The Future Of Food: Sustainable
Farming In The City

By Mike Howie


Growing and delivering fresh food is environmentally expensive. Traditionally, a farm requires acres of land and hundreds of gallons of water to grow anything. And once the food is harvested, it has to be shipped to consumers who are sometimes thousands of miles away. But, as innovative farmers are proving, this doesn’t have to be the case. Fresh food can be grown with less space and fewer resources, and it can be done in the middle of the city.

Growing Greens in Brooklyn

In a Brooklyn, New York parking lot, an indoor farming accelerator called Square Roots utilizes shipping containers repurposed as farms to grow up to 50 pounds of leafy greens per week with just eight gallons of water per day. That’s as much food as a two-acre farm produces in a year, but it uses 95 percent less water and no soil.

Inside each of the climate-controlled, 320-square-foot containers, farmers grow a variety of foods using high-tech methods. Instead of growing up from the ground, plants grow out from the side of special racks that hang from the ceiling. Water drips through an irrigation system, mixes with a selection of nutrients, and is then fed by gravity over the roots of the plants. The water is collected at the bottom and recycled through the farm. And instead of sunlight, the plants bask in the glow of pink LED lights — chosen because plants only need the red and blue spectrum of light to grow.

In addition to taking a new approach to farming, Square Roots also rethinks who farmers are. Through their 13-month Resident Entrepreneur Program, 10 individuals run the 10 containers while participating in skill-based training, professional development and experiential learning. These entrepreneurs operate their farms as 

businesses, growing and then delivering food to customers around the city. For their efforts, the entrepreneurs receive 30 percent of the total revenue — typically between $30,000 and $40,000 annually. At the end of the season, the containers are passed off to the next batch of entrepreneurs.

While the Square Roots model is capable of bringing fresh, sustainably grown food to city dwellers no matter the season, it’s not perfect. Half of their costs are dedicated to paying electricity bills, so they’re still looking for more efficient ways to power the farms. And with 10 farms producing a combined 500 pounds of food per week, they’re a long way from feeding all 8.5 million residents of New York City.

Farming Fish (and Basil) in Pittsburgh

Farther west, in Pennsylvania, students from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Michigan are working together on the Aquaponics Project. Named for the combined use of hydroponics (a method of growing plants with a continuous supply of nutrient-rich water instead of soil) and aquaculture (farming fish, crustaceans and plants in water), the project aims to efficiently and sustainably provide food for local communities.

Similar to Square Roots, the Aquaponics Project uses a decommissioned shipping container to house the farm. The difference, however, is that the Aquaponics Project combines a 500-gallon fish tank for tilapia with 30 vertical grow towers, all within the tank, that can each grow up to 27 basil plants. According to Kareem Adam Rabbat, 

president of the project, the system “relies on the symbiotic relationship between fish and plants” — the fish waste provides nutrients for the plants, and the plants keep the water clean for the fish. According to Anish Salvi of The Pitt News, the only input is food for the fish, and the output is fresh, sustainably grown food. Overall, the system uses 90 percent less water and 70 percent less energy than traditional farming.

While the project started in Pittsburgh, the students have global ambitions. They hope to use the portable system to educate communities about sustainable practices for growing food and to bring fresh, healthy food to areas of the world that lack easy access to it. “It’ll just provide food for the community, whether that be a food desert in the United States or a place in the Sahara Desert in Africa,” Rabbat said.

The team entered their project in the 2017 Ford College Community Challenge, Ford Motor Company’s sustainability contest, and took home first place with a $35,000 grant to further the project and a 2017 Ford Transit to help make their farm mobile. They plan to use the money to add an anaerobic digester to the system and hope to finish the upgrade in the spring of 2018. The digester will convert food waste to methane, which can be used as fuel to heat the container, potentially enabling year-round use.

With global populations rising and more and more people moving to cities, finding ways to improve, augment or even replace the ways in which we grow and deliver food with sustainable solutions is becoming more important than ever. Both Square Roots and the Aquaponics Project are just getting started, but they provide an interesting glimpse into the possible future of farming.