Urban farming may prove to solve food desert issues.

Previously, we’ve shared our dive into the very real subject of food deserts via a design competition held among the BRR staff. Recall that even though the design participants were able to generate many successful and creative solutions to combat this issue, we were still left with more questions than answers. Around the same time, we learned of a successful, local urban farm near our hypothetical design competition site which is successfully addressing a food desert in his own neighborhood.  We wanted to learn more.

I joined my Grocery Innovation Team member Jill Lyons to meet with Nile Valley Aquaponics founder Dre Taylor.  His 1+ acre farm in Kansas City is made up of four city tracts of land – homes since cleared to make room for this venture. The first thing we noticed, aside from the cute baby goats, was that the sidewalks were lined with all varieties of growing vegetables – from tomatoes, to squash, peas and corn stalks – all on the outside of the fence surrounding the farm. Dre later explained that neighbors are invited to help themselves free of charge to whatever they want to eat. One cannot help but admire the kindness of this simple, neighborly gesture. An unintended benefit is that there have been no security or break-in issues.

Walking inside the fabric greenhouse that Dre and his partners assembled, we saw three 100-foot-long rows of tall wood rack systems, each straddling a six-foot deep water-filled trough. There are four levels of shelves on each rack. Three of the four shelves are small troughs of water about 8 to 10 inches deep.  Floating in these “shelves” are thick foam sheets with many holes, each filled with a small basket of various vegetable seedlings. The water is continually circulating from the fish troughs up into the crop shelves and back. The fish below are providing all the nutrients necessary for the crops, therefore negating the need for fertilizer. On the fourth shelf, fly larvae are “growing” which will both feed the fish and provide a profit center, as they are sold to pet stores for food.  We were both awed by the simple yet sophisticated example of sustainability!

Dre began his adventure into urban farming and aquaponics back in 2008.  Initially starting out in the basement of his old school, he has since traveled around the world to learn as well as teach about urban farms. He has learned this business so quickly and he currently has two patents pending.

Based on our initial meeting, we wanted to be sure the rest of our Grocery team saw it for themselves. So, we signed up to volunteer at the site for a day, without having a clue how a bunch of non-farmer-types (read: architects) could help out in aquaponic farming.  Dre put us to work where we (awkwardly) managed to plant a few hundred of the little seedlings into little plastic baskets, and place them onto the foam floats where in 45 days they would be big enough to harvest.  (Though we eventually got the hang of it, we all agreed that we should keep our day jobs.)

We left Nile Valley Aquaponics with a greater understanding of this incredible new farming process – and convinced that Dre’s prototype greenhouse could be replicated anywhere as a part of the solution to food deserts.

As we continue to wonder how good design can influence a future solution to food deserts, we see the opportunities a partnership between urban farmers and local grocers, restaurants and C-stores could bring to the community at large.

Some of the questions we’re considering:

  • At what scale is an urban farm successful?
  • Could an urban farm also house a small prototype retail store selling other necessities, supplied by a local grocer?
  • Could a grocery store house a sustainable urban farm like Dre’s in-house?

We look forward to continuing our quest to learn about strategies to overcoming food deserts and, hopefully, partner with others working to overcome this challenge.