The statistics couldn’t be more scary

The statistics couldn’t be more stark, and scary.

According to Tang Huajun, deputy dean of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, crop production in China could fall by five to 10 percent by 2030 if climate change continues unchecked.

“The output of the country’s three main foods — rice, wheat and corn — may suffer a 37 percent decline in the latter part of this century if the government fails to take effective measures to address the impact of climate change,” Tang was quoted as saying.

This follows similar warning from Greenpeace, which warned that because of climate change, over the next 20 to 50 years, China’s rice, corn and wheat production will drop significantly, while the overall agricultural productivity will also be hit hard. If no effective measures are taken, a national average temperature increase of 2.5-3 degrees Celsius will lead to decreases in the yield of these three major crops. China’s overall food production will fall by 14%-23% by 2050 from 2000 (when the total food product ion was 500 mi l l ion tons).

You have to remember that unlike many other countries, China has suffered massive famine within the lifetime of some people over there, and to them agriculture is a strategic resource, and not simply an afterthought.

Given this scenario, one future solution for this developing country is to invest heavily in technologies that will allow it to continue to feed its population by protecting its crops even as global changes in climate become ever more extreme. This invariably means that radical advances in greenhouse technology will have to be supported in the next few years.

It’s a race against time, with the future of millions perhaps in the balance.

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Vamping and supercharging urban farms with a double dose of technology

I chaired the sustainability session of an entrepreneur’s conference, and though many of the attending “green” guys were from the solar energy and other clean energy areas, our main speakers were actually mostly focused on urban sustainability, including vertical farming.

During the banquet after the conference, I had a chance to talk to one of the solar consultants, and when we talked about the presentations he told me directly that he didn’t focus on “soft” areas like those, but rather on “technology” driven businesses such as solar and wind.

Now I come from a science background, and I know that when the moniker “soft” is used to describe anything in the sciences, it’s usually leavened with a mixture of disdain for the subject. Thus, you get biologists deriding sociology and psychology as “soft sciences”, while the physicists lord it over everyone else (in their weird, geeky way).

I got the same sense when I attended another meeting, this time at the “NYCEDC Bathgate Proposal – Design Charrette” at NYU’s Stern campus, where the main presenter prefaced his talk with the slogan that the proposed Bathgate Urban Food Industry Center in the Bronx, NY would be “Beyond the Urban Farm”.

I think such things highlight the divergence between those who actually practice “Urban Farming” now and those whose focus is more towards gaining access to financing and venture capital for future “mega” projects.

Let’s face it, “urban farming” is just not “sexy” enough to pour large amounts of capital into. It’s usually low-tech, with the exception of some that dabble in hydroponics/aeroponics, and the feeling seems to be that most of its practitioners are hippy types and raging idealists who are avowedly anti-technology and anti-big business.

Personally, I’m a sucker for  nature. I’d rather go visit a tropical rainforest than do the rail thing in Europe. I’d rather explore vine-entangled Mayan ruins than pretend to be a sophisticated urbanite in some gentrified art museum.  Saying that, I was trained as a molecular biologist, and I’ve been a Java programmer since this iconic computer platform first surfaced in the late 1990s, so I can understand this love-hate relationship with technology.

I think humanity, with our large brains, relatively puny musculature, and dexterous fingers have EVOLVED to be symbiotically tied to technology. Rejecting this due to some misdirected effort to be “closer to nature” is actually going against  what we were meant to be. In the same way, I think sustainable and pervasive agriculture will go a long way towards actual sustainability and economic feasibility by embracing our technological heritage and not scorning it.

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Growing Rice in container gardens in the Northeast

Sometimes I just like doing things for the sake of experimentation. So one fine day earlier this summer, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to grow rice as one of our “crops” this year.

Now I’ve never grown rice before, and though I eat it everyday, I am almost completely disconnected from the hardships associated with the growing, harvesting, and processing of this essential staple food to most of the world. I also live in a surburb in the northeast USA, which is hardly the place one finds rice fields or even rice in containers, though the latter was the plan I settled on.

I started out by selecting and buying some brown rice from the local Asian food centers. It’s necessary to use brown rice and not white rice because the bran layer of the rice grains are removed to make white rice, and this processing eliminates the ability of the grains to germinate.

I settled on three varieties.

  • Cock on top of the world Thai jasmine rice
  • Goya Arroz Integral medium grain brown rice
  • Organic Brown Basmati
Brown Basmati Rice.

One of the rice varieties I selected to grow was organic basmati brown rice. Please click on the image above for a detailed picture.

I first soaked the rice in water for a night, then had to figure out how to germinate the seeds. I placed artificial media (a starting seed mixture with sphagnum peat moss, perlite, and some wetting agents) on a 15 cm shallow plastic plate, then slowly filled the container with water. The very light media floated to the top, with the water soaking it slowly from the bottom. I then carefully placed the tiny seeds onto this “Floating Island”, pushing them slightly into the media but not otherwise covering them. I then exposed the setup to full sun.

All three varieties of rice germinated by the 4th or 5th day. In fact, many of the seedlings were 2-3 cm tall by this time, and many continued to grow at a rate of 2 cm or so per day, which was to me a rather remarkable growth rate.

Seedlings grew at the astounding rate of 2-3 cm per day. Please click on the thumbnail above to view detailed image.

By the second week many seedlings had grown beyond 100 cm, and some were nearing 0.2 m tall. It was time to replant them, and I chose to distribute them onto two different containers. The first was a deep (45 cm tall) plastic pot with a bottom diameter of 35 cm and a top diameter of 50 cm, to which I replanted three of the older seedlings. The second container was a rather shallow (20 cm tall) black plastic container normally used for mixing cement with dimensions of exactly 90 cm x 60 cm, onto which I replanted six seedlings.

I must admit that I did not have high hopes for the rice. For one thing, the only location that could accommodate the containers only had full sun for part of the day, and these crops are very sun-loving. Secondly, it was almost July when I first started growing, and this meant we would be into late Fall by the time the plants matured enough to flower.

Rice growing in pot.

The rice grew strong and tall, and looked decidedly ornamental in its large green pot. Click on the thumbnail above for a detailed image.

Nevertheless, I was heartened to see my crop grow strong and tall even under these conditions. In fact, the effect of the gently waving rice in its dark green pot was decidedly complimentary to our backyard, and the blades of the plants in the deep container grew taller even than the tomato and pepper plants around it.

Well, August turned grudgingly to September, and cold air rolled in by October, and the night air temperature dropped precipitously to the 10 degree Celsius level. By this time the tomatoes had spent most of their strength and were managing to eke out only a few fruits per day, with their leaves and stems looking quite ragged and decrepit.

Rice panicless and seed.

Imagine my surprise when I found panicles rising from the rice in 10 degree Celsius weather. Click on thumbnail above for detailed image.

But imagine my surprise when I found many rice panicles sprouting from the rice last week! The weather had turned cold by this time, and yet here amazingly was visible proof that this tropical species was quite capable of fruiting amidst such hardships.

The growth and development of the flowers and seeds is probably being severely affected in such extreme weather, so I don’t harbor high hopes right now for actually harvesting the mature grains, but I have to admit this project of rice growing in a suburban environment certainly filled my with excitement and deep gratification.

Perhaps I will take it one step farther next season. Some permaculturists believe our lawns are a stupendous waste of water and energy, with one person saying up to 60% of water use in the USA goes to watering of the lawn. Now, if only I had the courage to remove large parts of that lawn and plant grain crops instead. Can you imagine suburbs with gently waving corn fields, or wheat fields, or even rice fields?

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The Spin on SPIN Farming

One of the rather hyped growing systems that have sprouted up recently is something called SPIN farming, with the SPIN being an abbreviation of S-mall P-lot IN-tensive. As the name implies, it is a system that makes use of very small areas of land to intensively grow plants for commercial purposes.

SPIN farming plots.

SPIM farming makes very intensive use of small parcels of land. Click on the thumbnail above for a detailed pic.

One of the reasons I attended the Pennsylvania Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Festival on September 18 was that I wanted to listen to a presentation by Linda Borghi of Abundant Life Farm in NY state called “SPIN Farming: How to Grow Commercially on Under and Acre”.

Here are some ways SPIN farming differs from traditional farming:

The Old Way The New Way
  • a land base spanning hundreds or thousands of hectares
  • Substantial financial investment and crushing debt burdens
  • Reliance on mechanical equipment that is costly to maintain
  • Dependence on elaborate irrigation systems that are expensive to maintain
  • Significant operating overhead
  • far flung markets that are hard and costly to access
  • A sub-hectare land base purchased inexpensively or accessed and farmed at no cost at all
  • Modest financial start-up costs because of minimal infrastructure.
  • Reliance on hand labor for many tasks
  • Utilizes existing water sources for all farming needs
  • Minimal operating overhead to create strong profits
  • Chemical free, saving both the environment and money.
  • Situated close to markets, saving time and money
  • bottom line: little to no debt.

One thing I liked about this system is that it is very business-oriented, and that almost every aspect is targeted towards maximizing revenues, with a few limitations, such as the avoidance (if possible) of chemical fertilizers and the like. About half of the handouts that I pulled from that presentation had hard economic calculations backing up or supplementing the text.

The basic assumption of the system is that one must be able to create $100 worth of produce per bed per crop. Everything else flows from this one penultimate goal.

The standard bed is assumed to be 0.6 m by 7.5 m in area, which comes out to 4.5 m2. Assume you have a lot size of 1800 m2, which is equivalent to 0.18 ha. You can place approximately 240 beds in this lot.

One sample calculation involves deriving the low and high ranges of revenues possible from this 1800 m2 lot. Assuming you can meet the revenue goal of $100 per crop per bed, then growing one crop per season would give you a low range potential of $24,000 (240 beds x $100 per bed per season). However, using intensive relays and growing 3 or more crops per season would substantially increase the gross revenues to $72,000 per season (240 beds x $300 per bed per season). Obviously nothing to sniff about from a relatively small growing area.

The extreme emphasis on wringing every bit of money out of a piece of land carries over to the marketing of this method. The main website provides numerous downloadable manuals and guides for any would-be SPIN farmer, including instructions for specific specialty crops.

SPIN farming costs.

A series of downloadable manuals provide step by step instructions and guides for would be SPIN farmers. Click on the thumbnail above for a detailed pic.

The costs of the manuals are not prohibitively expensive, and downloading one or two to get a glimpse of their usefulness would probably be the first step in any project.

One point to note is that as far as I can tell, there really is no “secret ingredient” to this methodology, no high-tech wizardry that lifts this above other small plot gardening systems. What distinguishes SPIN farming is its rigid emphasis on the bottom line, and its strict adherence to cutting costs.

This emphasis on limiting overhead and other expenses is a good idea because there is no guarantee that the lynchpin of success for SPIN farming, its assumption that each bed of crops will generate $100, can always be met. The value of crops can fluctuate, the weather may not cooperate, pests may suddenly take a liking to your plants. It is this focus on the economics of the project that makes SPIN farming a method worth considering.

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A Visit to GreensGrow Urban Farm in Philadelphia

I had been slated to give a presentation about urban farming at an entrepreneur’s conference, and so decided to visit a nearby urban farm to get some up to date information about the state of the industry.

Fortunately, one of the most successful urban farms in the USA was located a mere 1.5 hours away, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

GreensGrow Urban Farms started in 1997 when Mary Seton Corboy and Tom Sereduk decided to set up hydroponic systems to grow lettuce in a former galvanized steel plant in the Kensington area of Philadelphia. They were joined several years later by David Prendergrast, who was kind enough to show me around the farm and answer all my questions in quite good detail.

The entrance to GreensGrow Urban farms in Philadelphia. Click on thumbnail to view full image.

The farm itself is located in what looks like a mixed commercial/industrial/residential neighborhood. A tall steel fence surrounds the 1 acre property, and from the outside it looks remarkably like one of the many garden stores that you can easily find in suburbs everywhere.

It’s when you step inside that you quickly see how different this farm is from a simple garden outlet.

The CSA station in the urban farm. Click on thumbnail for full image.

One of the first structures you see is a shed with a big sign that welcomes the farm’s CSA members. CSA usually stands for “Community Supported Agriculture”, a concept where people buy a “share” in a farms’ season and each week get a box of produce and fruit produced on the farm.

GreensGrow has tweaked the moniker to “City Supported Agriculture” in deference to its central urban location, and expanded the process to incorporate meat and dairy products, as well as vegetables, from its own farm as well as surrounding community and rural farms. Its subscribers have grown from a few handful to more than 400 people today, and the farm was forced to limit new subscriptions due to the overwhelming success of this model.

In addition to their innovative CSA program, the urban farm produces vegetables for retail chains and restaurants in the area, and even sells flowers and other crops to walk-in visitors to the farm.

The farm produces its own biodiesel from waste cooking oil from surrounding restaurants. Click on the thumbnail above to view the full image.

The farm also makes use of various renewable energy solutions. David Prendergrast showed me their biodiesel set-up, which is housed in a shed that also functions as a rooftop garden. They get their feedstock as waste cooking oil from the various surrounding restaurants, and use the resulting biodiesel to power their farm equipment and delivery truck. While we talked with Terry, the caretaker of the biodiesel apparatus, bees from the hives planted on the rooftop garden buzzed around us. The bees are meant to supplement the native bees in the area as pollinators for the various crops in the farm, in addition to producing honey.

The farm also uses solar power to drive a water pump. Click on the thumbnail above to view the full image.

The farm also has a lone solar panel, which is used to power a small water fountain. David explained that they plan to use more solar energy to power the various operations of the farm in future, and we talked about various scenarios for achieving this goal. Given the rapidly dropping cost of solar modules, I have no doubts it will soon be possible to turn the farm into a model user of solar power.

The farm makes extensive use of hydroponics systems to grow lettuce and other plants. Click on the thumbnail above to view the full image.

Probably the most interesting thing for me though was the hydroponic system that they had running near the back of the farm. As most anyone who has dabbled in hydroponic systems knows, the variations possible in such an apparatus is only limited by the bold imagination of the growers and the need for financing. In this case, the farm had opted for a nutrient film system, using long rain gutters as the trough and gutter guards as the framework to support the growing plants. Although there was nothing planted at the moment, it was an interesting sight nonetheless.

Plants are held in place in the hydroponics system by modified rain gutter equipment. Click on the thumbnail above to view the full image.

Protected by long hoop tunnels, the seedlings are first grown in plastic trays using oasis cubes as the media. They are then laboriously transfered to the final hydroponic set-up once they reach a certain size. Water pumps assure the continued flow of nutrient solution to ensure that the seedlings grow healthy and reach maturity.

Seedlings are first grown in trays, then transplanted when they are large enough. Click on the thumbnail above to view the full image.

Another fascinating set-up in the farm was a wall-mounted vertical hydroponic system that was attached to the side of one of the working sheds. Although much smaller than the traditional system they had near the back, it was just as ingenious. Slanted rain gutters were affixed to the wall one above the other, channeling water from the top to the bottom at the ends of the long troughs. A water pump provided the power to lift water from the pond to the highest point of the system. The reservoir doubled as a Koi pond, with the fish providing some nutrients to the growing plants on top. David run the system for me, and it was a joy to see the water sluicing its way from one rain gutter to the next, before falling like a miniature waterfall into the waiting pond.

The farm also has a new wall-mounted vertical hydroponics set-up. Click on the thumbnail above to view the full image.

Much less interesting to me personally were several chickens and a rooster that occupy a small portion of the farm near the street. It was an incongruous sight, to say the least, to see all these chickens pecking at the ground for food when right behind them loomed a parked jeep and a somewhat busy side street. According to David, the hens are always a crowd pleaser to the many kids that visit the farm.

The farm also has some chickens, some of which were donated. Click on the thumbnail above to view the full image.

The other notable thing that one notices when visiting the place is that most of the plants are grown on raised concrete and wooden beds. This is a fairly expensive way of growing plants, but it’s necessary because the farm is located right on top of what used to be a galvanized steel plant, and the soil in the area is not amenable to raising crops.

Plants are grown on raised concrete beds. Click on the thumbnail above to view the full image.

I finished my visit by thanking the very kind David Prendergrast for his comprehensive tour of the farm. I was heartened by the success of their decade long venture into sustainable urban agriculture, and fully appreciative of all the hard work and sweat that they must have put into making the farm so indispensable to hundreds of people in their neighborhood.

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My intro to this blog

I have always been fascinated with plants ever since I completed a degree in Plant Molecular Biology. My interest ranged from studying and photographing various magnificent trees such as the banyans and strangling figs, to cultivating smaller but no less fascinating aroids.

For the last decade or so, I have also discovered the joys of growing my own vegetables in a garden plot in my suburban home. We routinely grow thousands of cherry and grape tomatoes every season, as well as cucumbers and peppers and other crops. There is almost something spiritual in harvesting the crops every day after watching your plants soak up the sun’s rays and grow large and healthy.

Recently, my interest has turned to what I like to think of as High Density Urban Farming (or HIDUF), which promises to change the way people view the relatively deserted and pauperized natural ecosystems in urban and suburban areas. In my mind’s eye I see a future cityscape that is transformed from cold steel and hard concrete to a verdant paradise of greenery, where people routinely shop for fresh vegetables grown only a few steps away from their apartments or homes.

I hope that my writings get you excited about this new endeavor too, and that you will join me in finding new and ingenious ways to cope with a world that has seen humanity’s rise become increasingly unsustainable and dangerous to our own future survival.

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