New York City: Cradle of Urban Farmers, Laboratory of Urban Agriculture

CONTENT SOURCED FROM RTBF.BE (Translated from the original French)

In the world of tomorrow, more and more of us will live in cities. The United Nations estimates that 68% of the world's population will be living in an urban area by 2050. This represents 2.5 billion more people than today.

In cities, however, there is little land available, almost no more fields, and little by little agriculture has moved away from the big megacities of the planet. Faced with this, some actors have decided to take up the challenge: to try to bring agricultural production back to the heart of the city, closer to the consumer.

In recent years, the New York City area has become a real laboratory for this re-emergence of urban agriculture. New York is the largest city in the United States and many projects have sprung up there. Some have even inspired "urban farmers" elsewhere in the world, and especially in Belgium.

Concrete Farm Lab: The In-Home "Urban Garden"

Cyrille Guyot is one of those farmers in cities. This French native of Normandy has been living for a few years in a two-storey house in Brooklyn, one that looks quite typical for the Brooklyn aesthetic. It is a house almost like the others. Almost, because in some rooms, Cyrille can turn into an indoor farmer.

"When I go shopping at the grocery store, I almost never buys salad, fruit or vegetables", he says. "We grow it all at home. In this room, for example, there was a vertical space where we decided to install hydroponic towers and now we grow our own salads here. We get more than 100 salads every 30 to 45 days. It doesn't get more fresh than this: grown just 10 meters from our kitchen."

"50% autonomy in winter, 90% in summer" 

Cyrille and his partner, Nashay, decided almost two years ago to start urban farming to become producers of some of their food. At first, they made some mistakes because finding the right nutrient balance in a hydroponic system for example is not easy. But by constantly learning and improving, their project that they christened "Concrete Farm Lab" has become a reality.

"In winter, when our outside garden isn't producing, we reach 50% of autonomy with our own food," says Cyrille. "In summer, with the garden growing, we are 90% autonomous, so we almost don't need to purchase any fruits or vegetables." The outdoor garden is a small enclosed courtyard where Cyrille has reconstituted fertile soil to grow fruits, organic vegetables and herbs.

In the cellar there's another surprise. Here, plants are lit by colored LED lamps and they grow thanks to fish. 

"It's an aquaponic system," explains Cyrille. "Thanks to the nitrogen cycle, fish droppings are converted to nutrients in a biological filter with clay beads that do all the filtration." Only when the system is perfectly balanced does it become beneficial for both fish and plants.

Last year, Cyrille says that the value of his crops exceeded the cost of his investments in equipment. He used a lot of reclaimed parts to build his system. 

His dream: to bring the vegetable garden closer to city inhabitants and reconnect city dwellers with the food they consume. In the meantime, Cyrille also organizes tours of his house for the inhabitants and children of the city. He hopes to open a larger production site soon. 

Roofs of cities turned into "farms"

A few blocks away from Cyrille and Nashay's home, still in Brooklyn, a greenhouse measuring more than 5,000 square meters is hiding above a Greenpoint building. Behind the windows there is an urban farm where several varieties of salads and herbs grow. 

"In the United States, 98% of all salads produced in the country come from two places: California and Arizona, and then they are trucked around the country. There is a lot of food waste in this process, so we decided to build this commercial-scale farm in the heart of the city, " says Nicole Baum, Marketing Manager of Gotham Greens

She adds that this saves time between when the salad is harvested and when the consumer eats it, because this "Made in Brooklyn" salad goes directly from their roof to the consumer on the same day.

Since 2011, Gotham Greens has been working to transform several roofs in New York, Chicago and Baltimore into urban farms. They are one of the first to heavily invest in large-scale agricultural production near the center of American cities. The company explains that most of the energy used is renewable, especially thanks to photovoltaic panels placed on the roofs next to the greenhouses.

Here on this Brooklyn farm, each seed is planted by hand in a "nursery". These "GMO-free" seeds are then transferred to a device where the nutritional balance is ensured. There's no way for us to film or photograph the entire system - it's still a manufacturing secret, because this type of production is currently a competitive market.

Newark: the largest vertical farm in the world

And if the future of urban agriculture was aeroponic? Across the globe, vertical farms are multiplying. At least one exists in several countries, including one in Waregem, Belgium. The tiered design of these farms saves space on the ground in cities where land is often very expensive.

In Newark, New Jersey, just a few miles from midtown Manhattan, AeroFarms has opened what some claim to be the world's largest vertical farm: twelve floors of greenery, an area equivalent to 170 football fields.

Here, the roots are suspended in air, below a synthetic fabric. "The seeds are deposited on the fabric," says Marc Oshima, Co-Founder of AeroFarms, "then the roots are fed from below with splashes of water and nutrients - nothing touches the plants, they are ready to eat from the moment of harvest."

This rather unusual "farm" opened a year and a half ago and claims to produce up to 30 harvests per crop-site on average over one year, which is more than 10 times that of a typical field farm. 

According to Marc, their aeroponic system uses much less water than conventional agriculture and no pesticides are ever needed. 

For this farm like the others, the farm's proximity to the city center is a strong marketing argument. For certain, it greatly reduces transport costs. These new commercial urban farmers also take steps to ensure that many of their products are not more expensive for the consumer.  

In the alleys between AeroFarm's stacked growing trays, there are few "farmers". Forty people work for the company in the Newark site, but in the room where the salads grow everything is essentially under the computer's watch. "We are still in control thanks to electronics and computers," says Marc Oshima. "Our system controls plants 7 days a week, 24 hours a day."

Projects that inspired other actors

Of course, it's hard to imagine that cities will soon become 100% self-sufficient in food supply thanks to these new urban farmers. Not all the plants we eat grow above ground like the leafy greens you see in these farms. But over time it is likely that the farming methods will evolve and they will also become less energy intensive. 

All these New York projects have already inspired other actors, elsewhere in the world.