2861 Mission Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 (Room 247) sustainablesystemsresearch@gmail.com 831.708.5836

Sustainable Urban Agriculture Initiative

Urban agriculture and community farming are increasingly acknowledged as sustainable long-term alternative to the large-scale, corporate enterprises that provide most of the nation’s food.  Research has found that small-scale projects produce more and healthier food per acre, use resources more efficiently, and educate community members more effectively.  Small-scale farms empower and dramatically increase food security for neighborhoods and communities that don’t have reliable access to affordable and healthy food, as a way to build and support food and environmental justice, and as a way to create deep local resilience in an increasingly unstable world, by reducing the dependence of urban areas on potentially unsustainable food systems which rely on complex and resource-intensive food production and transportation systems.

The productivity of urban farms is limited not only by the availability of suitable sites but also a dearth of verified, widely replicable “best practices.” We have only limited data and experience about whether it is realistically possible to reproduce small-scale urban food production to a significant enough degree to attain these goals. Even more critically, there has been little research yielding replicable data or systematic analyses to determine whether a network of urban gardens and hydroponics operations in and around a modern city in an advanced economy could consistently produce enough food to make a difference, whether locally-controlled community gardens could replicate and scale to become a significant source of sustainable food production, and whether workers can expect a reasonable living wage. Until urban farm productivity and labor requirements are systematically studied and analyzed, it is impossible to say with certainty whether they can be operated profitably, let alone sustainably. And until best practices and technologies are deployed on urban farms, it will not be possible to fully gauge their potential.

SUFI is designed to create a collaborative network of regionally-based community gardens and small-scale farms, in order to foster and facilitate exchange of knowledge, practices, techniques and technologies that can increase food productivity and community resilience, through scientific research, education and training outreach to K-12 and university students, and communication of findings, activities and results to both community members and future farmers. SUFI will demonstrate and quantify the efficacy of a promising modular and scalable approach to high-performance community food production through hydroponics and real-time predictive irrigation sensors and controls, to provide comprehensive, ongoing documentation and training to a group of small-scale urban farmers that supports the construction, installation, operation, monitoring of these systems at urban farms, and to use a suite of planning, monitoring, and assessment tools, techniques, and best practices to document, quantify and widely distribute results online, though publications and curated, maintained online data and research repositories, via training workshops, and via online curricula and training materials.

Improving profitability of framers/ranchers, community, and society as a whole. One way to increase the profitability and sustainability of urban farms is to use available space more efficiently and to focus at least part of the effort on growing high-return crops, such as leafy greens and salad vegetables, to local restaurants. Modular hydroponics units in greenhouses make it feasible to minimize the footprint of such crops while maximizing yield through on-going harvests throughout the year. These units also minimize the potential for contamination by wildlife, damage from pests and the health risks of field cropping. Such units leave land available for other crops–vegetables, fruit trees, etc.–whose yield and potential profit margins are lower due to limited space and which can have greater impacts on local food provision and food security.

Sustain and improve the environmental quality and natural resource base on which agriculture depends. There are a vast quantity of arable, albeit highly fragmented sites available in urban areas. In numerous instances, urban farms and gardens have been developed on rubble-filled vacant lots and unutilized interstices among urban infrastructures. In California, suburban sprawl has taken over a significant quantity of farmland, while leaving a great deal of land un- or underutilized. Urban farms and gardens rely on the “improvement” of such spaces to succeed and can transform rather gray urban landscapes into attractive green spaces. Restoration of the soil brings back into cities all kinds of beneficial animals insects (as well as insect and animal pests.) Water catchment systems for irrigation can reduce stormwater flows and redistribute water into the ground. Air quality is improved by the presence of greenery.

Enhance the quality of life for farmers/ranchers, communities, and society as a whole. Urban farms and gardens can bring nutritious food to low-income neighborhoods, provide work (sometimes waged) to local residents, volunteers and others, and increase neighborhood quality and cohesion through the collective benefits they provide. The opportunity to learn about urban farming and new technologies can also provide a career path to city residents interested in agriculture but wanting to remain in their cities. The proven quality of life benefits for neighbors and neighborhoods of distributed urban/peri-urban agriculture cannot be underestimated.

You can read a proposal prepared by SSRF and Common Roots Farm and recently submitted to the United States Department of Agriculture here. Visit the SUFI Resources page to learn more about urban and peri-urban farms and gardens.