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Expert Interview with Colin McCrate Of Seattle Urban Farm Company On Urban Farming

Urban farmingAccording to a study conducted by Mission 2014, 20% of the world’s undernourished population lives in cities. This is in spite of the fact that in New York City alone, there are 5000 usable acres for urban agriculture. A single community garden of 9 raised beds and 10 round planters can produce 250 pounds of food in one year.

There has been much criticism of our cities and the way they disconnect us from the earth and each other, forcing us into unnatural lifestyles that consume unnecessary resources.

Colin McCrate is co-owner of the innovative green building firm Seattle Urban Farm Company, who have been exploring all manner of unique urban farming solutions in the misty, overcast Pacific Northwest.

Colin McCrate took a moment to tell us about some of the ins and outs of urban farmings, as well as how to begin researching the subject and implementing some of their sustainable strategies.

Seattle Urban Farm Company was founded in 2007. How much have you seen the movement take off since you started? And what made you begin SUFCo initially?

We started Seattle Urban Farm Company in 2007 to help tend to the increasing interest in urban food production. Societal awareness of the food system has increased dramatically over the past decade, and conversations about benefits of locally grown, organic produce have become widespread. As small-scale farmers, we saw an opportunity to bring the experience of food even closer to the consumer.

It is our belief that by interacting with crops on a daily basis, people’s awareness of the food they eat increases; they become more aware of the awesome power of freshly harvested food, how much better it tastes and how much better it makes them feel.

Growing food at home can provide an opportunity for daily exercise, as well as a way to meet your neighbors, improve your diet and increase your overall sense of well being. Over the past 8 years, interest in urban food production has risen steadily, and we expect that opportunities for urban farming will continue to increase as cities become more dense and citizens become more invested in environmental and social improvements.

What are some of the unique challenges that come with urban farming? What are some ways you and your clients have dealt with things like pollutants, contaminated soil, questionable water and the like?

In some parts of the country (and internationally), soil and air contamination are a major factor in selecting urban farm sites. Fortunately, we rarely find locations in Seattle that are contaminated enough to prevent food production. There are certainly spaces that we would be hesitant to set up an urban farm site (adjacent to a major highway, in a heavily industrial zone, etc.), but these are not typically the spaces that property owners and developers are looking to use for urban agriculture sites.

Because we import new soil into every garden site, irrigate with city water, and do not have to deal with high levels of air pollution, the most prevalent challenges for us tend to be space constraints and limited sun exposure. Urban sites rarely have large parcels of sunny, usable space; so we are constantly working to devise creative solutions for maximizing production in less-than-ideal locations. Devising creative garden structures and layouts is the perpetual charge of the urban farmer.

The Urban Design Lab at Columbia University issued an extensive document about the potential for Urban Farming In NYC, where they detail many of the goals for urban farming as well as some of the benefits. They identified 5,000 potential acres of vacant land that would be suitable for farming. Has any similar research been done in Seattle, and if so, how much land do you have that is suitable for urban farming?

There have been reports on the total acreage of underutilized land owned by the City of Seattle that might be applicable for urban farming projects. It seems that the challenge in freeing up vacant properties are liability issues, zoning restrictions and future development plans. It can be challenging to convince property owners to allow farming on their land, especially since urban farming operations are generally not able to pay market-rate rent and cannot always secure the necessary insurance to protect the property owner.

I would like to see a tax levy in place that enables the city to purchase land specifically for urban agriculture use, and/or a major tax break for property owners willing to open up land for farming at a less-than-market rate. Without some sort of broader social support, it is difficult to economically justify the use of urban land for agricultural purposes (even when the land isn’t in use).

In that same report, they cover some other benefits of urban farming, which include community building, contributing to food security, and improving access to fruits and vegetables. What are some other benefits of urban farming?

I think the primary benefit of urban farming is the overall improvement in quality of life for urban residents. Better living in the city comes from improved daily experiences, and edible gardens provide people with a space to interact in a comfortable environment with their neighbors, spend time outdoors, dig in the dirt and learn about our food system. The simple act of harvesting a small salad or basket of fruits from a garden can completely change a person’s mood and perspective. I would argue that providing increased access to edible garden spaces is one of the most progressive ideas in urban planning today.

A lot of the available research of urban farming talks about the “green infrastructure.” Can you talk a bit about what that means and why it will be important for urban design?

Green infrastructure refers to the concept of including plants and permeable surfaces in urban development in an effort to improve rainwater infiltration, reduce the heat island effect, improve air quality and increase the beauty of the urban landscape. As urban centers expand, it is essential that these types of sustainable practices are built into new development.

Green roofs are becoming increasingly popular and commonplace. What are green roofs, and what role do they play in urban farming?

Green roofs are a part of green infrastructure. Essentially, “green roof” is the term used when the top of a building is covered in plants. Without going into technical details, these areas are created with several layers of membranes designed specifically for green roofs to protect the building and keep the plants healthy. They have all the benefits of green infrastructure plus they can create new opportunities for the otherwise underutilized top of buildings. When a green roof is created with access in mind and planted with edible crops, suddenly the building has a new floor. These spaces can provide access to the outdoors for building residents, take advantage of the great sun exposure on top of buildings for growing food, decrease utility costs (they provide a thermal barrier, reducing heating and cooling costs) and reduce stormwater runoff.

A piece from the website predicts that by 2050, Earth’s population will have reached 9.5 billion, a 450% increase in the last 150 years. Can you talk about what kind of pressures this population growth is putting on our agriculture, and why urban farming will become an essential part of the future?

I think the idea that the human population is about to outgrow the potential global food supply is somewhat misleading. Obviously, our food supply is of great concern due to changing climate conditions and an expanding population; but today, the real problem is that world’s productive arable land is managed poorly and that food is poorly distributed across the globe.

I think it is imperative that we begin to focus on sustainable farming practices: reducing erosion, eliminating chemical fertilizers and pesticides, planting diverse crop selections and taking better care of the land overall. I think, if properly managed, there is no reason that we can’t feed everyone on the planet. The reality is that the industrial food system in its current incarnation is not designed to grow food for everyone on the planet, but instead to maximize profits for a few large corporations.

I believe that urban food production can be a part of a better functioning food supply system by reducing carbon emissions; providing steady supplies of easy-to-grow, space efficient crops like salad greens; and educating the public about the larger issues in our food system. But I also believe that it is far too early to give up on the productive capacity of the naturally-evolved topsoils of the world’s primary food producing regions. I see urban agriculture’s primary role as a tool for expanding and informing dialogue about our food system.

As part of that same article, they showed a video with an urban farm in the back of a pickup truck. What are some unusual places you’ve seen gardens sprout up? How much space is necessary to grow a garden?

An edible garden can be built almost anywhere. There is no minimum space required. I think that just growing a single pot of basil on the window sill is a worthy urban farming endeavor. Of course, the more space you have available, the more diverse your crop selection will be and the larger quantities of food you can produce. We have built gardens on top of parking lots, on top of buildings, on exterior (and interior) walls, on corporate campuses, on patios, on driveways, in backyards and in front yards.

Every urban location presents challenges. The key to successful urban agriculture is simply looking for creative solutions. The location and size of the garden will dictate which crops are appropriate to grow, and this is part of the calculus of urban food production: choosing appropriate sites, building the right infrastructure, and then planting intelligently for the space you have created.

Both you and your partner, Brad Halm, have extensive backgrounds in agriculture and horticulture. How much does someone need to know ahead of time to begin urban farming? Are there any particular resources you recommend?

Like many other disciplines, it is very easy to get started in food production but very hard to do it professionally. The great thing about edible crop production is that virtually anyone can get started with minimal space and a little bit of research. I would recommend our book Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard as a jumping off point for backyard food production.

If someone is interested in a career in urban agriculture, I recommend working for a season or two on a small diversified vegetable farm (between 1 and 20 acres). If motivated, an aspiring farmer can learn a lot about a wide range of crops and farming techniques in a few seasons of dedicated “hands-on” work and study. As any grower will tell you, crop production is wonderfully satisfying because you never run out of new things to learn.

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