Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Opportunities for urban food production on roofs and lots

What are the opportunities for community based nonprofits or entrepreneurs with limited resources to make money from urban agriculture?

Despite all the buzz, there's actually very little urban agriculture in NYC considering the vast amount of rooftop and backyard space available.  Everyone looking at urban agriculture agrees the City would benefit from having much more of it.  The prospect of income would help, but it's especially difficult to run urban agriculture projects as businesses.  Their start-up costs can be high, and the profit margins are usually low.  Projects with enough money to build high-end rooftop greenhouses that enable year-round production of high end greens and tomatoes can do very well, but limited cash means fewer options.   However, we found some opportunities for groups more concerned with
hunger, nutrition and environmental literacy than cash profits

Community gardening has a well-established presence in NYC.  During the 1970s buildings burned across the City, and residents of troubled neighborhoods reclaimed vacant lots. Community gardens from this era were intended to provide public neighborhood green spaces. Some are beautifully landscaped, and some offer small gardening plots for individual neighbors. 

While there are superficial similarities, urban farming is quite distinct from community gardening. Urban farming is oriented around the pragmatic goal of producing food. Increasing its practice in NYC has recently become a topic of governmental, academic, and popular interest.

No one expects urban agriculture to provide more than a fraction of the City’s food needs. “The Potential for Urban Agriculture in NYC,” a report from the Columbia University Urban Design Lab, clarifies that urban farming can play an important role in community development, significantly contribute to food security in some neighborhoods, enable entrepreneurs to establish viable businesses, and catalyze larger food system transformation (pp. 2-5)

But where can it take place? The profit to be made from real estate development on vacant land in NYC is much greater than that from farming, which limits farming to unconventional spaces from which there isn’t a much more profitable competing use. The Urban Design Lab states there are over 52,000 acres of backyard space in NYC (p. 38) and about 3,000 acres of flat roof space on large NYC buildings suitable for rooftop farming (p. 40). There are “clusters of potentially suitable roofs in the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the Maspeth and Long Island City neighborhoods of Queens, which is one of the most promising areas in the nation for rooftop agriculture” (p. 44).

Although urban farming clearly has great potential, and some of its initial projects are widely publicized, the amount of urban farming actually taking place in NYC is extremely small. Well-capitalized businesses like Bright Farms and Gotham Greens can pay for expensive rooftop greenhouse systems that enable year-round production and steady income – but there are still just a few of them, despite the abundance of potential investors and rooftops.

How might already existing resources, innovations, and stakeholders be linked to scale up urban farming in NYC? Community based nonprofits have an underused capacity to market sustainability programs to their constituents, as demonstrated in a recent Beyond Oil NYC report. Urban farming projects could benefit from that marketing capacity, if crafted to be sufficiently appealing to groups with a strong incentive to catalyze or support them.

Some likely candidates are groups concerned about hunger, food security, and environmental justice. While conventional entrepreneurs require minimum expected profits to start a business venture, nonprofits may be willing to proceed based on anticipated yields in the form of other constituent benefits. Start up costs will be much lower for ground level projects than rooftop projects, making them the place to start. If production increases, the project could generate income, from selling produce through a CSA or a nearby greenmarket.

Rooftop Farms

Despite the buzz, there are only a handful of rooftop farms in NYC. There are serious challenges to setting them up: finding a building with roof large enough to make the effort worthwhile (over 30,000 s.f.), and strong enough to carry the extra load (over 50 pounds per square foot). Unique business partners are required: an owner willing to upgrade their building in a very unfamiliar way, and entrepreneurs with enough experience in both business and farming to satisfy the building owner and funders. Farmers and building owners must negotiate a long term access agreement, install a waterproof green roof membrane, and truckloads of lightweight soil. The farmers must generate enough produce sales to cover their costs and loan payments, and pay themselves.

Urban farming on ground level

While there are still challenges with ground level gardening, smaller projects can be started with lower initial costs, enabling community based nonprofits to get involved, and leverage their capacity for grassroots marketing.

As the NY Times writes, the Bloomberg Administration has directed city agencies to identify vacant lots suitable for gardening. OasisNYC provides extensive land use maps and data. 596 Acres maps vacant public lots at which community gardens can be organized. Green Thumb, the community gardening program at the NYC Parks Department, is ready to help volunteers set up and run new community food gardens. One bottleneck is the limited number of those volunteers.

John Ameroso, former urban extension agent and for Cornell University, says the community gardens that flourish today are those focused on growing food, with "a dedicated farmers’ market or a C.S.A.   These amenities make stakeholders out of neighbors who may not like dirt under their nails and rural farmers who drive in every weekend." Those where people just come in to take care of their personal garden boxes, he says, aren't faring so well.

Nonprofits can catalyze the process

Land that can be gardened and neighbors willing to do it still have to be brought together in a complex process. Who’s willing to make the effort to bring neighbors together, train and supply them? Who will carry out this work, and with what resources? This might be a match for community groups with hunger, nutrition and food security on their agenda.

In the last post, we saw how Food Bank of Westchester set up farm projects on the grounds of five nearby nonprofit facilities. Their yield came in several forms: thousands of pounds of vegetables distributed to food pantries; the vocational training for the clients of FBW’s partners; green marketing benefits for all concerned; and the grant income FBW received for vocational and educational services. (Indirectly, they avoided the cash cost of vegetables they would have had to buy from distributors.)

Urban nonprofit groups can copy this model. Vacant public lots available for gardening can be found through Green Thumb, Oasis and 596 Acres. Another resource is vacant private lots. As we’ll see next, even those lots awaiting other commercial use can be temporarily farmed through mobile planters.

The list of community partners willing to help link nonprofits with potential public and private sites might include elected officials, the community board, local economic development nonprofits or business improvement districts. Business organizations may be well suited to contacting private property owners.

Like FBW, city groups can assign one of their staff to spend part of their time organizing a gardening project. Using their relationships and knowledge of the community, the organizer can recruit community volunteers, and liaison with providers of technical assistance and gardening skills training, like Green Thumb. The lots may require fences, and supplies for raised gardening beds (clean soil, compost, lumber) or mobile planting containers. With some initial successes, nonprofits can apply for grants to cover staff salary and program costs.

Innovative gardening techniques: if access to the lot is temporary, there's no soil, or the soil is contaminated

Gardening projects can be temporary as well. It's common practice in NYC to build raised beds, and fill them with clean soil and compost. Setting up semi-permanent structures may not be desirable or possible on lots where access is only temporary.  The way around that is to use mobile planters, which can be moved from one lot as the period of use ends, to a new location. 

Inspired by urban gardeners in Nairobi, Kenya who fill sacks with soil, cut holes in the sides, and plant vegetables in the holes, Feedback Farms in Brooklyn is experimenting with mobile planters that can turn vacant lots into temporary farms.

Stacked on wooden pallets for drainage, their lightweight, low cost sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) can be moved mid-season if needed. SIPs are planting containers in which the water is introduced from the bottom, allowing the water to soak upwards to the plant through capillary action. SIPs have been used in the US for over 100 years. Many do-it-yourself SIPs can be made from plastic buckets and boxes, and their manufacture for sale to urban gardeners has potential to become become a cottage industry.  In a more direct copy of the Kenyan sack growing system, Feedback Farms is testing the use of small sacks, as well as super sacks, a generic industrial bulk bag.

Or, as a NY Times feature explains in depth, gardeners can plant directly in inexpensive, highly biodegradable straw bales.

One NYC group pioneering best practices in food production on small urban plots is
Active Citizen Project (ACP).  They have set up many community-operated farms and food distribution systems in Brooklyn using the SPIN method. The SPIN farming method emphasizes intercropping and scheduled crop rotations for high vegetable yields in small spaces. ACP plans to sell produce to commercial customers and to community members at 50-70% of market price.  ACP's leadership is extremely knowledgable and very pragmatic.  One of the difficulties in running an urban farming business is that they're not producing income during the winter, which makes it tough to support full time staff.  They and many others in the farming space are looking into value added products that can extend the shelf life of their produce and increase their markup.

This winter I attended the Northeast Organic Farming Association of NY (NOFA) and NESAWG conferences. Some of my takeaways were the needs to upgrade food distribution capacity that can link upstate and regional producers with NYC consumers.  Farmers need a large enough percentage of the retail sale price to meet their costs and stay in business.  It's not easy. 

While anyone concerned with urban agriculture wants to see more of it, it's not currently a money-making proposition.  City officials and advocates are going to have to be quite creative with incentives, regulations and programs even to remove the barriers to urban farming as a income-free pastime.  A repeating theme: even if you can't assign a dollar value to it, raising the environmental literacy of New Yorkers is probably the most important reason to promote urban agriculture. 


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  2. This is very interesting. I like the idea of having a garden on top of my apartment. Thought I'm not sure I can grow some plants. I haven;t tried planting before I guess I need a green hands for it. He-he.