3/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Guy Steucek Massachusetts Correspondent
BOSTON, Mass. — Approximately 350 attended the first annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference on March 9, with another 384 on the waiting list highlighting the interest in urban farming.
The day-long meeting displayed the diversity of urban growers, from those with little more than a window box to high-tech, rooftop greenhouses covering an acre with hydroponic production facilities.
“Urban farming is the term that describes efforts to demonstrate that raising food on farms in cities can be an economically viable and environmentally sustainable undertaking. Urban farming is NOT backyard or community gardening,” said Gregory Watson, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. “The goal of urban farming is to make fresh and affordable foods available to those in urban neighborhoods that currently have little or no access to them.”
In addition to several full-meeting presentations, there were nine concurrent panel discussions on topics ranging from open field and organic techniques to land policy. The panels, comprised of those with firsthand experience, encouraged audience participation. In fact, the entire conference was an opportunity for networking.
Lunch was provided by Nadine Nelson and the Global Local Gourmet, a company that celebrates local food in global ways.
Glynn Lloyd, founder of City Fresh Foods, considered the conference to be a “coming out of the closet event” for urban farming.
“The conventional food system is troubling from the perspective of safety, security and sustainability,” Lloyd said.
He said he sees urban farming as an opportunity for communities of color to produce local food on nonproductive sites. However, he recognizes problems and questions exist, such as: Who are the next urban farmers? Where are the capital sources? They are working with Brad Mitchell of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau on policy issues.
Margaret Connors, co-founder of City Growers LLC, said that they had four plots resulting in half an acre of production. Last year they grossed $1.86 per square foot, which was close to their goal of $2.
The charge for urban farming was lead by Watson, a former farmer and founding member of the Mass Farmers Markets, the Massachusetts Federation of Farmers Markets. He caught everyone’s attention when he quoted Ron Finley, the guerrilla gardener, who said, “growing food is like printing your own money.”
Watson went on to praise former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace who, in the forward to the 1938 Yearbook of Agriculture titled “Soils and Men,” wrote: “Nature treats the earth kindly. Man treats her harshly.” His view is that urban farming will soften a hardened landscape.
Watson also described Mel King, a former state representative, as “the most aggressive legislator for agriculture in Massachusetts.” When King was asked why he was so supportive of agriculture, he replied, “because I eat.”
City Growers was represented by Bobby Walker and Greg Bodine. The for-profit, organic farm harvests mostly greens and salad mix four days a week and sells 90 percent of the harvest to restaurants. But they are growing more than greens. This year, they have 10 new trainees who will get a taste of urban farming.
“Growing for profit is different than gardening,” Bodine said. “Customer demands determine what you grow.”
When the discussion turned to mechanization on urban farms, Greg Maslowe, the farm manager of the Newton Community Farm, said, “fuel is cheaper than labor, even volunteer labor.”
Maslowe said they try to harvest two to three cash crops a season on a plot. He also said food donations to shelters are great for nonprofit urban farms.
“We are really used to cheap food,” Maslowe said.
They find the food assistance programs SNAP and WIC helpful in marketing to citizens in need.
“Urban farmers are among the working poor,” Maslowe said.
Many urban farmers use organic techniques. Common agricultural pests are less of a problem in the city. However, the city does not permit the importation of manure, so compost has to be trucked to the farm site. Also, water can be very expensive, as much as $1,600 per acre in the urban setting. Consequences of runoff are more pronounced in the urban environment, so urban farmers have to be more cognizant of inputs and outputs.
Mohamed Hage, a founder of Lufa Farms in Montreal, Canada, sees a bright future for rooftop farming in urban areas. Currently, Lufa Farms produces 1,500 pounds of produce a day in a 30,000-square-foot greenhouse on a roof, 365 days of the year. Hage estimates that they can feed 5,000 people from their two sites. In the same day, crops are harvested in the morning and consumed in the evening.
Lufa Farms uses hydroponic culture methods, which require only 5 percent of the water that a conventional farm would use. Water conservation is a big issue in cities. With a cost of 10 times that for a conventional growing facility, the rooftop/ hydroponic setup is estimated to pay its way in four to five years with no subsidies, because the production is much greater using these methods. The gross income for rooftop production is about three times that for the greenhouse on the ground.
To conserve heat, the rooftop greenhouses add supplemental carbon dioxide in the winter, which they obtain from a local brewery. In addition, they inoculate there hydroponic culture fluids with microbes common to the rhizosphere, that zone around roots in soil where root exudates support microbial growth.
Finding appropriate rooftops for urban farming is not an easy process, and it may take years to jump over the many hurdles.
“People want to work in agriculture, they just don’t want to leave the city,” Hage said.
These rooftop farms could add employment as well as nutritious food for urban centers, he said.
As the Earth becomes smaller and the demand for fresh local food grows, urban farming likely will become more common.
“You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy local, and that is kind of the same thing,” Watson said.