Rooftop Farming

By Andrej Mrevlje |

I will always remember how amazed I was when I learned that Italians — the proud craftsmen of everything “made in Italy” — import 10 percent of their entire production of canned tomatoes from China.

The fact that there was Chinese tomato sauce on pizza napoletana or in ragù bolognese sulle pappardelle was amazing news. That is until I remembered that China — the land of hunger for decades, whose land is less than 10 percent arable — is now exporting 32,000 tons of peeled tomatoes to Italy. Sure, Italians reprocess and can the Chinese tomatoes, then label them as “made in Italy” and probably re-export them. I was not shocked by the potential fraud — I am quite familiar with the Italian talent for finding loopholes in the law. But I was horrified by the thought that China — which, a mere two decades ago, was unable to feed its own people — now has the largest agricultural output in the world.

How did China obtain this level of agricultural efficiency? We can only imagine how their soil is impregnated with all sorts of chemicals, not to mention genetically modified plants and seeds they must be using in order to boost their agricultural production. Just the thought of eating an apple grown in China makes me shiver.

But I might be wrong. Things are changing — at least at the local level. But this little revolution — one that is bringing farming into the cities; producing healthier, cheaper greens with more flavor; and creating new communities and conversations by using the abandoned urban spaces — is already changing our lifestyle. What just a couple of years ago seemed to be a utopia — remember Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman? — is now almost a reality. People like Bittman and Pollan said that in order to dismantle the consequences of the way the agricultural industry determines our food consumption — imposing on us processed, mass-produced food that has very little nutritional value — and to create more sustainable farming, America needs major agrarian reform. In the history of humankind, this usually presupposes a military government or a revolution. And that, as we know, is almost impossible in the U.S.

But the way things look right now, that spark of micro-revolution may have already started. It did not lead to farmer uprisings or to consumers marching against the corporations that determine what we put on our tables. It is happening within cities. On streets, on rooftops and even in basements, depending on what technology or methods people use to grow their own gardens. It feels like puppies are no longer enough for city folks. They now grow plants instead. Not decorative plants for their terraces or balconies — not just fresh basil and sage — but everything from tomatoes to salad greens to mushrooms. In search of old flavors and pleasures, city folks are turning into farmers without knowing it.

And this is happening not only in Toronto, New York, and London but even in Beijing and Canton (Guangzhou), as Quartz reported earlier this month:

On a 1,600-square-foot-rooftop in Guangzhou, China, 14 hydroponic tanks produce hundreds of pounds of vegetables a year, with a potential profit of over $6,000 annually—almost twice the 2015 annual minimum wage in the city, which has one of the highest monthly minimum wages in the country. The hydroponic tanks are part of study that shows residents and developers in Guangzhou that their rooftop space might be worth some green.

A paper published this past July the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development reports that growing leafy greens in rooftop hydroponic systems can not only produce a steady supply of vegetables—it can also be cheaper than buying store-bought alternatives.

It’s one of the first studies outlining a comprehensive business model for hydroponic rooftop farming, a method cropping up in the US, the European Union, and Canada. This type of farming all but removes soil from the equation, with each plant housed in plastic containers hovering above a tank, their stringy roots dangling into a circulating pool of nutrient-boosted tap water.

Apparently, Canton, which will soon reach the population of 15 million, proves that urban farming could not only resolve nutrition problems and improve food supply, but create more jobs and help to mitigate climate change since the practice would help to cut down on the transport of food produced outside of the area.

Back on the other side of the planet, Ben Greene of South Carolina is making a pretty big splash with his first farm project, called the “Farmery,” which he opened in November. Greene was born and raised in North Carolina, which serves as a hub for agriculture when it’s not being used for military bases.

In his Kickstarter video, Mr. Greene explains why he — and others like him — feel that we need to replace huge agricultural lands with little “farmeries” where people can grow, harvest and sell in the same, much smaller spot. In growing vegetables and greens on the walls of his greenhouse, Greene combines well-tested aquaponic and hydroponic technologies, which allow farmers to grow plants without soil. In the video, you can see succulent basil leaves, as well as various other greens and mushrooms. Consumers can walk through the greenhouse and cut their own greens, thus creating a more direct relationship with their food, Greene says. He emphasizes that, in contrast to the aggressive marketing approach of larger food corporations, charming consumers is an important element of his business model — one that seems polished and ready to be brought to every American city.

But aside from Mr. Greene’s project — which might grow into another Whole Foods project — there are other young farmers who are also taking initiative. Upstate New York managed to defend itself from fracking, and now the farmers in the area are trying to focus on developing a more sustainable model that would dismantle big agricultural industries. Recently, a large group of young farmers met at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. While many existing farms in Hudson Valley supply the most prestigious restaurants in New York and sell their expensive organic vegetables, cheeses, and eggs in various green markets across Manhattan, 250 of the nation’s young farmers have been asking themselves whether there is any hope to find a way to both feed all Americans — rich and poor alike — and keep from further harming the environment.

America — and the world as a whole — are swarming with the people who are taking initiative in the open field of urban farming. Many media outlets (which finally seem exhausted with Trump’s story) might find a truly interesting story in rooftop farming — unlike the glimmering, cold and ugly Trump buildings that pollute American cities.

Food Tank is the perfect model: an online magazine that reports on a wide variety of initiatives in the food movement, and that recently reported on a story in Washington, D.C. about occupying abandoned industrial buildings and turning them into urban farms.

Whatever the future of urban farming might be, it is good to know that — as history shows us — there is not just one model. Nature reminds us that:  

From the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries, farmers in the Marais district of Paris transformed swampland into productive gardens and manipulated microclimates to grow peas, artichokes, figs and apricots. They planted densely in raised beds nourished with (and kept warm by) horse manure, and used cold frames and cloche coverings to extend the growing season, as well as trellis supports to encourage fruit yields. […]

City farming has also been a way to relieve poverty. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw English urban allotments, French jardins familiaux and jardins ouvriers, German kleingärten and, in US cities such as New York, vacant-lot cultivation associations and relief gardens that provided land and training as both direct aid and social reform. Gardening was about food, but also about tradition, culture, education and morale, for instance harnessing the know-how of immigrants. These programmes laid the way for domestic food production in Australia, Europe and North America during the two world wars, when hundreds of thousands of civilians grew their own food so that commercial crops could serve the war effort.

And this, to me, is the best way to confront and resist the monolithic culture that Trump seems to be setting up in America for the next four years. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone — perhaps Melania Trump, imitating Michelle Obama — would start her own Slovenian rooftop garden?

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