As I mentioned yesterday, Sharon Astyk of Casaubon’s Book and I are spending this week focusing on urbanization issues. Sharon is a farmer and has been writing for a long time about sustainable food production, particularly as it relates to climate change and a dwindling supply of fossil fuels. In her post yesterday, she linked to some of her past writing about urban issues, and the theme that ties them together is rural-urban collaboration. Cities can’t grow enough food to feed all their residents, and rural areas need the durable goods that cities produce, so a reciprocal relationship is important.

As the global supply of fossil fuels shrink and oil gets more expensive, foods that have to be shipped long distances – and particularly those that have to be refrigerated in transit – will become much harder to afford. Urban agriculture, which already seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance, will become more necessary. In “Reconsidering Cities,” Sharon points out that it other parts of the world it’s not so unusual for city dwellers to raise much of what they eat:

Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, both produce more than 20% of their meat and vegetables within the city limits. In 2002 with more than 6 million people, Hong Kong was producing 33% of their produce, 14% of the pigs, 36% of the chickens and 20% of the farmed fish eaten in the city limits, much the animals being raised on 160,000 tons annually of food waste that was recycled into meat and eggs. Will cities grow all their own food? No, but they don’t necessarily have to. A substantial portion can be enough, as long as they also build ties to surrounding rural areas.

The fact that urban livestock can be raised on food scraps is a big plus, but many cities have laws that prohibit livestock in residential yards. I can see the rationale for this; living in close proximity to lots of other people means tolerating a certain amount of noise and smells, and I’m not eager to increase those. But some cities seem to have worked out reasonable limits – for instance, according to Urban Chicken, Portland lets residents keep chickens (not roosters) provided their habitat isn’t within 50 feet of a residence; up to three chickens are allowed without getting a permit. (I picked Portland because some friends of mine moved there and soon started raving about how much they love the fresh eggs from their three backyard hens.)

My apartment building has no yard, but it does have a roof – and rooftop gardening seems to be a hot new trend, as reported by the Washington Post’s Robin Shulman. This isn’t just individual households deciding to grow a few tomato plants, but entrepreneurs investing thousands of dollars to create small farms atop buildings. Some of the large rooftop gardens are cooperative or educational ventures, but others are businesses based on a calculation that growing food closer to where it’s used creates savings that offset the cost of moving the inputs and outputs up and down several flights. Any large-scale venture must take into account the building’s weight-bearing capacity and drainage options, but Shulman rattles off examples of people making it work.

Will Farming Grow Up?
The dominant model for agriculture in the US is unsustainable. Growing crops generally means lots of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and many farmworkers labor in unhealthy conditions. Massive livestock operations produce huge lagoons of noxious animal waste, and the animals end up in slaughterhouses where fast-moving production lines leave many workers with cuts and repetitive stress injuries. Then food travels long distances, contributing to climate change.

There are alternatives to this kind of damaging food system; organic agriculture addresses the pesticide problem, and plenty of small farmers and livestock owners are demonstrating that it’s possible to grow and process food responsibly and sell it locally – in many ways, going back to a more traditional form of farming.

There’s also an agricultural concept that addresses current agribusiness shortcomings in a more futuristic way: vertical farming. Its most visible advocate is Columbia University public health professor Dickson Despommier, who last year published a New York Times op-ed outlining his vision. Crops and livestock would grow in multi-story buildings in urban areas, close to those who’d eat them. The system would use water and waste efficiently, eliminate the need for pesticides, and be far less vulnerable to the droughts, floods, and other disasters that strike outdoor crops routinely.

Despommier goes into more detail in this essay, and presumably into even more detail in his book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. I know that he mentions urban job creation as one benefit of the model, and I’m curious to know whether the book discusses occupational health issues. I’d hope that vertical farms could be designed so that workers could harvest crops without kneeling or bending over rows of plants.

(A related idea to vertical farming is aquaponics, which uses waste from fish grown in tanks to fertilize plants. Some fish, like tilapia, can be fed with table scraps. Or, there’s urban aquaculture, where abandoned warehouses and vacant lots can become fish-raising sites.)

In a 2008 Science News article, Rachel Ehrenberg delves into the question of how feasible vertical farming is. She spoke to Gene Giacomellia, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who points out some of the challenges, like providing different climactic conditions for different crops and ensuring an appropriate and even distribution of light from an efficient source. It can be done, but can it be done cost-effectively? Other experts warn that farming, even in high-rise structures, isn’t the most lucrative use of land in places like New York, and the cost of retrofitting or demolishing old buildings to install vertical farms can be steep. [Update, 12/9: Also, a commenter posted a link to a George Monbiot piece that includes a calculation of the light needed to grow wheat, which suggests that just paying for the necessary light with today's technology would be hugely expensive and inefficient.]

Of course, if we consider the environmental and health costs of our current food-production system, the items in the supermarket are far more expensive than their sticker prices suggest. If true costs were considered, vertical farming could be cheaper option. And as oil prices rise and the effects of climate change reduce global crop productivity, a more-sustainable system that seems pricey now might become a relative bargain. I hope some far-sighted funder supports pilot testing of vertical farming and other such innovations, so we can identify workable systems and be ready to roll them out in the decades ahead.

Comments

  1. #1 Sharon Astyk
    December 7, 2010

    Liz, nice post on vertical farming – I find it to be a really interesting concept, although I have my doubts about its high retrofit and ongoing costs – it seems to me to make more immediate use of available marginal land and open space in cities, including rooftops and other reclamable space. Consider what Scott Kellogg and RUST are doing in Albany: http://radicalsustainability.org/rust/toolbox (and have previously done in Texas) – reclaiming abandoned urban warehouse space, and building low input food production integrated with other resources – local markets, educational work with kids, etc… The thing about peak oil, IMHO, is that it means that lower input strategies such as those currently used in the Global south seem more likely to be successful to me. That is, of course, a prediction and hard to document.

    As for urban livestock – realistically, most cities allow people to keep large dogs that produce more waste, of greater toxicity, are potentially more dangerous to humans, produce more noise and in general are more troublesome than most small livestock – rabbits, chickens, bees, etc… are comparatively far lower impact than the dogs that we consider a basic right. I think the problem is that we instinctively assume that we must have banned urban livestock (and 7 out of 8 of the US’s largest cities permit chickens, and many others have quite a lot of livestock within the city limits – consider Novella Carpenter’s raising pigs, rabbits, chickens and turkeys in Oakland or that two years ago a goat got on a city bus from a backyard in LA ;-)) for a good reason. There are plenty of ways (the same ways we ensure them with pets) to ensure that small livestock aren’t a significant nuisance in cities.

    Sharon

  2. #2 Liz Borkowski
    December 7, 2010

    A goat on a city bus? I hope it wasn’t rush hour!

    Good point about dogs being comparable in terms of size, noise, and waste. And I noticed that the Urban Chickens website touts chickens’ pest-control capabilities, so that might be a good way to convince wary neighbors or local officials. In terms of how many cities allow backyard chickens, a source in this Newsweek article says it’s 65%, but it sounds like in many of the places where residents have challenged prohibitions they’ve been successful.

    As far as usable land in cities, I expect there are differences depending on the city’s development patterns. DC’s height limit, while terrible from a density/efficiency standpoint, probably means we have a relatively high amount of per-capita roof space. Some of that should go to solar panels, but I’m sure between rooftops, yards, and marginal land we could do a lot.

    I don’t think vertical farming should be a substitute for more urban gardening, but it might be able to replace some of the crops that would otherwise be trucked or flown in from far away. While it might be ideal for people to eat what’s seasonally available and preserved from the local harvest, that’s going to be a really tough transition for most people (me included) to make – and as long as there are people who can pay high prices for strawberries in December, there will be someone who’ll supply those strawberries. I’d rather see those strawberries grown in town than flown in from Chile.

  3. #3 Althea Rizzo
    December 7, 2010

    I am fascinated by the possibility of combining these types of new agri-trends in our work in preparing for a major Cascadia earthquake. Communities frequently want to put in food caches that might last 5-10 years. By leveraging this micro-agriculture trend, we could almost eliminate the need for long and large term caches. MMmmm. something to ponder.

  4. #4 Russ Finley
    December 7, 2010

    Seattle allows up to eight chickens, roosters if you can keep them from crowing (good luck), or ducks, rabbits, and up to two pygmy goats and there is no 50 foot restriction. Many houses here sit on lots that are only 40 feet wide.

    My teenage daughter has three ducks, two chickens, and a rabbit. She has been hired by a neighbor to milk goats every morning.

    The policy is amazingly liberal but I suspect it won’t be long before restrictions begin to arrive. Farms are very dirty places. It’s hard to find a use and place for all of the waste without burying your house under it. Rats are always a big problem. Surface water runoff into lakes and streams will eventually be recognized and will have to be dealt with. Puget sound is slowly dying and turning Seattle into an ad hoc farming community sure isn’t going to help that. Seattle backyards are already full of dog and cat feces, which isn’t helped by the animal shelters trying to extend the lives of these pets with adoptions and even foster care programs!

    It’s all a bit of a fantasy. Foraging goats, pigs, and chickens have served humanity because they are all capable of converting biomass that humans can’t use into protein. Today we feed them grain grown on industrial farms, which circumvents their original value to us.

    Biodiversivist

  5. #5 Sharon Astyk
    December 7, 2010

    I actually would suggest that small scale food producers are actually quite clean – the kind of agricultural activity likely to take place in most backyards is easily handled – the manures are generally no more than sufficient to maintain urban gardens. They pale behind the people waste and pet waste problems – even on a much larger scale, the composting of animal wastes is pertty manageable – and it reduces the need for shipped in, fossil fuel based fertilizers. Goats, chickens, etc… don’t have to live on human foods – in fact, for most of human history, they didn’t. Chickens can be fed almost entirely on food wastes – we know this both from contemporary experimentation and the work done on poultry nutrition in WWII Britain. Rabbits, too, can be fed without grains.

    It depends on *how* it is done – but honestly, agricultural production isn’t one of the bigger ecological threats facing Seattle or anywhere else.

    Sharon

  6. #6 Sharon Astyk
    December 7, 2010

    Re: strawberries in winter. I’d rather have them grown locally *if* you can demonstrate to me that the amortized retrofit for vertical farming doesn’t actually use more energy. Right now, there are a lot of people doing northern tomato and basil production in heated greenhouses and calling it local and sustainable, and frankly, all the energy analyses I’ve seen suggest that the fossil fuel consumption to bring those greenhouses up to temperature are lower to fly in the tomatoes from FL and Chile than to grow them indoors. I’ve seen the claims made for vertical farming, and I’m open to seeing a good energy analysis of the actuality, but I have my doubts. And since my primary interest isn’t in food for the affluent I admit, that end of vertical farming doesn’t interest me.

    What I think is likely is that you will see more local production at each end of the season – that’s something that can be done with comparatively low inputs a la Eliot Coleman. That is, it is perfectly reasonable to imagine that movable hoophouses set over strawberry beds mean that the strawberry season begins in DC in March, rather than May, that tomatoes run from May to December, etc… This makes the local eating project a little less overwhelming. But I don’t personally believe vertical farming has much a future in terms of giving ordinary people strawberries year ’round. And honestly, the strawberries you can get the winter suck anyway ;-).

    Sharon

  7. #7 Liz Borkowski
    December 7, 2010

    Sharon, I’m curious about the vertical farming energy analysis, too – I’ll let you know if I find a good one!

  8. #8 darwinsdog
    December 7, 2010

    I work at an agricultural research station. Most of the professional staff have Masters or PhDs in agronomy, horticulture, “weed science,” agroforestry, etc. I’m the lone outlier with a background in ecology & evolution. Some of the staff farm their own properties as a sideline. Awhile back, out of sheer perversity, I posted an article about “vertical farming” on the bulletin board where staff posts things they want colleagues to see & comment on. The vertical farming article has been received as a joke, which was rather the way I intended it, and the idea has received nothing but ridicule. These people are admittedly rather conservative rural folks but they are educated and do know ag. Good luck on having the idea taken seriously by people who actually produce food.

    As for hoophouses, we planted two identical drip irrigated gardens side by side, then erected a hoophouse over one. The gardens included tomatos, chilis, greens of various sorts and other typical garden vegetables. I don’t have the exact figures in front of me but the cost of materials for the unheated hoophouse was somewhere between $7 & $800. The market value of the produce harvested from the hoophouse exceeded that of the produce grown on the outside by $24 for the first year. Since the wind shredded the plastic during the winter, there was no second year. The hoophouse was quietly disassembled and the project dropped. I realize that some people swear by their hoophouses but I can’t recommend them based on purely economic grounds.

  9. #9 Moshe Braner
    December 7, 2010

    The best demolition of the “vertical farming” delusion that I have seen is Towering Lunacy by George Monbiot
    http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/08/16/towering-lunacy/

  10. #10 Liz Borkowski
    December 7, 2010

    Moshe Braner, thanks for the link. It’s helpful to see a concrete, detailed criticism of the vertical farming idea: the high cost of the energy necessary to give adequate light to the plants.

    I have to say, it was frustrating to go through a long list of articles on vertical farming and only find one (the Science News one I mentioned above) that included details from people who were knowledgeable about agriculture discussing what some specific challenges might be. I guess it’s like the bias against publishing negative results in a medical journal – the articles about an exciting new concept make it into print, but the ones cautioning that there are holes in that idea don’t.

  11. #11 Moshe Braner
    December 7, 2010

    The way I see it, the whole point of agriculture is as a huge solar panel, converting sunshine to food via photosynthesis. Since the sun is generally above us, fields need to be horizontal to collect much sunshine. A vertical N-S wall could collect quite a bit early or late in the day, but at the cost of shading a large nearby area.

    Suggestions that we can turn the CO2 emitted by powerplants to fuel by growing algae on it also often forget that what algae do is use solar energy to convert CO2 back to reduced organic compounds (that can be burnt again to return to CO2). I.e., those proposals need to consider the necessary (huge) horizontal area (of shallow ponds) to collect the sunshine, and the fact that it won’t work at night.

  12. #12 dewey
    December 7, 2010

    That’s interesting about the hoop house. How big was this? I’ve thought of row covers to do lettuce out of season, and this implies that I shouldn’t bother, but I don’t know how the cost might scale with the size of the plot that would be covered. Was yours something that you could actually walk around in?

  13. #13 sikiş
    December 7, 2010

    I’m with CS– I’m a little flummoxed by the results, having always bought hook, line & sinker into the “no sagittal crest” schema.

  14. #14 darwinsdog
    December 7, 2010

    Hi Dewey. I don’t remember the actual dimensions but it was pretty good sized and yes, a person could walk around inside the hoophouse. The hoops were 20′ long 2″ ID PVC bent over rebar stakes driven into the ground and it’s width allowed a person to stand upright in the center. It was considerably longer than it was wide. Boards were attached to the hoops with drywall screws for attaching the clear polyethylene sheeting to, and the ends were partially covered with PE sheeting but with plywood doors in them.

    To be fair, the hoophouse was constructed after danger of late frost so it only extended the growing season into the fall. Had it been built earlier in the season it might have doubled that $24 value differential. It protected the produce inside from the first few light frosts that killed everything outside it, but not from the first hard freeze. The “UV stabilized” PE sheeting was supposed to have lasted three years but only lasted one. The hoophouse was in a location exposed to the wind. However, even if it had extended the growing season in both directions and had lasted three years like it was supposed to, the cost of materials still wouldn’t have been recovered in terms of produce value over & above that grown outside the hoophouse. The hoophouse could probably have been built less expensively but that would have made it even more vulnerable to the wind.

    Now there is work being done, that I’m not involved with, on smaller “grow boxes” that likewise have PVC hoops covered with clear PE sheeting. These are much smaller, however, and the tops can be lifted off to access the boxes. They can be set on top of straw bales or saw horses so people don’t even have to stoop to work in them. I believe that the boxes may have heating cables under the soil.

    I wouldn’t say that this work should discourage you from growing lettuce or spinach under row covers. I would suggest doing it on the cheap (and out of the wind) because if you spend much money on it you aren’t likely to recover the costs in the value of the extra produce.

  15. #15 Russ Finley
    December 7, 2010

    “..I actually would suggest that small scale food producers are actually quite clean..”

    No, I can tell you from first hand experience that the Seattle backyard farmyards are actually quite dirty. The smell is all the evidence you need of that, as is typical of farms everywhere with significant domesticated animal density. Everyone has to take extra measures to control rats and flies. The smell and amount of animal waste is of course a function of yard size and animal density. A typical Seattle backyard maxing out their allowable domesticated animal load generates quite a mess–eight poultry, and up to four small animals (goats, rabbits, cats, dogs, pot bellied pigs etc).

    “… the kind of agricultural activity likely to take place in most backyards is easily handled – the manures are generally no more than sufficient to maintain urban gardens…”

    No, actually not, I can tell you from first hand experience that the manures are sometimes more than can be absorbed by a typical Seattle back yard and some has to be removed.

    “They pale behind the people waste and pet waste problems..”

    It does not matter if they “pale.” It all adds up. And lets not differentiate between domesticated animals and pets. Dogs, cats, and chickens are all domesticated animals and were domesticated to serve roles in our agricultural system. Dogs and cats have just become more parasitic than useful. Note that people waste is contained in a waste treatment system, which is why you will never see or smell human waste in Seattle, as opposed to domesticated animal waste.

    “… – even on a much larger scale, the composting of animal wastes is pertty manageable – and it reduces the need for shipped in, fossil fuel based fertilizers…”

    Not sure what the exact definition of “pretty manageable” is but the coliform bacteria count in Seattle waterways are already chronically high and are blamed on domesticated animal wastes, preventing salmon runs from being reestablished. It would be hard to imagine that this backyard farming trend will lower that count.

    “…Goats, chickens, etc… don’t have to live on human foods – in fact, for most of human history, they didn’t…”

    Yes, I know. I said that already. Chickens are amazing in the way they can peck and scratch around converting tiny seeds and bugs into nutritious eggs and meat. But that isn’t what Seattle chickens do. They are fed chicken feed.

    “…Chickens can be fed almost entirely on food wastes – we know this both from contemporary experimentation and the work done on poultry nutrition in WWII Britain…”

    No, actually not. I know from first hand experience that our family of four does not generate anywhere near enough food scraps for our few chickens, let alone for max allowed. Seattleites use lots and lots of chicken feed.

    Same for the rabbits. There simply is not enough sunshine and land to feed that amount of domesticated animal in a typical Seattle backyard.

    “…Rabbits, too, can be fed without grains…”

    Grains are not fed to rabbits. Hay is the best food for them and rabbit pellets made of hay are also available. Again, no way you are going to garden, house these animals, and grow food for them in a Seattle back yard.

    “…It depends on *how* it is done – but honestly, agricultural production isn’t one of the bigger ecological threats facing Seattle or anywhere else…”

    But what matters is *how* it is being done, not a theoretical optimum. And the fact that backyard farms are not one of the bigger ecological threats facing Seattle is irrelevant, assuming it isn’t. Puget sound is in trouble from runnoff. The extinction event is being caused by 6.8 billion cuts.

    I love my daughter and fully support her hard work and curiosity. Critique is good. Without it humanity would always be barking up the wrong tree as opposed to just usually doing so.

  16. #16 Sharon Astyk
    December 8, 2010

    Russ, you are entirely right that I can’t speak about Seattle. That said, I know a *lot* of urban farmers – hundreds of them, and I’ve been in their backyards. I’ve seen a couple that need to clean out their chicken coops more often, but never seen a major problem, never been able to smell one before I saw it. Most of them are far cleaner than the backyards with conventional pets. My mother keeps 6 chickens on less than 1/10 acres, for example, and they are perfectly able to absorb the manures. They aren’t running into waterways, but being properly composted. I recently was invited to an urban Albany backyard which was basically a postage stamp (I don’t know exactly how large), with a 20 animal rabbitry – no smell, no problems. I’m not sure if Seattle is particularly awful or what, but that really contradicts the experience I’ve had in the following cities: NYC, Albany, Charlottesville VA, Newark NJ, Baltimore, Chicago, Dayton OH, Boston, Atlanta… and I don’t think the difference is because NYC has so much bigger a land base than Seattle. I agree, it matters what’s being done. That said, I don’t think what you are describing is remotely typical.

    Sharon

  17. #17 Sharon Astyk
    December 8, 2010

    Actually, I should add re:food scraps – it is true that most private homes won’t feed more than 1 or 2 chickens on food wastes (although if it couldn’t be done, there’d be a lot fewer chickens in poor cities) – but that’s the great thing about urban life. The cafe, coffeeshop, diner or restaurant down the street produces plenty of scraps. Your neighbors produce food scraps. The Seattle chickens you know of are fed grains, and that’s something that needs to change – but it is changing. I know several dozen urban poultry keepers around the US (none in Seattle I’m aware of, although Deanna Duke is working on it there) who feed entirely on scraps. Not just their own tables, but the whole benefit of urban life is all those people in close proximity.

    That said, however, given a choice I’d rather people feed the grains directly to chickens than feed the feedlot meat parts raised on meat that is in their dog and cat food. Environmentally, there’s no comparison. I disagree strongly with you that replacing dogs with chickens (which is often the case in small yards by necessity) isn’t an improvement – pathogenically, in terms of the environmental costs of their food, etc… You can choose not to distinguish, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a meaningful distinction. Moreover, part of the problem with domesticated animal pathogens reaching waterways in general is their production at a scale that makes it impossible to safely and successfully deal with their manures. It may be possible that Seattlites need more education on composting manures and dealing safely with them – but it is possible to deal safely with small scale, distributed animal production. That’s completely untrue about large scale, feedlot production – and eggs in many backyards means one less or ten less confinement egg operations.

    As for rabbits, marginal weeds and grass hays from all the lawns in your neighborhood (assuming they aren’t chemically treated) along with vegetable scraps from a local market can and do feed rabbits (again, look into the history of rabbit feeding in WWII Britain). That doesn’t mean that the scraps will feed everyone with X rabbits and X chickens, but it means that cities as a whole can make a substantive contribution to their high quality proteins – eggs, milk and meat. If you live only on your own land, and have nothing to do with your neighbors or community, it is true, raising small livestock isn’t very sustainable. But the whole point of city life is that it has a communal dimension by necessity – and that’s good.

    As for the problem of Puget Sound – ok, 6.8 billion cuts. But let’s be honest – you have a much greater effect focusing on the big impacts first, then going on to the small ones. The problem is the people and their basic way of life – critiquing a movement away from the industrial consumption that has motivated most of the greatest destructive changes misses the point, IMHO.

    Sharon

  18. #18 Fred Magyar
    December 8, 2010

    Why are we stuck on raising chickens, goats, pigs and cows for protein? How about raising insects? Has anyone looked at the feasibility and EROI of raising insects in vertical urban farms?

  19. #19 Big Blue
    December 8, 2010

    @ Darwinsdog:

    I know exactly the kind of PE sheeting you are referring to, used it on the first cold frame I built. You are right, it shreds and really just does not work. I have done exactly that type of build (PVC anchored by rebar pins) for a hoop house for chickens, and it is a lousy design.

    However if you build something much sturdier (and yes, more expensive) with proper greenhouse-rated plastic and using metal tubing (FarmTek cat #103083, but if you can score some old metal plumbing or greenhouse channels from a neighbor doing a remodel, more power to you–that’s how I got mine), it will last a good many years and extend your frost-free season a couple of months, unheated, in each direction. We’re still having salads with fresh tomatoes in New England, f’rinstance.

    Admittedly, in summers I use mine as a portable poultry house as well; predators are serious business here, and building a good sturdy hoop house is cheaper and easier than adding extra barn space for meat poultry that will only require housing for maybe 4 months/year. So I’m getting much more than four months’ worth of produce out of mine, I’m saving a building permit, lumber, concrete, hardware, etc.

  20. #20 dewey
    December 8, 2010

    The woman from whom we bought our house had an aggressive boxer dog, and we immediately discovered that half of the back yard had been left thickly covered with dog turds in various stages of decomposition. (No, we didn’t try to pick them all up. We just let them get rained on, mowed over them, and figured our soil must be full of worm eggs already anyway.) If the DH would let me have chickens, the manure would go straight into the compost pile, which now suffers from slow decomposition due to limited nitrogen, and thence to improving my soil and letting me cultivate prettier plants. Surely the aesthetics there would be superior.

    Russ is correct that I could not feed four chickens with no inputs from outside my yard. So what? I couldn’t feed myself from my yard either; that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t live here. Raising chickens allows a person of limited income to add value to food by turning scraps and, yes, supplemental grain into high-quality protein. For a person on a grain-heavy diet, adding an egg a day improves nutrition far more than adding yet more grain. Very little home processing of food for added value could be done only with onsite inputs: if you’re going to make jam to preserve fruit, should you first grow and process your own sugarbeet and fuelwood? It’s just not possible for a city dweller to live off his own land, so to me, it’s not even worth treating that as some sort of ideal.

  21. #21 Jennie
    December 8, 2010

    Fred,
    I had exactly the same thought, insects, pigeons, guinea pigs might all have some interesting possibilities. The drawback being two-fold. 1) American’s don’t know how to eat such things and generally speaking omnivores have a hard time trying new things, (Pollan had a convincing argument about that in one of his last books.) 2) They provide small amounts of usable meat per unit. I can see feeding a cat or a dog on a diet of guinea pig, but trying to house enough guinea pigs to have 3 or 4 decent people meals from them between spring and fall, well that would be a couple dozen guinea pigs and might be more trouble than it’s worth.

  22. #22 darwinsdog
    December 8, 2010

    However if you build something much sturdier (and yes, more expensive)..

    Yes, BB, but the whole idea was an experiment to see if a cheap (and I don’t consider $714.48 in materials to be exactly “cheap”) hoophouse could pay for itself in terms of extra produce over & above what could be grown under the open sky. The value of the produce grown under the hoophouse in excess of that grown outside it was $26.82 (the $24.00 value I gave yesterday was from memory but I now have the exact figures in front of me). Had the hoophouse been built earlier in the year, allowing a head start on the growing season, perhaps we could have doubled that figure to $53.64, and had the hoophouse been sheltered from the wind so that it lasted the expected three years, maybe we could have gotten $160.92 in excess produce from it. Still, $160.92 – $714.48 = -$553.56.

    There are some caveats, of course. The hoophouse could have been built more cheaply but as I said before, this would have lowered its probability of lasting the full expected time. The produce could have been grown organically and thus have commanded a premium price. We didn’t use any biocides but fertilized with Miracle Grow and the soil couldn’t be certified as chemical free for the past three years, so we couldn’t honestly market the produce as organic. We could have grown a higher value crop – such as Cannabis – but decided we’d better not. After all, values were determined by comparison to prices at the local Farmers’ Market and they don’t allow Cannabis sales there (at least not openly).

    You’re certainly right that a real greenhouse would eventually pay for itself but where I work, besides NAPI we largely serve a clientele of small scale Navajo farmers who aren’t going to be able to afford real greenhouses. We just wanted to quantify whether or not the described hoophouse design, that was being popularized online & elsewhere, would pay for itself. It didn’t even come close.

  23. #23 Liz Borkowski
    December 8, 2010

    Fred, I like the idea of raising insects for food … and while I wouldn’t keep a chicken inside my apartment, I might be open to raising a cage of cockroaches. This Discover article makes it sound like raising insects for food might be an efficient use of food resources.

  24. #24 darwinsdog
    December 8, 2010

    It’s just not possible for a city dweller to live off his own land, so to me, it’s not even worth treating that as some sort of ideal.

    But isn’t that the goal of this whole urban issues thread, both on Sharon’s blog & here? To try to figure out how the urban masses can avoid mass starvation once the diesel fuel to keep the semis rolling in from the farms quits flowing? Don’t I catch hell for predicting that cities will become death traps for their inhabitants? Aren’t we going to build highrise farms, farm the rooftops, raise guinea pigs & keep meal worm cultures, in order to sustain our densely populated hives? I thought that brainstorming how city dwellers are going to feed themselves during the crunch times was the whole point.

  25. #25 Douglas Watts
    December 8, 2010

    This analysis seems a bit off in that it leaves out the suburbs: where all the land is.

  26. #26 Russ Finley
    December 8, 2010

    Sharon,

    “…but never seen a major problem, never been able to smell one before I saw it…”

    Not sure, exactly, what constitutes a major problem but certainly one backyard barnyard will rarely qualify as one. But that’s a bit of a strawman. It is the cumulative total of an entire city of them that will degrade water quality in city lakes and streams and Puget sound in particular.

    And why would one need to smell a chicken coop before seeing it?

    “…Most of them are far cleaner than the backyards with conventional pets…”

    I’m not aware of any studies that would back that claim up, and if waste were properly dealt with, conventional pets would present no runoff problem, but we don’t live in an idealized world.

    “…My mother keeps 6 chickens on less than 1/10 acres, for example, and they are perfectly able to absorb the manures…”

    Our entire lot, with a house on it, including a driveway and front yard is 1/8 of an acre and is quite typical for our neighborhood. Clearly, there are many variables involved, like number of animals and garden area, which can be zero. Our neighbor with the goats has eight chickens, a large dog, a cat, and no garden.

    Are you suggesting that cities should have no limits on the numbers of domesticated animals people can keep?

    “..They aren’t running into waterways, but being properly composted…”

    Again, as with conventional pets, not everyone spends the time and energy to keep their coops, goat and rabbit pens clean, and all waste properly composted. Most have demanding jobs and many also have families to care for on top of that. Priorities arise, thus backyards tend to fill with dog doo, and if they have food animals, it will tend to fill with their doo as well.

    “…I recently was invited to an urban Albany backyard which was basically a postage stamp (I don’t know exactly how large), with a 20 animal rabbitry – no smell, no problems…”

    We both know that exchanging anecdotal stories does not a study make. What you need is a replicable peer-reviewed study showing that Seattle backyard barnyards improve water quality in Puget sound rather than degrade it.

    “…I’m not sure if Seattle is particularly awful or what…”

    You have a propensity to create strawmen. Nobody said “Seattle is particularly awful.” Those are your words, your description of Seattle, not mine. Find a study showing that these backyard barnyards are improving Puget sound water quality.

    “…but that really contradicts the experience I’ve had in the following cities…”

    What contradicts your experience? That animal husbandry generates a lot of animal waste and the ratio of cropland that can absorb it to animals that produce it tends to be very low in a Seattle backyard, and that people often do a less than perfect job of properly composting all waste?

    “…I agree, it matters what’s being done. That said, I don’t think what you are describing is remotely typical…”

    No, it’s quite typical. I suspect that what you’re describing is not remotely typical–orderless, rat and fly free, perfectly managed, 100 percent composted, zero runoff, uran animal husbandry. You are describing the best of the best, not the average. You are biased, but that’s OK, we are all biased. That’s why we invented the scientific method. Someday somebody will do a study.

    When you are invited to see a garden, you are often being invited to see a spruced up version of the best of the best, flagship gardens, people’s pride and joy, not the backyard of overworked parents who have bitten off a bit too much. If a significant number of people don’t properly care for their cat and dog waste, what makes you think they will all properly care for the waste of other domesticated animals?

    Every summer Seattle has a tour of backyard barnyards. Everyone gets ready for visitors with fresh bedding, clean water, tidy gardens, but it’s like putting on your Sunday best one day a year. They don’t always look or smell so nice.

    Russ

  27. #27 Ambitwistor
    December 8, 2010

    “Then food travels long distances, contributing to climate change.”

    Food transportation actually doesn’t contribute that much to climate change, compared to other sources of CO2 emissions involved in food production and distribution (at least in the U.S.).

    According to Weber and Matthews (2008), only 4% of greenhouse gas emissions in the food sector are attributable to food traveling from producer to retail (which is the transport you refer to above).

    They argue that switching away from red meat consumption would have a far larger impact on food-related greenhouse gas emissions than would local food consumption. (Not that there aren’t other reasons for local food consumption.)

  28. #28 Big Blue
    December 8, 2010

    Darwinsdog–I didn’t realize you are so far out, you are right. Where you are, you don’t really have access to scrap building supplies and demolition material. In urban & suburban areas though, wouldn’t people have more access to that sort of thing? The trick would be to get the framing material before the metal scrap recyclers get it. But then you have to worry about plastic costs, and the 6mil film doesn’t cut it. I used 4mm twin-wall PC sheets so they’d be thin enough to bend easily over the frame, think I spent about $300 on it till all was said and done. The question is more like, what can you do with the materials you can get easily–and where you are located, the answer is, “not much” unfortunately.

    I tend to agree with you about American cities, BTW. There’s what we would very much like to happen, and then there’s what will likely happen, and those are two very different things. Infrastructure, which lots of modern cities have in abundance (including cities like Shanghai, where residents do indeed raise chickens on their apartment balconies), is sorely lacking here in the US. Even my colleagues who came here from USSR Moscow tell me of how they would take the train out to their grandparent’s home in the country, buy some black market food grown on a little truck farm or backyard to bring back to their apartment. Can’t do that in the US.

  29. #29 Charles Gomez
    December 8, 2010

    Some good quantitative energy analysis of the vertical farm concept posted recently at the energy farms blog:

    http://energyfarms.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/energy-and-vertical-farms/

    Well worth the read for anybody who is interested in knowing how much energy would be used by such a system. There are good reasons why this concept is not taken seriously by agricultural scientists.

    Hopefully, the growth in urban gardening will also bring about an increase in ecological and agricultural literacy. Perhaps at this point, more people would be able to see concepts such as “vertical farming” for what they are.

  30. #30 darwinsdog
    December 8, 2010

    ..cities like Shanghai, where residents do indeed raise chickens on their apartment balconies..

    The mother of my new little grandson was born & raised in Guangzhou, a city of about 12 million. She tells how her parents kept geese in bamboo cages in their apartment. When she was a little girl her job was to herd the geese out to graze in a nearby park, watch over them and herd them back inside later in the day. It always amuses me to imagine little girls herding geese out of Manhattan skyscrapers and into Central Park to graze. Maybe before long geese in newly affluent Chinese cities will be banned while New Yorkers take up raising them out of economic necessity. Wouldn’t surprise me, the way things are going..

    Btw, I recently met my son’s girlfriend’s parents for the first time, at their home in Scottsdale, Az. They live on a corner lot in a fairly affluent neighborhood. The entire lot is a drip irrigated garden, with every square inch of space occupied by goji berry bushes, bok choy, and many other edible plants I couldn’t identify. While we Westerners hypothesize about the practicability of urban agriculture, the Chinese, both here in the US and back in China, actually practice it.

  31. #31 Domestigoth
    December 9, 2010

    Raising insects for food is actually very feasible. They’re high protein and excellent nutrition packed into a small area, and they hardly need any care whatsoever (an important factor in a busy urban lifestyle).

    I raise insects for my pet lizards, and could see mealworms, crickets, and roaches really catching on as a common food item someday — mealworms especially. In some cultures they’re already considered “human food”. They’re ridiculously easy to care for (perfect for a busy urban lifestyle), take up very little space (great for apartments), they’re high in protein, and produce very little smell (none at all if you’re good about cleaning out any leftover, uneaten food scraps). The start-up cost is also very small: a few thousand mealworms, some plastic tubs to keep them in, and some bran or oat flakes for a substrate would probably only run you about $50. Big colonies are easy to sustain because mealworms breed prolifically, and you could be producing enough mealworms to have bug-protein as a big part of your meals a couple of times a week, just for the cost of an occasional bag of substrate and whatever vegetable scraps are leftover (ends of carrots, potato skins, and apple cores are all great mealworm food).

    And yes, I’ve eaten fried mealworms before — they’re pleasantly crunchy and appeal well to a western palette (once you get over the fact that it’s a “bug”).

  32. #32 anti snore
    December 9, 2010

    The policy is amazingly liberal but I suspect it won’t be long before restrictions begin to arrive. Farms are very dirty places. It’s hard to find a use and place for all of the waste without burying your house under it. Rats are always a big problem.

  33. #33 dewey
    December 9, 2010

    Russ Finley – Demanding that Sharon prove that microfarming IMPROVES local water quality is a straw man. Shall we forbid you to mow your lawn unless that improves water quality? Most domestic activities will, at best, have no effect whatsoever on Puget Sound. And if some chicken coops were proven to have a detrimental effect – I have seen no proof of that claim – that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be prohibited. We don’t shoot for zero pollution in our society, because that’s impossible if we’re to live; we accept all kinds of tradeoffs between harm and benefit. Does chicken-keeping do more harm to the watershed than any activities that serve primarily for recreation or status display rather than feeding the non-rich? If not, it had better not be first on the banned list.

    darwinsdog – Yes, this is about sustainability, but I reject the false dichotomy between “grow all your own food within the boundaries of land you ‘own'” or “starve to death.” Of course we city folk cannot grow all our calories in our little yards, but we don’t need to, any more than the citizens of ancient Rome needed to. Within fifty miles of my city, hundreds of millions of bushels of corn and soybeans are grown. Since everything besides cash crops is manufactured, processed, and/or imported and marketed in cities, those farmers would bring their grains to town to sell if they had to do it by oxcart. Staples like rice or beans will be cheap enough for most working people to afford for a long time; the value of home gardening for people like me is to make a more nutritious and enjoyable diet affordable.

    As for the insects – Grasshoppers aren’t bad and I would be happy to try mealworms, but roaches, that’s gross! In some places, people go out with nets to collect grasshoppers from fields, so instead of having to have a setup to farm and feed the bugs, you take advantage of an unwanted infestation by eating it. But this only works if you are living in the countryside and can take them right from field to hot water to wok. In St. Louis, there aren’t enough grasshoppers to bother trying to catch them, and given that they’ve got much more escape potential than mealworms, I wouldn’t like to have an aquarium full of them.

  34. #34 Sharon Astyk
    December 9, 2010

    Russ, I’m not convinced our exchange is doing any good, since it results in an exchange of anecdotes. You were the one who began offering anecdotes and argued that Seattle small livestock keepers were dirty, not me. My only observation is that my anecdotal observations, which are about as valid as yours, are the opposite. You decline to believe my anecdotes and prefer your own, and the whole thing is kind of pointless.

    Sharon

  35. #35 Sharon Astyk
    December 9, 2010

    I don’t have a good sense of the caloric return of insects (which probably should be a bigger part of the picture than they have been in the US), but I do know that a study on Guinea Pigs I read recently suggested that Guinea pigs actually have higher protein and meat yiels than rabbit. I actually did a piece once on very small livestock suitable for urban life – I actually like pigeons for that, since you can capture them in the city and then raise them on rooftops and allow them to forage for their own food.

    http://sharonastyk.com/2009/02/12/little-livestock-for-urban-and-suburban-gardens/

    I actually forgot I’d written this post – I’ll put it up on my blog again.

  36. #36 darwinsdog
    December 9, 2010

    darwinsdog – Yes, this is about sustainability, but I reject the false dichotomy between “grow all your own food within the boundaries of land you ‘own'” or “starve to death.”

    It is a false dichotomy.. for now. It won’t be as we slide further down the backslope of Hubbert’s curve. “Sustainability” implies consideration of the future. Affordable rice in the American cornbelt? Corn in the American cornbelt sans anhydrous ammonia? I do like the image of oxcarts crossing the Mississippi on the I-70 bridge, though.

    Here’s the lowdown on entomophagy:

    http://www.amazon.com/Man-Eating-Bugs-Science-Insects/dp/1580080510/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1291908268&sr=1-1

    This is a cool book just for the cultural history & photos, even if you don’t plan on trying out any of the recipes.

    ..more escape potential than mealworms..

    Tenebrio imagos are volant & are pretty good about getting into & out of grain storage (or culture media) containers.

  37. #37 dewey
    December 9, 2010

    The fact that agricultural methods will have to change with climate change does not imply that every family will have to grow all of their own food. As long as farmers produce any surplus, and have any needs whatsoever that they can’t meet themselves, some non-farmers can continue to eat. I highly doubt that the next few decades will witness catastrophic, sudden, and permanent declines in production to the point where there is no surplus at all.

    Even if things go quite badly, I still doubt that I personally would be better off on a doomstead. If you’re not just rubbing the noses of despised urbanites (“ghetto toughs”) in your belief that we’re doomed, you’re implying that we should all seek to take up farming in midlife, starting from scratch, at a time when you believe it is about to get far more difficult. An experienced corn farmer, say, would be much more capable of adjusting his methods as needed to salvage some production if there’s extreme weather or a fertilizer shortage, when I might lose my whole crop. Being prepared to provide goods and services worth swapping that corn for seems like a safer bet to me.

  38. #38 darwinsdog
    December 9, 2010

    I highly doubt that the next few decades will witness catastrophic, sudden, and permanent declines in production..

    This is where you & I differ, dewey. Depletion of fossil fuels, climate change, and the prospect of biological warfare targeting staple cereal grains & legumes all but guarantee it. If anything, what surprises me is that it hasn’t happened already.

    If you’re not just rubbing the noses of despised urbanites..

    I live within the city limits of a city of some 40K inhabitants myself. Why should I despise urbanites? I’m warning people that they’d better relocate to where food can be grown in sufficient quantity, or be prepared to relocate quickly, because I care about people.

    ..you’re implying that we should all seek to take up farming in midlife, starting from scratch, at a time when you believe it is about to get far more difficult.

    I’m more than just implying this. I’m flat out declaring it. It needn’t be “starting from scratch,” though. Whatever horticultural, animal husbandry, fishing & hunting experience, education, exposure, practice.. one brings to bear or can obtain, will be useful. But it won’t be enough. What I’m saying is that people had better get cracking, because times ARE “about to get far more difficult,” indeed.

    An experienced corn farmer, say, would be much more capable of adjusting his methods as needed to salvage some production if there’s extreme weather or a fertilizer shortage..

    I wouldn’t too sure of that. Commercial corn & soybean farmers in the Midwest only know how to do what they’ve done all along. A person with experience with a variety of small scale cropping systems is apt to do better than any commercial monocultural farmer.

    Being prepared to provide goods and services worth swapping that corn for seems like a safer bet to me.

    Perhaps. Even if people are willing to barter, though, transportation or other constraints may limit the opportunity. Also, food is fundamental and in hard times those who have it can demand whatever they want for it. The farmer may be able to do without whatever goods & services you can provide him or her, but you can’t do without food. Best to know how to provide food for yourself, and to defend it, just in case.

  39. #39 dewey
    December 9, 2010

    Maybe. To riff off your (elegantly explained) ecological argument back on Casaubon’s Book, if everyone tries to take up subsistence peasantry simultaneously, they are all trying to occupy the same economic niche, and if some are a lot better at it than others, the latter are apt to get outcompeted. Better to occupy a (relatively) specialist niche where you can perform well than a generalist niche where you will be lousy. (You will counter that in times of ecological disruption, those occupying extremely specialized niches are at greater risk. That’s true, which is why I wouldn’t count on doing dog manicures for my post-apocalypse income.)

  40. #40 GreeneGarden
    December 9, 2010

    I am thrilled to see urban agriculture discussions. I am a big fan of the RUAF and The City Gardener. One of the main aspects of urban gardening that I see being left out is the necessity of an intense focus on nutrition. It makes no sense to grow crops in urban settings unless they are the most nutritious. Therefore, GardenForNutrition.org. I think the real answer is everyone having a garden and a few animals in their back yard. And even in the front yard! We are children of the earth and if we let ourselves get out of touch and distant, we suffer.

  41. #41 GreeneGarden
    December 9, 2010

    Oops… I meant The City Farmer.

  42. #42 cirius
    December 10, 2010

    The policy is amazingly liberal but I suspect it won’t be long before restrictions begin to arrive. Farms are very dirty places. It’s hard to find a use and place for all of the waste without burying your house under it. Rats are always a big problem. 5+

  43. #43 email lists for sale
    December 10, 2010

    The policy is amazingly liberal but I suspect it won’t be long before restrictions begin to arrive. Farms are very dirty places. It’s hard to find a use and place for all of the waste without burying your house under it. Rats are always a big problem. Surface water runoff into lakes and streams will eventually be recognized and will have to be dealt with. Puget sound is slowly dying and turning Seattle into an ad hoc farming community sure isn’t going to help that. Seattle backyards are already full of dog and cat feces, which isn’t helped by the animal shelters trying to extend the lives of these pets with adoptions and even foster care programs!

  44. #44 Monson
    December 10, 2010

    One way I minimize the volume of waste from my chickens, rabbits and house is to use red wiggler worms in my compost. The worms can also be fed to the chickens.

  45. #45 emlak haber
    December 11, 2010

    Hopefully, the growth in urban gardening will also bring about an increase in ecological and agricultural literacy.

  46. #46 Jamie
    December 11, 2010

    darwinsdog:

    The value of the produce grown under the hoophouse in excess of that grown outside it was $26.82

    You are confusing ‘value’ with ‘price.’ Perhaps that is pedantry, but I think we will not solve some of these problems until we start speaking the same language. You’re not, by any chance, an economist? :)

  47. #47 Ozoderm
    December 11, 2010

    I live within the city limits of a city of some 40K inhabitants myself. Why should I despise urbanites? I’m warning people that they’d better relocate to where food can be grown in sufficient quantity, or be prepared to relocate quickly, because I care about people.

  48. #48 Orjin Krem
    December 11, 2010

    They’re ridiculously easy to care for (perfect for a busy urban lifestyle), take up very little space (great for apartments), they’re high in protein, and produce very little smell (none at all if you’re good about cleaning out any leftover, uneaten food scraps).

  49. #49 Bıktım Tozu
    December 11, 2010

    Again, as with conventional pets, not everyone spends the time and energy to keep their coops, goat and rabbit pens clean, and all waste properly composted. Most have demanding jobs and many also have families to care for on top of that. Priorities arise, thus backyards tend to fill with dog doo, and if they have food animals, it will tend to fill with their doo as well.

  50. #50 soccer predictions
    December 12, 2010

    The fact that urban livestock can be raised on food scraps is a big plus, but many cities have laws that prohibit livestock in residential yards. I can see the rationale for this; living in close proximity to lots of other people means tolerating a certain amount of noise and smells, and I’m not eager to increase those.

  51. #51 dizi izle
    December 12, 2010

    As for urban livestock – realistically, most cities allow people to keep large dogs that produce more waste, of greater toxicity, are potentially more dangerous to humans

  52. #52 wudwan
    December 13, 2010

    I am a supporter of agricultural produce without pesticides.

  53. #53 mac
    December 24, 2010

    #42, 43, 45 and 47-52 would appear to be mildly clever spam – a quote of a passage someone has said earlier, with a link to a dodgy website.

    Very interesting conversation so far.

    My wife and I started farming in our back garden a year and a half ago. We were late in the growing season when we planted, but still had substantial crops. I would advocate growing a small amount well – we did this and grew more beetroot, turnips, garlic and onions than I would have thought possible.

    @darwindog, I hope that things won’t deteriorate quite so rapidly as you seem to think (I’m not sure they won’t). I do consider it prudent for city dwellers to begin farming as soon as possible. The goal is not necessarily to be self sufficient for now, but to have some easily earned experience at farming, at a time when mistakes lead to inconvenience or feeling foolish rather than a hard winter or death.

    If you can grow 1/4 of your family’s food in the garden, in a variety of crops, for a series of years, you’ll be well prepared to scale that up to all of their food when the manure hits the fan.

    As for the hoophouses – my uncle uses something similar instead of greenhouses. No doors, just overlapping flaps of plastic (I think he ties them in winter?). The plastic is fairly heavy, lasts around 10 years (sheltered by hedges), and I don’t know how much he spends on it but he won’t do anything related to growing/making/gathering his own food unless it’s cost effective – in the sense of “How much is the extra food worth vs. money spent” (He does, however, place a fairly low value on his time, since he enjoys farming, fishing, etc…)

  54. #54 mac
    December 24, 2010

    Oops, didn’t notice the dates. This conversation has been dead for a fortnight…