Fall Update, 2011

 

The trials weathered all sorts of mayhem this season – extreme heat and a hurricane among other things. As hurricane Irene rolled in, Lise, Uli and I battened down the hatches by moving the smaller pots – carrots, beets and soy – indoors.

Tomatoes stayed out during the hurricane and came through with flying colors. They produced fruit into November.

Having weathered the storms and produced everything we needed them to, the trials came down last week. It had taken months of planning, 23 people a full day for installation and a season of active management. It took four of us two hours to dismantle everything and give it the heave-ho.

In addition to growing mind-blowing tomatoes we did learn a thing or two from our trials. We’ve gleaned some things about the use of biochar, some things about irrigation, and some hints about what might be expected in terms of nutrition and toxicity in this new world of rooftop farming.

As we began our research, a few people inquired about the possibility that food grown in the urban environment, and even the soil itself, could become contaminated from airborne pollutants. What if, after the installation of a giant rooftop farm, the soil became unusable?

Two critical concerns began to emerge: nutrition on the one hand, and toxicity on the other. Many of the buildings in NYC that are best suited for rooftop farming are near a pollution point source. Most are in industrial areas and many are straddled by highways. Our trial site is spitting distance from a superfund site and almost directly across the street from a cement factory.

Contamination
Dr. Joshua Cheng, Director of the soil laboratory at Brooklyn College, has made a career of studying soil toxicity. He explained that with all of the changes brought about by the Clean Air Act, soils that are clean today are unlikely to become contaminated with heavy metals unless they are very close to a heavy point source. With respect to heavy metals, the real culprit these days is soil that is already contaminated, mainly by lead.

Dr. Cheng was kind enough to test the lettuce that came out of our trials in the spring. Specifically, he looked at:

As Arsenic
Cd Cadmium
Co Cobalt
Cr Chromium
Cu Copper
Mn Manganese
Hg Mercury
Ni Nickel
Pb Lead
Tl Thallium
Zn Zinc

Some of those metals, in the right quantities, we think of as nutrients, e.g., Copper and Zinc. At higher levels, however, they may become toxic. Others, such as Mercury and Lead, are generally avoided altogether, though at low levels they do not present significant risk.

The report that came back on our lettuce from Joshua’s lab showed it to be squeaky clean, or as Joshua put it, “All of the toxins are within regular background levels”.

This is good news considering the massive number of Green Zebra tomatoes that I ate this season from the trial site. More to the point, this is great news for urban farms in general. Many thanks, Dr. Cheng.

We will continue to get more information on both nutrition and toxicity as we comb through data from Ray Glahn at Cornell Agricultural Extension/USDA. When I dropped off lettuce at Ray’s lab, he had the bright idea of testing the samples both washed and unwashed. The differences in heavy metals between the washed and unwashed should indicate nastiness that settled out of the air and onto the plants. From the looks of the small dataset from Joshua, I think we can expect good news.

That data from Ray is already in. It’ll take us a while to analyze it. Right now it is a blinding series of numbers:

Nutrition
While the initial peek into toxicity has been reassuring, the meat and potatoes of the trials was to compare the nutritional value of foods grown in engineered, rooftop soils to foods grown in the highest quality fields. I consider one of the best fields to be the one managed by Zach Wolf at the Stone Barns Center. So while we grew crops in rooftop soil mixes on a roof in Brooklyn we also grew the same crops in the field at Stone Barns.

Ray pointed out that if the food coming from the rooftop was less nutritious, it would be hard to know if the variation was due to differences in the soil, or due to the extreme differences in the growing conditions, e.g., very hot roof –vs- nice, cool field.

To address these environmental factors, we took rooftop soil to the Stone Barns Center to grow samples in both the engineered and natural soils, side by side.

After seeing how stunted things can be on a rooftop I was impressed to see that at Stone Barns the yield was similar between the crops grown in the rooftop mix (carrots on right) and the veggies grown in the natural soil (carrots at left). This would seem to confirm Ray’s assertion that location can play a significant role.

Five of us tasted the carrots side by side and all had the same impression: Both sets were good – snappy and fresh. Yet the carrots from the natural soil were somehow a little more ‘carroty’. Were we tasting a significant difference in nutrition?

We sent a very small sample of those carrots to Logan Labs in Ohio. The data came back indicating that indeed, the carrots from the field were generally a little more nutrient dense. On the other hand, the carrots that came from our specially tweaked rooftop mix tended to beat USDA averages pretty handily. Aha!

It’s worth noting that the nutritional difference between the field-grown carrots and those from the rooftop mix isn’t necessarily indicative of a deficiency in the rooftop mix; We used a lot of biochar in our rooftop mix and very fresh biochar has the potential to compete with crops for nutrients. (feel free to email me if you want more details on that). It’s likely that some of this nutrient competition was happening and quite possible that if the same crops were grown in the same mix next season – after the biochar were more fully charged – the resulting carrots would be nearly identical to what came from the field. As it was, the carrots from our rooftop mix were very similar to the field-grown carrots, despite our competition being one of the best fields around. It’s also worth noting that the food grown in our mixes isn’t necessarily representative of the food grown on rooftops elsewhere. Just as there can be dramatic differences in the quality of foods from different feilds (see the gulf between Stone Barns carrots and USDA averages) there can be big differences between rooftop farms. And lastly, this was a small sample from a single crop and may not be representative of a larger sample set or different crops. We’ll have more data on lettuce and beets soon.

In the table below, you’ll find the numbers from the carrots grown in the natural field soil (left-most column) next to the numbers from the carrots grown in the rooftop mix and lastly the USDA averages for fresh carrots.

A few interesting things about all of this:

  1. This indicates that rooftops, if very thoughtfully managed, can produce food that may be superior in quality to some of what is found in local bodegas, grocery stores, schools, etc. If that’s the case, then NYC’s 38,000 acres of rooftop may be able to make a meaningful contribution of high-quality, fresh produce in some areas.
  2. It tells us that we have some more work to do to close the gap between the best field-grown foods and the best roof-grown foods.
  3. How cool is it that the data confirms the sensitivity and accuracy of our taste buds in perceiving nutrition?

Regarding the location effect, Ray was on the ball with that one. Check out the beets below. The big fellas were grown in the rooftop mix in pots at Stone Barns. The wee lads were grown in the identical soil mix in pots on the roof of the trial site in Brooklyn.

Our hunch is that the diminutive size of the beets grown on the roof has to do with our struggle to properly irrigate up there. A full-scale rooftop farm would have a continuous layer of “soil” rather than a series of pots. In that arrangement conditions would be similar to a natural field in terms of moisture and temperature and not as grueling as they were on our hot, silver roof.

Upcoming
The carrots and beets will be analyzed by Dr. Michael Rutzke, Director of CNAL – the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory . He’s been experimenting with some very cool, new protocols for nutrient testing. We’re excited that our samples will be part of his effort to get his new systems up and running. More on that to come.

Meanwhile, the next round of research is already in the works and considerably more grand than the first. We are going to get to the bottom of the nutrition gap and grow some amazing stuff. We’re also going to look into the specifics of the environmental benefits of rooftop farms.

Stay tuned for more on that…and tales of from our journey to create a truly massive rooftop farm in NYC.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

August Update, 2011

 

Last update the trials looked something like this:

Oh, how quickly they grow up:

*Notice the lack of red leaf lettuce in the mid-ground – that’s where the real action is.

To recap: Lettuce was started inside under a grow light. Thirty of those “starts” were planted in the rooftop mixes at the FarmingUp trial site pictured above. Five of the starts were planted in the field at the Stone Barns Center, below.

At Stone Barns, Zach Wolf manages soil fertility masterfully, using practices that conform to organic standards and then some. Planting five of the FarmingUp lettuce starts in the Stone Barns field allows us to directly compare foods grown in our rooftop mixes to those coming from a well-managed field. It will help anwer the question, “Can farmers’ market quality produce be grown in engineered soils in the urban environment?”

Not long after the last update the lettuce was ready for harvest. All of the heads were gathered from both the rooftop and the Stone Barns field. We also snagged a couple heads from the corner bodega to examine what else is available locally. Tucked into a cooler, the lettuce was whisked up to Ithaca, NY where Ray Glahn awaited in his USDA lab.

(The drive up was great).

Ray showed me around his lab and then let me loose to prep samples for processing. In a great and unexpected twist, Ray suggested that each head be cut in half so that it could be processed both washed and unwashed. The difference in the amount of heavy metals found on washed and unwashed samples should indicate crud that settled onto the plants from the air. (Air quality is a perennial concern among urban food growers and the trial site is directly across the street from a cement factory). The comparison of washed and unwashed lettuce will shed light on some of the broader health implications of urban growing, at least in that section of the Gowanus, and is a layer of information that we hadn’t dreamed of collecting.

When looking for metals in trace quantities, the tiniest bit can skew results. Accordingly, in a USDA lab one doesn’t simply rinse lettuce, one rinses it in “18 mega-ohm” water. (I’m going to assume that’s really, really clean water). The air coming into the lab is well filtered and even electrical sockets, when not in use, are wrapped in plastic to ensure that rogue traces of metal don’t get any wise ideas.

18 Mega Ohm

Prepped heads went into a freezer where they are on hold until they can be freeze-dried, pulverized and analyzed. Many share the equipment that tests for metals and phytonutrients. We’re in the queue and will hopefully have data soon.

Figuring out what ‘nutrition’ is, is trickier than you’d think. There are so many compounds to consider that making blanket statements about nutrition becomes impossible. What if one sample is high in iron while another is high in zinc and a third is high in calcium? Those are only three out of dozens of metals and metals are only one of many classes of nutrients. For the purpose of measuring ‘nutrition’ in lettuce, we’re looking at about two dozen metals. Lettuce is also particularly high in the A vitamins – important antioxidants – so hopefully we’ll get data on some of those as well. Anecdotally, the lettuce that came off the roof looked great next to what came from the field.

Field-grown at left, straight Rooflite on the right.

Below: Lettuce grown in straight Rooflite on the right, next to lettuce grown in half Rooflite, half biocharchar/compost on left.

Hopefully we’ll have all sorts of good news to report shortly.

Thanks again Ray. Thanks too, to Rebecca Givan for putting me up in Ithaca.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

June Update, 2011

 

After the Volunteer Dream Team knocked out the bulk of the installation in early May, we were ready for plants and water.

Gettin’ drippy
Breezing through the Heat
Crop Reaction
A mural below


Irrigation Set Up
California-based irrigation company, DripWorks, offered up design services, equipment and shipping to boot and they were quick about all of it. We sent them a rough schematic and they sent back an improved design and everything needed to build it out. Clearly they’ve delt with folks like us before because they had the good sense to include a parts list organized by order of assembly and copies of the schematics. Thus armed the system assembled so easily that it felt like a day at the playground.

Rain barrels were already set and full which led to the inevitable moment when the drip system had to be patched in to the full barrels…less dramatic than we expected:


Feeling The Heat
Our system has its challenges. It needs to deliver the same amount of water to each pot, be miserly to stretch rainwater, function under very low pressure and water on a timed but variable schedule. DW’s system has done all of that amazingly well. As last Wednesday’s temp shot past 90 – undoubtedly even hotter on the roof – I headed up there thinking that I’d watch months of work sag out of existence. Surprisingly, the soil was moist and everything looked content, even the lettuce which when triggered by heat shoots up a flower stalk and becomes bitter – “bolting” in farm-speak.


Crop Reaction
Within a week and a half of transplanting into the mixes it was clear that the crops were reacting to them. Thus far, plants in the straight Rooflite (just right of center) are showing the most robust growth. The others appear to be smaller as the amount of biochar/compost in the mix increases. The mixes with the highest percent biochar are on the far right – compare the tomatoes on the far right to those just right of center. That said, all of the mixes are producing great looking plants, and the variation in size is not necessarily indicative of nutritional content.

Lettuce should be ready for harvest in a week or so and then its off to the USDA lab at Cornell for analysis.


The Mural Below
Meanwhile, just below the roof a group of kids is working away on a mural that looks beautiful.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Late May Update, 2011

After months, picking the brains of experts, reviewing ag. texts, drafting and trashing research protocols and rounding up materials, the trials were ready for install. Among other things, the install would call for lots of people climbing lots of stairs, hefting lots of soil in 5 gallon buckets. (Lots of buckets).

Buying plastic buckets for a one-day event seemed like a shame so after businesses curbed their recycling I’d been making trips to a Middle Eastern shop for empties – tahini, olives and feta. The empties  told the story of the day’s sales: 20 gallons of tahini, 15 gallons of olives, ten gallons of feta, piles of cans of stuffed grape leaves and so on. It took only 3 nights to wrangle 25 of them!

Saturday, May 7: Buckets scrubbed and materials staged. 23 phenomenal volunteers – a Dream Team of professional farmers, gardeners and arborists (as well as poets, architects and doctors) – showed up and wasted no time organizing themselves into various crews.

The mixology team attacked the Rooflitebiochar & compost, preparing the various growing media. The buns-of-steel crew ran the buckets to the third floor. The rooftop crew laid out pots, lined them with filter fabric and filled them to prescribed depths. Team Carpentry built platforms to elevate rain barrels and frames to stabilize the smaller pots. Go Dream Team!

The crews hummed along, adapting, taking care of things I hadn’t even considered. Two-way radios magically appeared allowing roof and ground to maintain easy contact. A stream of full buckets arrived at roof level as filled pots began to march out steady lines. A circular saw whined down below. Home made muffins appeared…and disappeared. A grill fired up. Mint Juleps in honor of Kentucky Derby day…

A few hours later it was done, and done better than I could have imagined.

Long distance award goes to Loraine Green who came all the way from Virginia to help with the install. Whew.
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

May Update, 2011

To Cape Cod, home of New England Biochar
Trials move to the doin’ it phase
Mad science and a trip to Little Syria – Amending soil for maximum nutrition
Enough theory, now germinate!

 

The Cape

A change in trial protocol doubled the amount of biochar needed, so it was off to Cape Cod – home of New England Biochar to resupply.

Approaching the coast has a “last stop” feel to it. Vegetation becomes squat, the terrain low, eventually the coast appears – Next stop Portugal. Cape soil is incredibly sandy and thus very poor at holding nutrients – exactly the kind of place where biochar shines.

Co-owner Bob Wells has consulted with us for months now, so it was great to have an excuse to go out there and meet him and his business partner, Peter Hirst. And very cool as well to meet his home-made retort – the apparatus that creates biochar. The retort sits on a trailer, ready for adventure. In addition to making biochar, it is set up to heat their hoop house and make salt from water collected on the Cape.

Since you asked: Folks have been inquiring about the difference between biochar and charcoal. Differences in firing make a biochar burn much cleaner than a charcoal burn and yield a different end product. More on that and a great visual of how clean the burn is in this video of Peter Hirst firing a batch.

 

Doin’ it

The 3 cubic yards of Rooflite donated by Skyland came in a bulk order  delivered to Queens. Brooklyn Botanic Garden lent us their dump truck to fetch it. Thanks to Hort Director Mark Fisher for arranging that. BBG Arborist Chris Roddick signed on to drive and help load up.

 

Mad Science

Truck loaded, we headed back to Brooklyn for the mad scientist portion of the day. Test results on the Rooflite, biochar and compost came back from Logan Labs showing deficiencies in Copper, Zinc, Sulfur, Boron and Sodium. The quantities needed were very small and called for precise weighing. For that degree of accuracy we stopped on the way back from Queens at Oriental Pastry & Grocery on Atlantic Avenue to use their digital scale. (I’ve been going there since I was a kid). We headed to the back for some fresh Zatar and then got to weighing.

Following the weigh-in, we went to Brooklyn Botanic where compost tea was already brewing. The amendments were mixed thoroughly into the Rooflite and then the tea – 10 gallons of it – was applied undiluted. Chris below doing the tea drench.

Why the fuss? Soil chemistry and biology work in tandem. An element that’s completely lacking in the soil isn’t around to show up in plants or animals. But even if present, an element will not necessarily be plant-available without robust biology. (Check out mychorriza for an example of the amazing kinds of mutualism that happen under our feet daily).

This same process – amend, mix, inoculate – was applied to the biochar/compost mix. The mix drank up the tea like it was the end of a long week. Ten gallons seemed like a lot to apply to this quantity of material, but the mix drank it up so quickly that almost none of it even hit the pavement.

 

For you ag nerds out there, I’m hoping the end result will look something like this (see the “observed”  and “optimal” columns):

 

 

In the meantime, Green Zebra tomatoes are chugging along, as is Sweet Valentine lettuce. Carrots or beets will be direct sewn once the trials are installed and kale will follow later in the season. Tomatoes are way bigger now than in the photo!

We’re really looking forward to the first stage of the trial install this weekend. Looks like there will be an good turn out of really fun folks. See you there.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

April Update, 2011

We’ve been focusing our efforts lately on getting the trials off the ground and honing our business chops. There have been nice developments on both fronts.

Cornell/USDA gives FarmingUp a hand
Brooklyn Botanic too!
Surprising test results
Green Roof Tax Credit (and how it relates to raw sewage in your backyard).
On the Fast Trac®
Green roof school

 

Cornell/USDA
FarmingUp fans, meet Ray Glahn. Ray is the Senior Scientist/Research Physiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service at Cornell. He will be doing nutritional analysis of our trial veggies this year and is thus largely responsible for this project moving forward.  We’re excited to have his help. Ray focuses most of his efforts on Iron which he reports is the most deficient element in people’s diet globally. (I think this is generally a third world issue so you probably don’t need to run out to buy supplements).

Slight digression; When we first spoke in January Ray told me that the greatest step we could take to improve global nutrition is simply to improve access to clean water. He explained that in places with poor water quality, beneficial microbes that normally help digest food in our gut are out-competed by micro-evildoers [my word not his]. Lacking a robust and diverse community of gut microflora, much of the nutrition that passes through one’s system isn’t made available. People essentially starve despite eating. For those looking for very effective and inexpensive ways to dramatically improve lives, there are many NGOs working to provide safe drinking water.

Back to FarmingUp; When asked what nutrients he recommends testing for in our trials, Ray suggested major and minor minerals across all crops and specific phytochemicals relating to each particular crop, e.g. lycopene in tomatoes. Ray promises that lab work is a lousy spectator sport, but if it makes sense to use the liquid chromatography mass spectrometer for any of the samples, I’ll be there. Fire up the Mass-spec, Ray!

Brooklyn Botanic Lends a Hand
BBG was able to supply us with almost all of the pots that we need for the trials. We picked up about 130 of them this weekend, including some pretty massive 18″ ones for the tomatoes. BBG is also trying to figure out the logistics of helping us pick up the 3 cubic yards of rooflite that we’ll need. Thanks guys.

Surprising Test Results
We sent the three components that will make up the base of our mixes to an agricultural lab in Ohio (Logan Labs). As mentioned in an earlier post, ‘soils’ designed for rooftop use are engineered to be lightweight, fireproof, well-draining – all manner of things – but not agriculture. So it was a surprise when the lab results showed Rooflite to be incredibly well balanced for crop production – mineralogically at least. It is so well balanced, in fact, that it warranted a change in protocol.

Green Roof Tax Credit
There’s been some nice movement on NYC’s green roof tax credit since the last update. The Senior Policy Analyst at New York City Council, has drafted a resolution opening the credit to those who grow food on roofs. This is a great improvement over the existing language. Still, in its current form the draft resolution doesn’t support the largest farms and green roofs the way it does smaller ones. I find this boggling considering that the larger a roof is, the greater its potential for positive environmental returns. This may seem like a small and fairly obscure resolution, but its environmental impact is greater than you would imagine.

NYC uses sewers that combine water from roofs and pavement with water from buildings. In theory this combined water goes to treatment facilities before being released into our waterways. But during moderate to heavy rains water enters the system faster than it can be treated. This results in “Combined Sewer Overflow” (CSO) – raw sewage discharged directly into the surrounding waters. Ick! Adding insult to injury, every time CSOs are released the city is slapped with a fine. So you and I pay for the privilege of releasing billions of gallons of raw sewage into our own waterways. Riverkeeper posted a charming video of just what this looks like during a storm that rolled through in September of 2010. You can literally see a wall of crap roll South down the Gowanus Canal.

In a recent conversation with Stuart Gaffin – Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University – he suggested that greening roofs is likely the most economical way to reduce CSOs. We’re hoping that City Council will do the maximum to encourage rooftop farming and reduce CSOs in one fell swoop with this resolution. If you like your water crap-free and want to don your activist cap, call your City Councilperson and urge them to pass a resolution on the Green Roof Tax Credit that includes the $4.50 per square foot credit and is available for food crops, but isn’t limited to $100,000 and doesn’t require that 50% of the roof be greened. This would be a huge help to all of us, especially those working with very large roofs…and those creatures that have the misfortune of living in our waterways. You can find your Councilperson here. Seriously, call them. This is disgusting. Make farms, prevent CSOs, reduce heat island effect. What’s not to like?

B-school
I was recently accepted into the Fast Trac business course sponsored by the Kaufman Foundation. The speakers have been great and the 30 other entrepreneurs in the class are a fun bunch. The class is lively and collaborative. Friday aft we went to SIBL – the Science Industry and Business Library – and started learning how to do market research. I suspected there wouldn’t be much related to rooftop farming but it didn’t take long to turn up some interesting information. There was for example this chart showing the degree to which people base their decisions on sustainability:

Where they are getting their information:

And perhaps most importantly from a marketing perspective: how sustainability-based decisions are made, depending on an individual’s relative passion for the issue:

Suddenly market research doesn’t seem so dry.

Green Roof School
Wanting to get acquainted with the materials and techniques used when installing a green roof, I joined the crew from Future Green Studio as they laid down the substrate for one of their Brooklyn projects. At ground level it was a pretty nice day. 7 stories up it was a nice, windy day. As you can imagine, the components used to assemble a green roof are light weight. This presents a bit of a problem when the wind kicks up and soil isn’t yet covering the various layers. At times we would sprawl out on the materials to keep them from blowing off the roof. But we had lots of hands on deck and things moved right along. It all comes together incredibly quickly, and almost lego-like. I’m eager to spent some more time with the FGS crew.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

March Update, 2011

As Feb came to an we put in the seed order for our 2011 growing trials and sent some growing media to a soil lab for analysis. Those small steps are the result of a huge number of conversations that helped us refine our project over the past few months. The conversation have also helped me understand aspects of farming that I hadn’t previously appreciated. Though I haven’t worked the soil for months I have no doubt become a much better farmer. I had no idea how much growth happens during the off-season.

Our protocol for the trails continues to get tighter, we’re developing a business plan and learning about business start-up and management and learning lots about the local and rooftop food scene. For the full scoop, read on.

The 2011 Trials
Greenroof Tax Credit
The 2011 Trials

On the mineral side of the soil equation I’ve had an incredible, ongoing exchange with Michael Astera in Venezuela. I came across his work this past season while hunting online for information regarding pH and mineral exchange. His book, The Ideal Soil, is far and away the most easily digestible and applicable text on mineral balancing that I’ve ever come across – it’s been responsible for a lot of “AHA!” moments. Michael has given tons of time and input to this project and has become a real friend and mentor. If you’re farming, get his book; it will deepen your understanding of soil nutrition and will help you grow better food.

A conversation with Elaine Ingham and the Soil Food Web crew helped us understand how to incorporate soil biology into our system. She and her team generously settled in for a conference call with us, pooling knowledge from her East and West Coast staff. I had initially resisted the notion of rooftop farming because soil biology is so important and I doubted the ability to develop a robust biological community in a rooftop environment. The SFW folks focused my attention back on that issue and gave me some good ideas on how to foster a great, living system.

A chat with Johannes Lehmann, a Cornell biochar researcher, helped me wrap my mind around some possible applications of that material. He blew my mind with some of the oddities of biochar. (Starting with the same input, one can create an end-product with a pH range anywhere from 3 to 12 depending on how it’s processed; that’s an insane range given that the pH scale is logarithmic).

David Seiter of Future Green Studio (a landscape architecture and green roof design firm in Brooklyn) took the initiative to speak with their landlord and got approval to host our trials on their roof. He has also been helping us understand some of the particulars of a full-scale installation. I hope to have the chance to work with him on a couple of green roof installs this season to get familiar with the materials and installation procedures.

 

Greenroof Tax Credit

In surprise twist, an NYS green roof tax credit that I had learned of early on turns out to be saddled with a provision that effectively excludes rooftop farms. (In fairness to the legislators, the law was crafted well before rooftop farming went large-scale in NYC). I figured the farm exclusion is a provision worth revisiting and soon learned that lots of other folks are working on that as well. What initially seemed like a frustrating obstacle has led to some really interesting folks. First was a chat with Kubi Ackerman, a Columbia University prof who’s been working on a massive study of the NYC foodshed at Columbia’s Urban Design Lab. He’s got a bird’s eye view of what and how we eat in the region along with great ideas on how we can become more regionally self-sufficient.

The tax credit issue also pointed me towards Christina Grace of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. It’s not often that I’ve walked into a State Agency and felt inspired. Christina’s office has that effect. She’s been working on the NYS Urban Food Systems Program, an Ag & Markets community gardens & urban farms program focused on increasing urban agriculture in New York. She has also been working on local food procurement, including managing the downstate Farm-to-School program and the Farm to Factory project to connect New York farmers and NYC food processors. If you want to feel good about your tax dollars, go see Christina. She pointed me in some great directions and promised to keep me in the loop when the tax credit comes up for review. That is slated to happen this summer.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Feb Update, 2011

We’ve been dragging our heels on the name game but there are other noteworthy developments afoot!

The big news is that a Nutrition Physiology professor at Cornell has taken an interest in what we’re up to. He has made a tentative offer to run lab analysis of the food we plan to grow during the 2011 trails. That would have been the most expensive part of the study so it looks like we’re getting close to launching Phase I. Another Cornellian and New England  Biochar have been helping us to understand biochar as it relates to agriculture (Thanks Bob and Ray).

In an interesting twist it turns out that the Parks Dept is looking to equip one of its facilities with a gassifier – the apparatus that makes biochar. They are interested in it from a power-generation standpoint and haven’t yet worked out what do with all of the biochar it will produce. They seemed interested in its potential as part of a rooftop medium. Part of my interest in using biochar in our study is that it can be produced locally and provides an opportunity for municipalities to support agriculture – rooftop and otherwise. It’s starting to look like that day may arrive sooner than I imagined.

Have a great February.

-Alec

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Getting Started

My friend Lise and I have been studying the feasibility of installing and managing a large-scale rooftop farm in NYC. Things have been moving along well enough that we’re suddenly in the position of needing a name for our venture. This is where you come in! Take a gander at our plan and sharpen your pencils.

Despite the limitations of farming on a roof we aim to grow food on par with the field grown veggies you might find at your farmers’ market. As far as we know, no one’s figured out yet how to make that happen, so we plan to!

Based on that figuring, we hope to build a large rooftop farm in Brooklyn that produces a magnificent amount of stellar food. (For a more detailed account of our two-pronged approach there’s a description at the end).

Though we’re a year out on breaking ground, we’re working hard to set up the research portion of the project that will take place this year, secure funding and nail down a site. Things are looking good and we can’t wait to start growing food for our neighbors.

Whoever crowns us with a winning name get’s bragging rites and the biggest zucchini you’ve ever seen. You’ll be able to make zucchini feta pancakes for an army. (I’ll send you my recipe).

Thanks for sharing your two cents. We can’t wait to hear what you come up with. I hope your respective years are all off to a great start.

-Alec

Details below.

The general methodology that we employ is often referred to as biological farming. Provide the best conditions possible for soil biology to thrive and watch the concert unfold. The biology creates great soil structure, makes minerals plant available, checks diseases and generally makes killer food. Those little buggers are total rock stars! (Up to a billion of’em in a gram of healthy soil).

Our approach is two-fold:

Phase I: Includes the development and testing of growing media during the 2011 growing season. The media will be light enough for rooftop farming while also supporting production of highly nutritious foods. We expect to design half a dozen or so media, grow representatives from several plant families in each and subject both the soils and the crops they produce to laboratory testing. Lab testing should ensure that our results are quantifiable and replicable. A key feature of the media will  be the use of organic materials often collected in excess municipally to create a model that municipalities everywhere can replicate.

Phase II: 2012, (the first?) rooftop farm specifically designed to maximize nutrient density is born! Our primary interest is in making produce available to residents within walking distance of thefarm. We are currently focusing on a specific, 3 acre property in Brooklyn whose owner has expressed interest in hosting a farm.

In addition to being a place where people can find delicious and nutritious foods, we imagine the farm as a platform where people can enjoy a beautiful greenspace and learn first-hand about growing their own food. We plan to place the technical and financial details of the project in the public domain. We hope those measures will provide the information and impetus for farmers and consumers to develop and support methods that produce more nutritious foods. We hope too that the information will generate more interest among building owners so that they become engines of urban ag.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Photographs by Catherine Yrisarri

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment