The Sustainable Urban Food Initiative (SUFI)

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.

The SUrFIT FoodHub Portal will be an online interactive website designed to facilitate both real time and advance availability information exchange between farmers, distributors, regional businesses, institutions, retail consumers, and the Central California Coast regional community.  This activity addresses the fragmentation and dearth of timely food producer and consumer information on the Central California Coast. Unlike other online foodhubs which are essentially incomplete and sporadically maintained lists of real-time local product availability (e.g., High Country Food Hub; Mendo Lake Food Hub), the SUrFTI portal will utilize communication technologies, strategies and applications to facilitate exchange among farms and gardens regarding advance crop planting and harvest planning and real; performance of emerging techniques and practices; access to storage, processing, distribution, and marketing infrastructure; current and futures contract pricing  bilateral contract, and standard distribution channel purchase and sale opportunities; partner design consultation and training in the use of regional Food Hub user interface and operational tools, including training materials to guide  operation, maintenance, and ongoing improvements and upgrades.

 

In an effort to develop the Sustainable Urban Farming Initiative, SSRF is working with Whiskey Hill Farm in Watsonville to develop a research and teaching program that will train, develop and support a new generation of small and minority farmers from California’s Central Coast, and provide experiential education at the farm. Whisky Hill is a highly-productive and technologically innovative 14 acre organic farm near Watsonville, California. It is located on the former site of a cut flower operation and currently operates six football field-sized greenhouses, with a growing regime that mimics the natural world of multi-layered polyculture. Using compost made from the leftovers of Blume Distillation’s medical-grade alcohol distillery in which to grow crops, the Farm’s cultivation techniques regenerate soil fertility and maximize productivity.

Cityblooms modular hydroponic units (https://cityblooms.com/modular-farms/). SSRF has been given 20 of these units.  They have small footprints, energy and water requirements, and a capable of producing food through four annual cycles. These will be distributed to and operated by our partner farms and gardens. 

Irrigation sensors: SSRF is collaborating with Sprout Labs (http://www.sproutlabs.io/about) in Santa Cruz, California, a UC Santa Cruz engineering startup, which is producing sensors for data driven plant care and agriculture that permits informed decisions about irrigation rather than guessing, resulting in significantly reduced water use for landscaping and agriculture. 

You can read proposals prepared by SSRF with partners and learn more about sustainable agriculture from the resources listed below.

SSRF SUFI Proposals and Resources on Sustainable Agriculture

Proposals

In-progress to USDA 2021 Secondary Education, Two-Year Postsecondary Education, and Agriculture in the K-12 Classroom Challenge Grants Program (SPECA): Teaching Agricultural Science, Technology, Environment & Management through Regenerative Practices, Biodynamics & Permaculture on Small Farms (STEM2 Farming), with Whiskey Hill Farm and Watsonville High School, due February 2021.

2021 Western Farmer/Rancher Grant proposal: Increasing food yields from urban and peri-urban farms through deployment of small-scale agricultural technologies, submitted with Whiskey Hill Farms, October 2020.

2020 USDA  Urban Agriculture and Innovation grant proposal: The Sustainable Urban Food Technology Initiative (SUrFTI): Agricultural technology for small farms and gardens, July 2020 (not funded).

Articles

Aragon Sanchez, Fenando M., Diego Restuccia & Juan Pablo Rud. 2019. “Are Small Farms Really more Productive than Large Farms?” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, September.

Barham, James, Debra Tropp, Kathleen Enterline, Jeff Farbman, John Fisk, and Stacia Kiraly. 2012. Regional Food Hub Resource Guide. U.S. Dept.of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. Washington, DC. April.

EFOD Collaborative. 2019. “Equitable Food-Oriented Development,” DAISA Enterprises, October.

Feenstra, Gail & Gwenaël Engelskirchen. 2017. “Lessons Learned from a California Food Hub Network Pilot,” Agricultural Sustainability Institute, UC Davis, May, at: (accessed May 5, 2020).

Hagey, Allison, Solana Rice & Rebecca Flournoy. 2012. “Growing Urban Agriculture: Equitable Strategies and Policies for Improving Access to Healthy Food and Revitalizing Communities,” PolicyLink.

Magdaleno, Johnny. 2019. “Turning Farm Workers into Farmers,” New York Times, November 27.

McDougall, Robert, Paul Kristiansen, and Romina Rader. 2019. “Small-scale urban agriculture results in high yields but requires judicious management of inputs to achieve sustainability,” PNAS 116, #1 (January 2): 129–134.

Mandela Partners. 2019. “Best Practices in Developing a Successful Food-Based Entrepreneurial Pipeline,” Oakland, CA.

Pollard, G., P. Roetman, J. Ward 2017. “The case for citizen science in urban agriculture research,” Future of Food 5, #3 (Winter): 9-20.

Popescu, Alexandra. 2019. “Making drones work for Small Farmers,” Biz, July 18).

Van Dyke, Catherine. 2018. “Expanding Beyond the Incubator: Silva Organic, Acevedo Organic, and Chelito Organic Farms,” California Farm Link, December 6).