• urban farm blog

    The Urban Farm
    Small, sustainable farms in built up areas providing food to the local community.

By combining a remote sensor network built on low cost closed-source hardware and the open-source Arduino micro-computer, Rik Kretzinger has built a full automated aquaponic farm that is self monitoring, self correcting, and scales linearly with ease. Each Arduino has been flashed with the open-source APDuino firmware designed specifically for aquaponic and and hydroponic growing. The software has been customised to allow sensors to send sensor data across the internet without requiring intensive programming by the end user.

Visit Rik’s blog for more info: https://rik94566.wordpress.com/category/agponics-com/

New York’s The Science Barge located on the Hudson River demonstrates how rooftop hydroponics and aquaponics could be used to feed millions, all without leaving the city.

According to the report above from riverfeed.com, New York City has up to 5000 hectors of unshaded, flat, rooftop space which could be used grow enough vegetables to feed 15 million people using technologies demonstrated by The Science Barge. The system is 100% powered by renewable energy using a combination of solar, wind, and biofuels. An environment monitoring and control system tracks changes in lighting, temperature, wind, and precipitation, then alters the greenhouse environment to suit.

Hydroponic grow systems are installed throughout the facility with a highly controlled nutrition plan combined with the vertical stacking of plants providing a very high yield of produce per square meter of floor space. A small experimental aquaponics tank is also in use with fish waste providing nutrition to a small selection of plants and plans to expand the use of fish for plant and people food in place for the future.

For more about the project check out http://nysunworks.org/thesciencebarge.

Designer Steve Hamaker of stevaker.com has created a beautiful logo for what sadly appears to be a fictional non-profit organisation, City Fields.

Steve Hamaker Urban Farming Logo

The logo accompanies a well designed website theme and specifically created for sites looking to promote urban agriculture. For more details check out the rest of the piece at http://stevaker.com/CityFields

The City of Sacramento authorities have put forward a proposal to update zoning laws to permit urban farming as a primary use of land in residential, commercial, industrial and manufacturing zones. The changes will override the current zoning restrictions to facilitate the growing and on-site sale of food within the city and allowing for structures to be built specifically for farming purposes.

The changes will also introduce the designation of the City of Sacramento as an Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone (UAIZ) bringing reduced property taxes for plots engaged in urban agriculture to encourage local and sustainable food production for the surrounding community.

For full details see the City of Sacramento urban farm zoning proposal.

The Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, has launched a program to create five acres of urban farmland in the city of Chicago over the next three years. Plots have been allocated on vacant city owned land in a move to create jobs and educate local residents on aspects of food production that usually takes place far away, out of sight and out of mind.

Urban Farm Network Chicago

Local farm collectives are set to work with the city to offer a training program to those struggling to find work. Like other initiatives that help people develop new skills to open doors on new employment opportunities, the hope is that graduates will not only have a greater understanding of where their food comes from but they will also have the knowledge and skills to continue on with their own farms and commercial food production ventures. By keeping the farms in close proximity the city is aiming to build a close network of urban farmers who can share knowledge and train others, spreading the knowledge further and bringing benegit to the whole community.

“Once made available, these vacant lots will help stabilize communities by bringing productive activity to areas that need it around food deserts. Farmers for Chicago will give local residents a chance to not only learn how to grow food in their communities, but also build their own food enterprise.” – Mayer Emanuel.

Urban farming is a great way to become more self sufficient while living a more satisfying life but if you want to create additional income in the process it is essential to treat it as a real business in order to turn a profit.

Urban Farm Profit

Finding demand

It’s fine growing 3,000 feet of fine italian basil if you really like basil but if no one wants to buy it from you, you’re going to have a bad time. Take the time to find interested buyers such as local shops, restaurants, supermarkets, schools, care homes, etc. before spending a small fortune on setting up your urban farm for non-subsistance production. You could also try trading with neighbouring growers for things you don’t grow but they do, or simply selling your produce door to door in your neighbourhood. Find out what crops others are interested in buying rather than guessing and hoping for the best. That way come harvest time you won’t be left with enough basil to put you off it for life.

Making it legal

In order for a business to provide food produce to customers business usually need to apply for a license from their local authorities and then meet food hygiene standards at routine and often unannounced hygiene inspections. On top of this you may need to apply for a farming license of some sort to legally grow food, depending on your area. Speak to a legal representative in your area with the relevant knowledge to properly advise you. (I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one on the internet. Speak to a professional!)

Choosing crops

While it’s possible to grow almost anything in a controlled environment using artificial heating, lighting, and feed, if you need to need to keep your farm at a toasty 90 degrees Fahrenheit when it’s dark and below freezing outside it will cost a small fortune in energy bills. To cut down on costs try growing seasonal vegetables that don’t require a sauna to survive if you live in a cold climate. You can still aim for several harvests a year, or even a harvest every day with a perpetual harvest system. By controlling the environment you control the seasons; with seasonal crops it just costs you less to do so.

Harvesting and packaging crops

When setting up your growing environment keep in mind that it won’t be as clean and tidy when it comes to harvest time. That nice neat open space you have in front of you will soon be filled with a big, green, intertwined mess if you’re not careful. Take care to position your seedlings in a way that maximises yield while still allowing you to get the things out to be sold when harvest time comes. Crops will need to be packaged ready for sale or delivery. Remember to take the costs of delivery and packaging into account when planning your sale price. Damaged and ruined crops are worthless so secure packaging is a must.

Making a profit

It is essential to know that your pricing allows for a real profit to come with each harvest. To do this you need to truely understand your costs before defining your sales price. Selling directly to the consumer will allow you greater profit margins but will also come with increased overheads from needing to manage distribuion and customer service as well as having a place for customers to find you and decide to buy from you. This may be in the shape of an physical store near your urban farm or an online or mail order business where you ship directly to the customer’s home. The alternative is to sell through a distributer who will then sell on at retail price to customers for you.

Distributers do not pay retail. Often they pay a considerable amount less, otherwise it is not worth their time. Be sure to decide how you are going to sell your end product before starting and contact local distributers for their typical buying price before setting up if you don’t want to deal with end customers yourself.

Besides getting your product to customers, there are other things you must take into account such as:

  • Plant nutrients, fertilisers, or compost
  • Growing equipment and infrastructure
  • Water
  • Lighting
  • Heat
  • Packaging
  • Staff labour
  • Rent and council tax
  • Repairs and renovations
  • Storage, handling and packaging
  • Transport and distribution
  • Depreciation of capital equipment
  • Insurance and interest charges
  • Outsourced services (for example accounting and legal costs)
  • Promotional and sales costs

This list is by no means complete. Once you have worked out your costs you then need to add on your profit to determine your sale price. Only you can decide on how much money you can make. If your sale price is too high no-one will buy. If it is too low, do you really want all of the effort for so little a reward? Developing a sucessful, sustainable, urban farm is not going to be easy but it can be done!

With thanks to: @Moronicus_Litho

Today Freight Farms (www.freightfarms.com) launched their first, finished, farm in a shipping container. The co-founders Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara were joined by Senator Moore, Congressman James McGovern and Mayor Joseph Petty for the official grand opening.

Freight Farms official launch
Senator Moore, Congressman McGovern & Mayor Petty with co-founders Brad & Jon

Their farms are built inside recycled shipping containers lined with insulation to provide the maximum reduction of unwanted heat loss possible. The outside of the containers are topped with photovoltaic cells to provide power for the air conditioning and energy efficient LED lighting within. Plants are grown using a hydroponic growing system with LED lights targeting the exact wavelengths of light required by plants to flourish. Using LEDs for lighting keeps heat generation to a minimum and maximises the conversion of electricity into useful light with a minimum of waste.

The idea was originally pitched on kickstarter.com and quickly surpassed their initial goal of $26,040 finish at just under $31,000 at the end of 2011. Now 11 months on the first build is complete and ready for full farming production!

The original FreightFarms.com pitch via kickstarter

A huge congratulations to Jon and Brad for all your hard work and I wish you the best of success in this venture. I look forward seeing how you progress.

See more of the event:

Find out more about the Freight Farms team:
Website: http://freightfarms.com
Twitter: @FreightFarms
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/freightfarms
Kickstarter: http://kck.st/syZblG

In Dr. Dickson Despommier’s ‘The Vertical Farm’, Despommier discusses the need for urban farms to be ‘cheap to build, modular, durable, easily maintained, and safe to operate’. To me, the ‘modular’ part of this statement stands out as the most important point. By making urban farms modular it is easier to scale them by simply adding more pre-built units and easier to repair by simply disconnected a broken unit and isolating problems until they can be corrected. Each unit could be dedicated to a specific ecosystem allowing multiple crops to be grown in different containers with different climates without impacting on each other.

Google has already taken this approach to building data centers by creating ‘google pods’, standard shipping containers filled with all of the servers and airflow equipment required in a data center and assembled offsite for transport and installation at the desired location. Power, air conditioning and network connectivity are all handled separately at the installation site making all ‘pods’ simple to manage and interchangeable. The ‘pods’ are plugged in and out in the same way we install a washing machine into our homes.

The shipping container vertical farm

This shipping container approach could be applied to modular vertical farms. By replacing the corrugated sides with a transparent material such as plastic or glass it would be simple to create stackable greenhouses. Add inlet and outlet pipes for water flow and ventilation and a power connection for running lighting during the winter months and you have a portable, scalable, stackable, modular, urban farm design.

vertical urban farm in transparent shipping containerThis design could easily be converted to a stackable urban farm unit. (images via: travelodge)

By removing the power, water, and air circulation from each unit you can service many units with one system, if you choose too, but then split them apart quite easily for the next grow run if you wish. This would also be a good way to ensure standardisation across the board. With all containers using the same pipe widths, power sockets and voltages, the cost of production would decrease while maximising the efficiency of installations with guaranteed quality of components. As the containers are portable they could be installed anywhere in the world and therefore standardisation is a must, not a nice to have.

In the immediate future, cost is a potential barrier to entry with a single shipping container selling for £1,500 – £2,000 at present. However, being able to stack greenhouses several stories high without needing to build a permanent structure could provide the required cost savings when deploying at scale.

Two urban farmers Roman Gaus and Andreas Graber from Berlin are realising their dream of a rooftop farm following a successful trial and demonstration with a small mobile aquaponic farm built around a standard shipping container. Each miniature farm produces enough fresh vegetables and fish to feed three people for a year and uses 90% less water than traditional farming as most of the waste water is returned to the system instead of draining off away from the food production area.

UrbanFarmers Box

Their simple yet effective solution consists a barrel of fresh water fish inside the shipping container and a small greenhouse situated above. The waste products of the fish are the ideal nutrients for the plants which are grown hydroponically using the water the fish live in. Roman, the founder of UrbanFarmers, gave the following TEDx talk in Zurich, Switzerland on October 4th, 2011:

In his excellent presentation, Roman describes the current state of rural agriculture and need for a solution for the growing population with a finite amount of farming land. He discusses the potential for an aquaponics based solution that brings us much closer to a closed loop system by recycling the waste products of fish farming into food for plants. Following the successful trial and demonstration of the single unit box farm, Roman and Andreas have designed and are almost finished building their first rooftop farm in Basel, Switzerland which will produce 5 tonnes of fresh vegetables and 800 kilograms of fish per year; enough to feed 100 people from the otherwise unused roof space of one small building!

Check out the photographs below of the build progress from the initial design concept to it’s almost completed state.

Find out more about UrbanFarmers at:

The initial design concept:
berlin urban farm concept design

Building progress:
berlin urban farm build stage one
berlin urban farm build stage two
berlin urban farm build stage three
berlin urban farm build stage four
berlin urban farm build stage five
berlin urban farm build stage six
berlin urban farm build stage seven
berlin urban farm build stage eight
berlin urban farm build stage nine

When it comes to producing very high yields per square foot of growing space there are very few who can come close to the yields produced by commercial cannabis growers. The wikipedia page on cannabis cultivation is an epic 11,000 word overview that provides a huge amount of detail on different techniques and solutions available for growers and this barely even scratches the surface of what is available online.

urban farm hydroponic grower

Cannabis farms are highly illegal in most of the western world and as a result are often concealed indoors away from the prying eyes of the authorities. As a result of this, farms are frequently kept in windowless rooms such as basements, loft spaces or warehouses and sheds. One of the results of this, other than being able to evade detection, is that the growers have 100% control over the farm’s environment with levels of temperature, water and light all fully managed by the farmer. This tight level of control gives organised growers laboratory conditions for maximising yields per square foot.

Farmers use a wide variety of techniques to squeeze every last drop of growth productivity out of the plants with techniques such as reducing the number of hours of sunlight a plant gets after a fixed growth period to invoke a hormone response that increases the harvest weight, controlling and changing the food inputs depending on the plant growth cycle stage and so on. If the research and rigour applied to cannabis farming could be applied to legal urban farming of food plants, urban farming could become very profitable for farmers in small spaces.

Learn more about the techniques used by cannabis growers

Cannabis Grow Bible, The: Definitive Guide to Growing Marijuana for Recreational and Medical Use

Interested in learning more about the techniques used by cannabis growers? Greg Green’s book discusses the differences between indoor and outdoor growing, maximising yields, tools and methods for keeping a healthy crop and much more.

While the book is aimed predominantly at cannabis growers, the concepts can easily be adapted to growing other plants such as strawberries, tomatos, chillies, etc. without ending up on the wrong side of the law. Get your copy now!