A Bright Future for Urban Farming

The last 10 years have witnessed a rapid growth of urban agricultural initiatives in many countries throughout the world (e.g., U.S., Korea, Japan, Singapore, Sweden, Canada). Initially, the idea of producing food inside the city limits began as a response to a general consumer reaction to a wide variety of food-related issues, including GMOs, year-round availability of fresh produce without the food miles, food safety and food sovereignty. Early attempts to solve these issues were at best modest.

City farms were, by necessity, small, often local projects that took advantage of vacant lots that were usually located in marginalized parts of the urban landscape. Crops were seasonal, grown in the traditional style of larger rural farms -- soil-based. In many instances, these were clandestine, and often times successful, operations. Their ultimate demise was to attract the attention of city councils and developers, who stepped in and re-re-developed these now more valuable properties back into office buildings, apartment complexes and such.

A second wave of agricultural activities followed on the heels of these pioneering efforts. Large-scale rooftop gardens and greenhouses began springing up in unexpected places within the cityscape, and a whole new avenue of food production in cities began to show signs of life (i.e., profitability).

This ultra-local food movement did not occur in the absence of "growing pains." Gotham Greens, located in the industrial section of Brooklyn, took some two years to become legal. Its CEO, Jenn Nelkin, had to jump through many hoops (sometimes through the same hoop twice) before she got the "green light" from that borough to go ahead with her modest 2,000 square foot hydroponic facility. GG immediately began producing leafy greens at an astonishing rate, and outlet stores such as Whole Foods could not keep the shelves stocked fast enough with them to keep up with the demand. Today, Gotham Greens is poised to become the largest greenhouse facility in the greater New York area (perhaps on the entire East coast), having signed a long-term contract with Whole Foods to create a 60,000 square foot high tech greenhouse on top of its newest retail store now under construction in the Gowanus Canal district of Brooklyn. Profitability was GGs' sole concern, and profitability is what Nelkin and her associates have achieved.

Another success story with a slightly different and much larger twist occurred in Bedford Park, Illinois. Farmed Here is owned and operated by Jolanda Hardej. Farmed Here renovated an abandoned three-story tall warehouse with an architectural footprint of some 150,000 square feet of growing space, making it the world's biggest vertical farm. In addition, Farmed Here makes a point of hiring newly-released non-violent offenders and trains them for work inside their facility. The facility has proven to be commercially viable, producing tilapia and a variety of leafy greens and value-added products from them (e.g., sweet basil vinaigrette) for a wide a variety of outlet grocers. Many other iterations of the vertical farm model are either up and running, or are on the drawing board awaiting funding and/or construction.

The concept of raising fresh produce in the middle of a crowded city sounds far fetched to the uninitiated, but over the last few years, the realization of this "far fetched" idea has resonated well with those that live there to the point of creating a viable new industry around it. The future looks bright for city farming if the kind of initial progress noted so far continuers to accelerate.