Be it rooftops, windows, fire escapes, a truck bed or neighbor’s backyard, the urban farming movement is spreading in New York City. Residents, looking to create accessibility fresh produce, are growing in every nook and cranny of this populous city.
“The poorer the neighborhood, the worse the access is to quality food,” said Lee Mandell. The 48-year-old Bushwick resident is the founder of Boswyck Farms, a hydroponic farm he runs right from his Dekalb loft home.
A New York Times article written in 2008 on Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University inspired Mandell to take up hydroponic farming.
A computer programmer by profession, Mandell has a fondness for plant life that has spanned at least 25 years. He spends much of his free time tending to large leaves of kale, heads of lettuce, sugar snap peas and bell peppers sprouting to life in corners of his home.
He uses different hydroponic systems, all of which he built himself. Some systems simply require clay pebbles or coconut husks, water, nutrients, and a bucket. Others are more complicated. Mandell enjoys building the systems however, and teaching anyone willing to learn how to build their own.
Despommier’s innovative idea to grow vegetables in towering skyscrapers will take the idea of urban farming to all new heights, however.
Population increases will soon cause our farmers to run out of land. The amount of arable land per person decreased from about an acre in 1970 to roughly half an acre in 2000 and is projected to decline to about a third of an acre by 2050, according to the United Nations. With billions more people on the way, before we know it the traditional soil-based farming model developed over the last 12,000 years will no longer be a sustainable option.
Not only did Despommier’s “zucchini-in-the-sky vision” capture Mandell’s imagination, it sparked quite the interest in Scott Stringer, Manhattan’s borough president. According to the Times, Stringer is taking the first steps toward adding a “food farm” to the city’s skyline.
Mr. Stringer’s office is “sketching out what it would take to pilot a vertical farm,” and plans to pitch a feasibility study to the mayor’s office within the next couple of months, he said.
Before we send architects a-sketching, however, the question remains: Is this a more cost-effective way to provide year-round healthy eating to this crowded city and cutback on food importation in the country at large?
Mandell believes urban farming is essential in “trying to bring affordable fresh produce to parts of the city where it isn’t available.” According to him, plants grown hydroponically reach maturity faster and have just as much, and sometimes more, nutrients.
It is still unclear how much more cost-effective this system will be compared with soil-based agriculture. Gotham Greens plans on installing New York’s largest hydroponic farm in Jamaica, Queens. Mandell says the 10,000 square feet hydroponic farm would “help determine just how cost effective hydroponic farming is and how large we have to scale.”
The Vertical Farms, on the other hand, require deep pockets:
Dr. Despommier estimates that it would cost $20 million to $30 million to make a prototype of a vertical farm, but hundreds of millions to build one of the 30-story towers that he suggests could feed 50,000 people.
Some responses to Despommier’s idea in the Times article were skeptical:
Armando Carbonell, chairman of the department of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., called the idea “very provocative.” But it requires a rigorous economic analysis, he added. “Would a tomato in lower Manhattan be able to outbid an investment banker for space in a high-rise? My bet is that the investment banker will pay more.”
Others asked why the project had to be 30-story-high and questioned how energy efficient this green project would be in reality.
Despommier is convinced that his ideas, no matter how outlandish they seem to some, are the future of farming.
In the mean time, urban farmers like Mandell surge ahead conquering the towering problem of food production in small steps.
“There are people doing everything from a flowerpot on a fire escape to 20,000 square foot green houses on rooftops,” said Mandell. “I think every way that people are growing food is positive.”