Growing Local Food in Cities

A few weeks back when talking about food systems and our preference for local and/or organic foods, a few people pointed to the “impossibility” of growing sufficient volumes of such food for the urban masses. Yes, this is a challenge, but I have to disagree on “impossible.” There are well documented examples elsewhere of using brown-fields and rooftops for urban gardening and also commercial scale farming. Many of them use vermiculture (yes, that’s with worms) to quickly turn high volumes of food waste into beneficial compost for these urban farmers.

Last week I got to visit an exciting and new urban food demonstration project happening just a few blocks from downtown Lexington KY. Food Chain is a non-profit that recently took up residence in an ex-bread factory (alongside a great micro-brewery, a new micro-lot coffee roaster, and some other arts studios/offices) that just got their small-scale indoor integrated farm running in the past five weeks. The project is fearlessly led by Rebecca Self and Mims Russell. They soon expect to have a consistent monthly production of 125+ lbs of Tilapia and even more hydroponically grown vegetables, to be available at local restaurants and retailers. This aquaponic method is great example of re-thinking farming, a la (one of my favorite topics) Systems Engineering. All the nutrients needed for the green veggies are conveniently derived from the fish waste by naturally occurring bacteria that covert ammonia into nitrates (see this video of it). The water is fully recycled, with only about 1% daily loss (due to transpiration and evaporation) plus the water content of their harvest. Currently, the main inputs are electricity (for the pumps, space heating and artificial lighting) and the fish feed, plus some daily labor (it’s a farm!), seedlings and the fingerling fish (currently provided by the nearby Kentucky State University aquaculture program). They’re already thinking about how to reduce those inputs, possibly via solar thermal and PV, and using the spent grains from the brewery as a majority (but not all) of the fish feed. I previously visited a similar scale teaching system at Berea College that uses a greenhouse for natural sunlight and passive heating (but therefore also has seasonally variable production volumes).

My forward plan: volunteer my time to help reduce their inputs further (e.g. solar technologies), and expand their outputs to other food products (using that vermicompost), including mushrooms grown on more of that brewer’s grain. Oh, I guess I have never mentioned here that another hobby we greatly enjoy is mushrooming – cooking and eating them, of course!, but also foraging for fungi in the wild and growing some at home. Yes, that’s fun-gi-culture! So it’s sure to be fun!, and I’ll try to keep you up to date on our progress. – Jack

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