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Urban farms herald green city ‘revolution’

Thair Shaikh, CNN

As the world’s urban population continues to grow at a rapid rate, communities around the world are increasingly turning to “city agriculture” to produce cheap, locally grown fruit and vegetables.

Among skyscrapers and housing estates, previously vacant lots are being used to produce millions of tons of organically grown food that experts say are “greener” and cheaper than commercially grown produce.

But while many countries are in the early stages of their urban agriculture development, China, Japan and Cuba have had successful city farms for decades.

Cuba’s model of environmentally friendly and sustainable urban agriculture has been an inspiration for numerous city projects around the world.

…A similar community-based initiative has just been launched in Germany’s financial capital Frankfurt. Groups can lease land from start-up company Meine Ernte, which provides tools and even sows the seeds, although the lease holders have to take care of the crops.

…A slightly different model of urban farming is being deployed in parts of Africa, although it is still employing the same philosophy of community cooperation.

In the densely populated slum of Mathare in Nairobi, Kenya, an Italian charity Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI) is helping communities to grow food in large compost bags, which are designed to provide the maximum output of produce in minimum space.

Its “farm-in-a-sack” project provides poor families with more than 40 seedlings, which can be grown into food in just a few weeks. Each “base” or mini-farm can provide vegetables such as spinach for 150 families, says COOPI.

…And while North America may not have the food and water shortage problems of some African nations, urban farms are still expanding in major cities such as Vancouver on the west coast of Canada.

Michael Levenston, the executive director of City Farmer, part of Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture, told CNN that there were a number of models being deployed.

“There are people growing stuff in their back gardens and then there are bigger models like the University of British Columbia, which has a market-sized farm in the center of the city selling produce every Saturday at a farmer’s market … that is a very strong and vibrant entity,” he said.

The United States has sizeable urban agriculture projects in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York and Pittsburgh. One U.S. collective of urban farmers says it is has 800 city-based plots that last year produced 150 tonnes of food…

The art of hen keeping

Cassandra Jardine, The Telegraph
I am a mass murderer. In the course of a year, I have been responsible for eight corpses.
The only plus side of this appalling slaughter is that at least my offences are not likely to land me in prison, because the victims have all been hens. Lunch and Dinner, Ole and Olay, Lion and Tiger, plus two others who didn’t last long enough even to be named, have all passed through my inept hands.

This trail of destruction is so mortifying that I daren’t return to my local rare-breeds centre for new supplies and must search ever farther afield for enlightenment and new victims. So here I am, standing in the yard of Churchmans Farm near Faversham in Kent, where Mary Bruce gives free lectures several times a year to would-be poultry keepers.

“It’s a super hobby,” she is enthusing. “Chickens are no trouble and you needn’t worry about space. A small garden is fine. You will find that they soon become like pets. One family said their hens became so tame that they would come upstairs to lay their eggs on a bed.”

…I was one of those who took it up after Jamie’s Fowl Dinners and Hugh’s Chicken Run were broadcast in January 2008. Those programmes contained enough grisly details of the lives of battery hens to make most people gag on their scrambled eggs and turn a tasty drumstick to dust in the mouth.

Then came the credit crunch and universal belt tightening. Despite the vast cost of even a small coop – let alone the Prince of Wales’s 17ft hen house modelled on a Saxon steeple – even more people have decided that it makes sense to keep a couple of feathered pets in the back garden, popping out fresh eggs for the breakfast table.

…If a steady supply of eggs is the aim, then a hybrid layer is the answer. These crossbreeds are designed to produce an egg a day, with one day off a week, at least for the first year. The downside is that they aren’t as beautiful as some of the pure breeds who produce fewer eggs and take the winter off. Some breeds have become rare for good economic reasons.

Producing birds for meat is probably not a good idea in an urban back garden. Even a commerical breed will take three months to reach a usable size; pure breeds can take a year…

  • Francine Raymond, chair of the Henkeepers’ Association, runs £75 one-day courses in Suffolk (01359 268322;
  • The Poultry Club of Great Britain (02820 741056; hosts shows and advises on breeds

The best hens for eggs

Modern hybrids These are prolific layers. Generally brown or white, such as H & N Brown Nick, or grey BBF, aka Bluebell, though name depends on hatchery; generally based on the breeds below

Pure breeds Go for Light Sussex (white with ruff), Rhode Island Red, Maran, Plymouth Rock or White Leghorn. Alternatively, choose the Araucana for multicoloured eggs, in shades of blue, green, et cetera

The best hens for garden ornaments or pets

  • Silkie Hairlike feathers
  • Australorp Very friendly
  • Pekin bantam Small, multicoloured
  • Cochin Large with feathered legs
  • Buff Orpington Big and fluffy

The best hens for meat

Modern hybrids The ubiquitous Ross/Cobb is the standard quick-growing battery chicken. A tastier hybrid is the Cornish Red/White Rock cross (sold as oven-ready Label Anglais by S &T Frederick)

Pure breeds Indian Game is good tasting, but slow growing. The Sussex is heavy and a good layer as well

It’s no yolk

  • Eggs are 75 per cent water, so hens must have water
  • Feed your layers mash twice a day. Pellets are less of a challenge to eat so they get bored; corn overexcites them
  • Hang vegetables – sprout tops, cabbages – from the top of the run so they peck at them. Vegetables thrown on the ground are trampled to mush
  • Dangle a CD to give hens something else to amuse them. A happy hen is more productive
  • Clip the middle feathers of one wing to prevent hens flying out of the garden
  • Older hens lay fewer, but bigger, eggs
  • For dark yolks let hens eat grass
  • Cider vinegar in the water makes a good tonic for a lacklustre hen
  • The lighter the hen, the lighter the eggshell; for fashionable white eggs, choose white hens

Source: Mary Bruce, Churchmans Farm, Kennaways, Faversham, Kent (01795 531124;

(1 April 2010)

Hoophouse ventures prove crops can thrive year-around in Michigan

Sylvia Rector, Freepress
Shannon Brines stooped down, pulled a young carrot out of the ground and gently brushed the soil off its roots.

“My customers love to get these,” he said, checking his crops one cold, rainy morning last month.

While most Michigan gardeners still haven’t bought their vegetable seeds, Brines spent his winter harvesting handfuls of baby carrots and hundreds of pounds of fresh baby lettuce, arugula, spinach, chard, kale and exotic gourmet greens from three unheated hoophouses near Dexter.

Growing produce year-around in Michigan may sound like a global-warming daydream. But entrepreneurs like Brines prove it can be done — profitably — in the low-tech, plastic-covered sheds.

“It could be a living, depending on your definition,” says Brines, 34, a University of Michigan data analyst who lives in Ann Arbor. If he focused only on growing, he figures he could make about $40,000 a year.

This past winter, he ran Washtenaw County’s first-ever wintertime community-supported agriculture (CSA) group — a contract arrangement in which customers pay an upfront fee for crop shares.

Each week since last fall, his two dozen customers have received shares that have ranged from about 3 pounds of produce during the dead of winter to huge bags of salad and cooking greens this spring, as the daylight hours increased.

…The long, white, unheated structures vary in size, but 30-by-96-feet and 13- to 15-feet-high is standard. They require only basic skills to construct, so owners usually do it themselves with help from friends. They’re made with a skeletal row of wood, plastic or metal supports covered with tear-resistant plastic that allows light to penetrate.

Operating costs are low because they are not mechanically heated or cooled. The sun warms them, and rolling up the plastic sides allows the heat to escape when it gets too hot. Water is applied by drip-irrigation lines laid beside the crop rows.

…Learn more about hoophouses
A wealth of information about hoophouses — also called high tunnels or passive solar greenhouses — is available online. Here are a few places to start:

  • Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm in Holt offers informal tours. For dates, times and details, see
  • MSU outreach specialist Adam Montri shows how hoophouses are built in a YouTube video:
  • The USDA, which runs a project to test and promote hoophouse growing, offers a wide range of information, photos and other resources at

(8 April 2010)

On job creation—local fruits and vegetables vs. corn and soybeans

Ben Lilliston, Think Forward
It turns out that foods that are better for you may also be better for farmers and local job creation. A new study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that expanding fruit and vegetable production in the upper Midwest could bring significantly more economic benefits than conventional corn and soybean production on the same acreage.

The study, by Iowa State Research Scientist Dave Swenson, looked at the potential for fruit and vegetable production in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It identified 28 kinds of fruits and vegetables that farmers are able to grow in the region. Currently, much of the fruits and vegetables in the region come from other parts of the country or even outside the country.

Some key findings on the economic impacts on the region as a whole:

Increased fruit and vegetable production in the six states could mean $882 million in sales at the farm level, and more than 9,300 jobs. Corn and soybean production on that same acreage would support only 2,578 jobs.

If half of the increased production was sold in farmer-owned stores, it would require 1,405 such stores staffed by 9,652 people.

Only 270,025 acres—roughly equivalent to the average cropland in one of Iowa’s counties—would be needed to grow enough fruits and vegetables for the six-state region.

Previous research found that smaller sized farms (50 acres and smaller) are more likely to produce fruits and vegetables than standard-sized farms so it is likely that more, smaller farms would be needed. Researchers assumed that 50 percent of fruit and vegetable production would be directly marketed in-state by farmer-owned stores. Local and regional ownership of the food chain will be essential for maximum job creation.
(2 April 2010)
the report is here. Thanks to kalpa for the article above.

Central Illinois produce 48 weeks of the year?

Clare Howard, Journal Star
Nearly a dozen central Illinois farmers will fill the lobby of the Methodist Atrium Building Saturday morning with an array of fresh local vegetables that defy the calendar.

On April 17, even before trees have fully leafed out and the silty-loam soil of the Illinois River valley has completely thawed, displayed on tables and in bins will be local spinach, lettuce greens, micro-greens, scallions, kohlrabi, carrots, Swiss chard, bok choy, beets, turnips and much more.

It’s the result of months of labor, coordination and planning … labor by farmers and coordination by volunteer market manager, Viktor Schrader, a 27-year-old graduate student in economics at Illinois State University.

Schrader brings to this market his experience growing up in Maine, his work with the Peace Corps in the South Pacific Independent State of Somoa and years of undergraduate and graduate studies in economics and market forces.

He understands market creation and the powerful economic impact of local food. Central Illinois farmers know how to grow produce almost year-round, but they don’t necessarily know market creation, a concept hazardous enough to fell major corporations.

Schrader said the Atrium Building market is the first and only market of its kind in central Illinois.

“This will be a good litmus test to see if there’s interest,” he said.

Based on the public’s response to this and two subsequent markets in the Atrium Building, the group will plan for next winter, scheduling either monthly, weekly or biweekly markets.

Everyone selling at the Atrium market must grow their fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers and plants in Illinois…
(10 April 2010)

From farm to fork
(Path to Freedom in Pasadena)
Carolyn Neuhausen, Pasadena Weekly
Path to Freedom conserves water while cutting ‘food miles’ from Dervaes family’s carbon footprint

On a quiet street off Orange Grove Boulevard, about a mile from the Rose Bowl and Old Pasadena, members of the Dervaes family pull about 6,000 pounds of edible flowers, vegetables and fruits from the raised beds and pots on their micro-farm each year.

Jules Dervaes and his children Justin, Anais and Jordanne have been growing their own food on their one-tenth of an acre lot since the 1980s. The family produces 99 percent of its entire diet in the family yard in what Jules calls the “100 foot diet,” since produce and eggs travel 100 feet or less from their source to the Dervaes’ kitchen.

The Dervaes’ urban homestead, Path to Freedom, symbolizes a victory in cutting out food miles from their carbon footprint. What makes this feat all the more remarkable is the family’s ability to use water-conserving techniques to grow their produce.
Food miles are “the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is ultimately purchased or consumed by the end user,” states a paper published for Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

… Rich soil is the key to having a bountiful garden and getting the most out of scarce water resources, which is why the Dervaes’ have mulched and composted their soil extensively. Over the years they’ve added so much natural fertilizer to their soil that they now have a foot and a half more soil than their next-door neighbors.

“We don’t waste anything and we have five composting areas around here. When you put the good soil [dirt with animal fertilizer] on the plants they immediately have a kind of insurance against water stress and drought because the soil’s good and the plants have good root systems because they go down,” said Dervaes.

To learn more about conserving water, Jules Dervaes and his family turned to the Internet. Researching old methods of irrigation, they found a system used in ancient China, Rome and Egypt and still used around the world to this day. The system is called “ollas,” the Spanish term for bottle or jar.

Ollas irrigation is based on burying unglazed clay jars in planters or garden beds, near produce, and filling the jars up with water. Unglazed clay pottery leeches moisture, making it a poor container for holding water for long periods of time. When the ollas are buried to the throat in soil, the jar loses water, dripping deep in the soil, near the roots of the plants. It acts as a constant drip irrigation system, but because water is below the surface, it’s not lost in the sun’s evaporating rays and the plants get only the water they need.
(8 April 2010)
Path to Freedom is now the subject of a documntary: Homegrown.

From the Dervaes family:

Self-Reliant Living in the City

Since the mid–1980s, members of the Dervaes family have steadily worked at transforming their ordinary city lot in Pasadena into a thriving organic micro farm that supplies them with food all year round. These eco-pioneers also run a successful home business providing their surplus produce to local restaurants.

Through their adventures in growing and preserving their own food, installing a solar power system, home-brewing biodiesel for fuel, raising backyard farm animals, and learning back-to-basics skills, these modern-day pioneers have revived the old-fashioned spirit of self-reliance and resourcefulness.

Since 2001, their blog and worldwide media coverage have inspired millions to take steps towards a sustainable future and have generated the 21st century urban homestead movement.

Learn more about their urban homesteading journey on their blog at