture that will only enhance the social and esthetic attraction of produce from local soil. Included in a distributed agriculture system are most types of CEA, including greenhouses and hydroponic farms.

Distributed agriculture is analogous to distributed energy where localized energy generation is beginning to aggregate to the extent that some utilities are now seeing it as a very useful supplement during certain peak and valley power demand times. And how that distributed energy gets used is also part of the strategy. For example, electricity demand is often highest during the day when solar PV panels can collect the most energy. The power from PV panels is most efficiently used directly as DC electricity to do things like charge phones and power PC’s and apply unused electricity to battery banks for those same applications during the night.

Or consider that traditional windmills in the U.S. were built, and are still sold, to pump water for irrigation and watering livestock without any electricity being involved.

Utilities can plan for these types of independent, supplementary, distributed power sources when estimating how much electricity is needed from local and regional power plants.

Hydroponics, micro-farming, and greenhouse innovations are beginning to disrupt the agricultural industry in the same way and will continue to do so until an economic equilibrium is reached where costs are minimized and quality meets expectations for each farming method. What will that look like? At this point, a pretty good guess is that most grain and orchard crops will continue on their current path because of the high volume and low density of these crops; but vegetables and fruit that can be grown in high density or vertically year-round will become standard CEA crops, with many of them also being grown in micro-farms. Ponix MicroAg pPods™ will fill an integral niche and support a broad spectrum of these industries. Today, distributed farming is best suited to urban centers, but once it becomes an established business model, there is no reason it would not be adopted nearly everywhere, just as solar PV panels are becoming ubiquitous.

Each farming technique and technology has a place in food production – it’s just a matter of figuring out which is best for each product in each market. Vertical farming is destined to play a critical role for certain applications just as advanced greenhousing will continue to establish itself as a source for year-round produce, new equipment and techniques will improve efficiencies in farming field and orchard crops, and micro-farming will fill its niche of supplying low-volume and specialty produce for local markets. The next time you go to the grocery store, think about the increasing diversity of growing methods for all the produce you see.

And as you are checking out, remember:
from many farm sources, one cartful of food.

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 ) 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 ( ), 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 ( ). 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 ( ). 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.