Guest Post: Margo Dunlap of Bitfarm

[Thanks to Margo Dunlap for sharing some of her experiences starting an urban farming enterprise in Brooklyn.]

I started a small business in the urban gardening space this spring, about the same time I planted my first garden in makeshift containers in my Brooklyn back yard. Both of these projects have been massive learning experiences. In discussing them at the same time it is tempting to make glib metaphors and puns on the word grow, but I’ll try not to. Here is what gardening and entrepreneurism have in common: they require optimism in the face of discouraging and sometimes mysterious difficulties. Here is something they don’t: squirrels.

My company is called Bitfarm, and its mission is to design better products and guides that make gardening more approachable in urban areas, starting with better seed packets. I aim for it to be a social business, or social entrepreneurship, which is a company that uses the for-profit model to accomplish a social goal. Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for the development of microeconomics several years ago, created the concept in his book Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism.

Gardening is subject to a number of barriers to entry, from intimidation to space. I believe that thoughtfully designed products could remove almost all of these hurdles. In general, people living in urban areas pay more for fresh fruits and vegetables, and are more likely to live in a food desert. For me, the small garden in the back yard has been a reliable source of lettuce and fresh herbs, both of which are unappealingly damaged and priced at the closest grocery store.

Social businesses are pretty trendy at the moment, if we’re being honest. Which we are, so I will also tell you that starting a company was a rash idea. You might be surprised to hear this, but if you design a better seed packet the world does not beat a path to your door. So I’ve found myself in a place where I’m working on sales – shilling to grocers and store managers. I’d intended to design solutions, not operationalize them, but unfortunately for introversion, I’ve discovered that creative needs the marketing department as much as vice versa. As in the garden, the rewards reaped thus far (there’s that lame metaphor after all) seem kind of small when compared to the effort expended, but at least next spring I’ll be more experienced.

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Sing it, Etta: At Last!

I just discovered an excellent new resource from the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), supported through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  It’s Seeding the City: Land Use Policies to Promote Urban Agriculture.

Check it out.  It’s been a long time coming, but it looks as if it’s been worth the wait.

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Urban Farming Conference @ The Hort

This past Friday I was thrilled to be a part of the Horticultural Society of New York’s Urban Agriculture Conference. The panelists included Erika Brenner of Dekalb Farm, Annie Novak of Growing Chefs, Phyllis Odessey and EunYoung Sebazco of Randall’s Island Park, Britta Riley of Windowfarms, and Zach Pickens of Riverpark Farm. Camilla Hammer of Battery Urban Farm moderated. It was great to witness so much expertise and enthusiasm in one place at the same time.

One of the aspects of urban farming I’d been asked to talk about was the potential urban agriculture jobs in New York City. Not having seen such an estimate before, I offered a decidedly ballpark figure of about 11,000, based on information from two different sources.

First was Change on the Horizon: A Scan of the American Food System, a 2005 report from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. That report noted that:

Groups in both New York City and Chicago are also hoping to re-establish wholesale markets for locally raised produce to help fill a distributor gap for restaurants, caterers, grocers and other businesses interested in buying local; the New York group estimated the unmet demand for locally grown and processed products at $866 million per year….”

(The New York estimate came from a private conversation of report author Brian Halweil with Karen Karp of Karp Resources.)

Next I took a job multiplier estimate from NPR coverage of a USDA conference call:

“Every million dollars in sales through local markets supports thirteen jobs,” USDA’s Kathleen Merrigan said in a conference call with reporters. This compares to three jobs generated from every million dollars in sales by agricultural operations that don’t have a local or regional focus.

So: 866 million @ 13 jobs per million = 11,258

Now, using job multipliers is a tricky business, and I don’t claim any special expertise. But 11,000 for the New York metropolitan region doesn’t seem outlandish to me.

As far as estimates of the potential for urban farming in NYC outside of employment, Annie Novak pointed to the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University, which has a very detailed and recent report on The Potential for Urban Agriculture in New York City.

A number of people asked about where to find English-language information on urban farming in China. Some good places to start are:

Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) 

Food for the Cities Program of the FAO

International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

RUAF Foundation

Sustainable Cities Programme of UN Habitat

One of the non-NYC urban farmers I talked about was Pattie Baker of Atlanta.  You can learn more about her story in her book, Food for My Daughters.

Thanks again to George Pisegna and The Hort for working so hard to spread the word about urban farming, and to Erika, Annie, Phyllis, EunYoung, Britta, Zach, and Camilla for helping to make the Big Apple better, greener, and more delicious.

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New EPA Resource Page on Urban Farming

It looks like the EPA has jumped into the game, too, with a new resource page devoted to urban agriculture–particularly in regard to brownfield sites. Thanks to the excellent Pluck & Feather blog for bringing it to my attention.

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Giant African Snails

Giant African snails have been reported on the loose in Miami, and that’s bad news.

When writing my book on urban farming, I included a little section on raising snails. Partly because I’m always interested in food security, and not afraid to think outside the box (or inside the shell?). Partly because I’m just curious about things, and my publisher, Hobby Farm Press, was kind enough to indulge me. And partly because once I had satisfied my curiosity about snails in urban agriculture–and learned the risk–I wanted to warn any other curious would-be snail ranchers against giant African snails.

African Giant Snails have been, in fact, promoted in some circumstances as food. As the book notes:

There’s a lot to recommend them as a food source. They will eat hundreds of varieties of plants…and grow larger than your fist, with an edible portion of 100 grams or more–essentially a quarter-pounder in a shell. But they are illegal to possess, let alone import.

And the headlines are filled with some reasons why they’re illegal. They are hermaphroditic and reproduce so quickly that rabbits look like uptight prudes in comparison. They are dangerously and indiscriminately voracious in an agriculturally important state, and pose a risk of meningitis. And if that’s not enough to dissuade you, bear in mind that preparing them to eat involves an abundance of mucus.

They’re just bad news. Try chickens instead.

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Feed mouths, not suspicions

Farm Futures recently published a special issue on Sustainable Farming sponsored by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and I was struck by the divide between the farmers responding to a sustainability survey—in particular, a subset termed “Green & Gold”—and the urban farmers I’ve met.  (I’m assuming the survey involved few if any urban farmers, since the surveyed farmers using the most green practices farmed on average 3,100 acres–about four times the size of New York’s Central Park).

The 5% of farmers marked as Green & Gold among survey takers both had profitable operations, and employed some of the more cutting-edge conservation techniques, such as variable-rate fertilizer application, electronic soil moisture monitoring, and remote sensing.  Issues they ranked as very important echoed those dear to urban farmers I’ve spoken with, including food safety, supporting their communities, and protecting the environment.

Yet their environmental interests don’t overlap much: few practice organic agriculture, integrated pest management (IPM), or composting, which my anecdotal experience shows popular among the urban farming set.  Plus, while most believed in sustainable practices, over half of the Green & Gold bunch agreed that “sustainable agriculture is just a way for the government and environmentalists to tell me how I have to farm.”  That blew me away.  I’ve found sustainability to be what motivates many urban farmers, the ideal to which they aspire.  For them, the sustainability is, if anything, internal, not something foisted upon them.  They, too, find themselves frustrated in their calling, but frequently because they feel the powers-that-be favor rural, large-scale farming over urban, small-scale farming.

Philanthropist Howard G. Buffett notes in the introduction to the special issue that “U.S. farmers can be the solution to some of the largest global challenges in the coming decades. We can provide a huge carbon sink to address climate change; we can help preserve critical habitats and ecosystems by producing more crops on the same amount of land; and we can help the least developed countries preserve their natural resources. This is all possible, but only if we embrace change.”

For him, that change includes smart, conservation-focused farming employing techniques nutrient management, no-till agriculture, and use of cover crops.  He also urges farmers to“abandon the mentality that farmers half a world away trying to survive on a few acres with no  support systems are our competition.”  To that I would add that a truly sustainable approach demands that both rural and urban farmers, both large scale and small, view each other more as complements than competitors.  Feeding the world depends on it.


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State of the Tomatoes

It’s nearly the end of July, and I’ve been getting impatient for tomatoes. This year I planted four varieties: ‘Silvery Fir Tree,’ ‘Brazilian Beauty,’ ‘Rutgers,’ and ‘Zapotec Pink Ribbed.’ ‘Brazilian Beauty,’ an indeterminate cultivar I got from Bountiful Gardens, was the first to ripen, with ‘Silvery Fir Tree,’ a determinate variety, not far behind. Since I ate the first ‘Brazilian Beauty,’ I’ll use the ‘Silvery Fir Tree’ to compare the state of the tomatoes.

'Brazilian Beauty' (l) and 'Silvery Fir Tree' (r)

As you can see, the next ‘Brazilian Beauty’ (left) is coming along nicely, roughly the same size as the ‘Silvery Fir Tree’ (5 oz/140g—I weighed it). ‘Brazilian Beauty’ ripens to a reddish/brownish color, often described as “mahogany.” There are many more BBs on the plant that will ripen later.

My ‘Rutgers’ plant has lots of big tomatoes, but they’re at least a week behind the ripeness of the ‘Silvery Fir Tree.’

'Silvery Fir Tree' (l) and 'Rutgers'

At least most of them are. One had been beginning to redden about a week or two ago, but fell victim to…something. More on that later. So perhaps it’s close to a tie.

This is my second or third season growing ‘Zapotec Pink Ribbed,’ and I’m hoping it will be the first to actually produce a fully ripe fruit. I hadn’t planted it early enough—or cared dutifully enough—before, but this will be the year.

'Silvery Fir Tree' (l) and 'Zapotec Pink Ribbed' (r)

Or I’ll tell Lucy to stop holding that football and write it off. Right now, it’s roughly the same size as ‘Silvery Fir Tree,’ but it’s still got a few ounces to put on. So definitely the rear of the pack.

Finally, there have been a few rogue tomatoes from last year appearing here and there. One appears to be currant tomato (Solanum pimpinellifolium), a related species. It’s full-sized, but not entirely ripe yet. (One had ripened fully, but I ate it. As I said, I’m impatient).

'Silvery Fir Tree' (l) and currant tomato (r)

Besides waiting, the big issue now is figuring out what has been plaguing my tomatoes, knocking them off the plants. It’s maddening. The thought of getting a night vision web cam and focusing on my plants occurred to me this morning in my frustration, but that’s just plain crazy (right?). Part of me wanted to find a human tormentor I could identify and confront with J’accuse! But would spouting incriminations in French really do anything to improve my reputation as crazy neighborhood farming guy? I doubt it.

My guess is that it’s squirrels. Most grounded tomatoes appear untouched—including a gorgeous, large ‘Rutgers’ just beginning to change color—though one had small rodentine chew marks. I’ll keep you posted.

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A Little Father’s Day Miracle

Ever since I first learned about the pawpaw (Asimina triloba), I’ve wanted to grow it. It’s the largest fruit native to the United States-who knew?-kind of looks like a mango, and apparently tastes a bit like a mix of banana, mango, and pineapple. I ordered a few trees by mail order years ago, and have been keeping an eye on them ever since, hoping to try the elusive pawpaw myself one day.

For the past couple years, I’ve seen the unusual down-turned flowers emerge each spring. They’re pollinated by beetles and flies–which I don’t think I lack–but my trees have never produced fruit.  I’ve been patient.

Then this spring, an unexpected urban pest hit: children.

I think.

Something, or someone, tore all the lower branches off of one tree, leaving it looking like a pole in the ground topped by a little panache of leaves eight feet off the ground. Seemed like the kind of thing a kid would do, not out of malice, but just out of curiosity or boredom. Some kind of karmic justice for all the rhododendron buds I ripped off my neighbor’s bushes as a child. (They’re awesome for throwing).

Since pawpaws generally need to cross-pollinate, it was tragic. This one will never fruit, I figured, or bloom enough to pollinate the other one. So much for years of patience.

Well, it did produce a few lonely blossoms this spring. Big deal.

Then, yesterday, I notice the tree had not only leafed out nicely, but it has fruit! The big, gorgeous one has nothing, but the pathetic Charlie Brown tree has a cluster of pawpaws growing on it. Maybe this will be the year!

If they can escape the squirrels, raccoons…and curious children.
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I Suffer Ful Gladly

When I lived in the UK briefly, I became enamored of broad beans, whose huge, leathery appearance suggests lima beans that have seen two tours of duty.  I had never had them before, and couldn’t find them again back home. And then I discovered one day that broad beans are the same as the fava beans of Hannibal Lecter fame.

Fava beans came to mind again early this spring when I was considering what to plant first in one of my raised beds. I had impulsively blanketed the bed with newspaper and dried leaves at the end of last season, hoping to suppress invading grass and kick up the organic content of the soil. But would anything grow well in it this season? It’s so carbon-heavy that not much nitrogen would be available, I feared. My epiphany: a plant that could fix its own nitrogen from the atmosphere. And of the many legumes, why not fava beans? So I planted ‘D’Aquadulce a Tres Longue Cosse’ fava bean, which appears to be doing beautifully.

My hope is to have enough fava beans to provide a steady supply of ful medames, “the lemon-kissed fava concoction of Egypt,” as Mark Bittman has described it. With fava beans, parsley, garlic, and lemon (and sometimes other ingredients, too), what’s not to love?

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The book drops this month!

So it’s really about time I tried blogging, at least occasionally. Here’s my first post.

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