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The Sustainable Urban Food Technology Initiative (SUrFTI): Agricultural technology for small farms and gardens

The small-scale urban and peri-urban garden and farm sector in the Monterey Bay region (Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties), where regional organic and agroecological farming got their start, is highly competitive, fragmented and information poor.  It is characterized by informal relationships vulnerable to disruption, low levels of communication among producers and customers, and a lack of knowledge about best practices, production planning and agricultural technologies appropriate to scale. The COVID-19 shutdown has illustrated a number of fragile points in national food supply chains, and these have affected small-scale urban and peri-urban farms and gardens in unanticipated ways, by eliminating customers such as restaurants and specialty markets, making access to farmers’ markets more difficult.

Small urban farms and gardens are frequently offered as a potential alternative to large-scale commercial agriculture for providing food, especially to food poor neighborhoods. Where vegetables are concerned, in particular, small-scale operations can produce more and healthier food per acre, use resources and labor more efficiently, build local economies more evenly, provide access to new and minority farmers, and educate community members more effectively. New agricultural technologies have the potential to increase productivity and sales in the small-scale agricultural sector, however, to date, penetration has been quite limited. 

            A key obstacle to integration of new ag-tech in this sector is the dearth of research yielding replicable data and systematic analyses to determine whether a network of technologically-enhanced small-scale peri-urban farms and gardens, in advanced local and regional economies, can produce enough food to make a difference for local food security, whether it is possible to provide agricultural workers with a living wage and if access to online tools can significantly increase marketing and sales. Until urban farm productivity, labor requirements and potential enhancements are systematically studied and analyzed in the field, it is impossible to say with confidence whether small-scale operations can effectively deploy new technologies. Until best practices and technologies are deployed on urban farms, it will not be possible to fully gauge their potential.

            This project is designed to deploy and study the efficacy of deploying small-scale agricultural technologies in small urban and peri-urban spaces in the California Central Coast region in order to increase productivity, marketing and sales. These technologies include modular hydroponic units, real-time irrigation and sensor controls, drone surveying of production phases and cycles, solar photovoltaic electricity sources, and use of the internet for communication and knowledge exchange and marketing purposes.

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. 

            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. 

            Solar energy: SSRF has also received several hundred used solar PV panels from the City of Santa Cruz, which will power both hydroponic and irrigation systems. 

            Drones: SSRF will contract with a local company to conduct drone surveys for partner farms and gardens.

You can read the complete project plan here.