There's little doubt that one of the most exciting movements in the food industry today is urban farming. It's where all the hot trends and issues -- organics, foodie culture, sustainability, food deserts, etc. -- collide.
Just a few years ago, urban farming was little more than an idea. And not one that was given much credence by traditional agriculture or the food industry. But how that has changed! Today there are urban farms popping up across the country -- growing and selling food, employing young people, and reclaiming long-abandoned sections of the urban landscape.
Here are our picks for the five coolest urban farms in America.
5. Gotham Greens
When New Yorkers shop for produce -- whether it be at Whole Foods, D'Agostino's, Key Foods, or any of a dozen other retailers -- they're sometimes buying greens grown in the rooftop greenhouses of Gotham Greens.
The company, which only began commercial production in 2011, has rapidly become a major player in the retail and restaurant scene. Much of that success is a result of the decision to use hydroponics -- which let Gotham Greens scale up production more quickly than soil-based farms. Soil, after all, can be as hard to find in a city as fresh, local produce.
And soon you won't have to be a New Yorker to buy from Gotham Greens. The company has plans to build greenhouses in other cities too.
4. Growing Power
If urban farming has a founding father, it may be Will Allen. He wasn't the first person to try to raise food in a city. Nor has he become the most successful. But in the early years of the urban farm movement, Allen became a symbol for what was possible.
His Growing Power farm, a nonprofit operation in Milwaukee, set the standard for engaging urban poor in the process of growing healthy food. But perhaps Allen's biggest contribution to urban farming was his personal marketability. Standing 6 feet, 7 inches tall and packed with muscle, Allen became a media sensation as reporters came to visit the Growing Power operation.
If you talk to the Gen Y folks who dominate the workforce in today's urban farms, a shockingly high percentage of them say they first became interested in urban farming after Allen won a MacArthur "genius grant," and the New York Times ran the first in what would become a series of articles about Allen, starting back in 2008.
3. Brooklyn Grange
If any one company can be said to be the face of the urban farm movement, it's Brooklyn Grange.
The Grange is the world's largest commercial rooftop soil-based farm -- producing more than 50,000 pounds of organic vegetables annually. The Grange may also be the most photogenic urban farm on earth. Images of its two main locations, often filled with hipster workers, rooftop yoga classes, and the skyline of Manhattan in the distance, have become icons of both urban farming and Brooklyn itself. Can you name another farm with more than 8,000 followers on Instagram?
2. Caliber Biotherapeutics
On the opposite end of the urban farm spectrum is Caiber Biotherapeutics. There are no yoga pants or ironic muttonchops here. Folks wear white lab coats.
Caliber, based in College Station, TX, runs the world's largest plant-made pharmaceutical facility in the world. Caliber doesn't grow plants for folks to eat, it grows plants that are made into vaccines, cancer treatments, and the like. And it does so indoors.
But Caliber isn't running a greenhouse. It's running a "pinkhouse," which many folks think may be the future of urban farming. Pinkhouses are a sort of next-generation hydroponics, where plants are grown in controlled conditions, without soil, using recycled water and strange-looking pinkish light. The result is a low-cost, highly productive system that is nearly as photogenic as the good-looking young people at Brooklyn Grange.
1. Services for the UnderServed
Urban farming has changed so rapidly in the past few years that it's nearly unrecognizable. Today, urban farming is an industry. But only yesterday it was something different. It was a movement ... a movement about the connections among food, cities, and the poor.
There are still plenty of these old-school urban farms out there -- places where the farmers are less interested in achieving scale than they are in helping the neighbors. There's Detroit's Earthworks and the South Bronx' La Finca Del Sur; Chicago's Growing Home and many others.
But our favorite of the movement-style urban farms, and our pick for the coolest urban farm in the U.S. is the multi-site operation run by the nonprofit group Services for the UnderServed.
SUS provides housing and other services for some of the most vulnerable folks in America: Developmentally disabled adults, formerly homeless veterans, people with AIDS, and the mentally ill. And at each of the SUS residences across New York City, there are urban farms.
Any resident can participate in the farms -- learning the skills required for careers in agriculture, food service, landscaping, and more. The food -- greens, herbs, honey, and rice -- is distributed to residents.
Funding is always tight for the farmers. There are volunteers from corporations like PIMCO and Goldman Sachs who help out from time to time, but the SUS farms aren't money makers.
That's why the farmers are urged to volunteer themselves as "tree stewards" for New York's Million Trees initiative. Taking on that work gives the farmers access to additional training and some free tools.
And that, it seems, is what urban farming is about: Adopting a can-do attitude and learning to share knowledge, tools, and food so that we can all share the city.
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