Growing Cities Blog

Lauren Mandel Looks at Midwest Rooftops

September 18th, 2013

This post is from Eat Up.

Image from Eat Up

Photo by Lauren Mandel (see Eat Up blog)

Overlooking the Windy City’s articulated skyline a handful of urban farmers has climbed up to the convention center‘s roof to cultivate 1/4 acre of prime real estate. McCormick Place West, as its known by locals, was built in 2007 with three acres of extensive green roof overhead. The convention center’s catering company, Savor Chicago, decided to take advantage of this local acreage by partnering with Windy City Harvest – the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture program that provides hands-on training – to convert a portion of the green roof into the Midwest’s largest rooftop farm. Everything grown on the roof travels downstairs to fuel the convention center’s 3 million annual visitors with local, roof-fresh fare.

Read more of this post on Skyline Vegetable Convention

Master Urban Farming Taster

December 8th, 2011

And Dan doing what he does best!

Master Urban Farming Filmmaker

December 8th, 2011

Andrew doing what he does best!

Hayes Valley Farm Kids

November 15th, 2011

Finally catching up on the blog – its been a crazy last few weeks literally glued to our computer screens.  But we’re making progress!

Here are some photos of our visit at Hayes Valley Farm – a 2.5 acre community and educational farm in the middle of San Francisco.  The farm is located on an old freeway on-ramp and when you step on the farm you can still see the where the roadway once was – although, its now covered with bee hives, lots of veggies, and even a clay pizza oven!

Anyways, we had a delightful day with Lindsey and Booka, two educators at Hayes Valley, as well as all the wonderful kids.  After learning about different plant parts, the group went out on a garden walk to forage for their snack.  Afterwards, the kids enjoyed farm fresh “Garden on a cracker” – which included everything from cherry tomatoes and strawberries to rainbow chard and kale (many veggies Andrew and I wouldn’t have imagined eating as kids) all squeezed onto a rice cracker.  Add a little agave nectar to make it stick and waalaa, “Garden on a cracker!”

Without further ado, adorable photos…thanks to Hayes Valley, the educators, and the wonderful parents and kids!

Little City Gardens

November 1st, 2011

Brooke Budner and Caitlyn Galloway (above with Dan) want nothing more than to make their living as farmers. Since last year they have tried to do just that, tilling the three-quarter acre lot tucked in the southern part of San Francisco that they call Little City Gardens.  With the passing of new zoning legislation this past spring, which essentially encourages urban agriculture, the road was paved for them to give it their best shot.

They noted that the Bay Area already had an amazing array of educational farms, so they wanted to try something new and discover if it was possible to make a living off farming in San Francisco.  By setting out with this goal they’re also addressing an issue many other urban farmers struggle with:  can urban agriculture succeed without access to the grants or other support that so many city farmers have come to depend on? It’s also a question we’re trying to get at in our film.

It’s too early to know, says Caitlyn. “We’re making this up as we go along,” she adds. “We don’t have the answer yet, but how could we after only six months of experimenting?” Thus far they’ve found restaurant and catering clients for their beautiful vegetables and launched a CSA program. “Our customers are willing to pay $20 a box for mixed greens and other veggies because they support what we’re doing,” says Caitlyn.  She also noted that customers are beginning to understand the real costs associated with growing food by participating in the CSA and coming out to the farm.

Little City Gardnes is surrounded on by rows of houses on three sides so it’s very important for them to have a positive relationship with their community.  Caitlyn told us the neighbors have been very supportive and some even are part of the CSA.  This goodwill also earned them a huge break on their land – until the landlord decided he couldn’t afford to rent it out anymore and sold it to a developer. Now the plot that Little City Gardens sits on is in jeopardy of being turned into housing.

Caitlyn, who has the demeanor of someone who has spent years in tune with the rhythm of the seasons, is unruffled by this newest challenge. She said that she and Brooke, who became partners after they worked together to wrest Little City Gardens from a thicket of weeds and rubble, believe things will work out. “We’re proceeding as if the farm will still be here years from now,” says Caitlyn. “Somehow we’ll find a solution.”

Their grit, tenacity, and flexibility isn’t unique. These same qualities are shared by many of the urban farmers we’ve met over the last several months. But here’s another word for people like Caitlyn and Brooke: inspiring.

Accidental farmers: Back to the Roots

October 24th, 2011

Neither Alex Velez (pictured above with Andrew Monbouquette) nor Nikhil Arora had any idea how to grow food before they met. But in the past couple of years the two cofounders of Back to the Roots have become known as “the mushroom guys” for figuring out how to grow oyster mushrooms out of spent coffee grounds and then finding a market for them.

We visited them in their new factory in West Oakland, which has the advantage of being close to the Peets Coffee outlets that supply them with 20,000 pounds of coffee grounds every week. The factory was in full thrum, as workers packed small bags of ground coffee with mushroom spawn, or seed, and slid them into consumer-friendly boxes for grow-your-own-mushroom kits. The appealing packaging is no accident. “People want to grown their own food but they don’t just want a bag of fungus,” says Arora, “We had to make it look good.”

They’re hoping customers will flock to Home Depot and Whole Foods this season, just a couple of the stores that have signed on to work with Back to the Roots, and find in the kits a perfect holiday gift for their kids, or urban farmers, or people who just like the idea of making a mushroom dish from scratch, as it were. Each $20 kit is expected to grow 1 ½ pounds of mushrooms.

One “gorgeous” bucket of mushrooms

The story of how Back to the Roots came to be is now an established part of company lore, related several times over in the press (these guys have gotten noticed!). Velez and Arora, both 24, were business majors at the University of California at Berkeley who didn’t know each other before attending an ethics class and hearing the professor tell them that mushrooms can be grown in coffee grounds. Both took note and both followed up with the professor afterwards to see if he had any more information. That’s when he suggested they meet.

In the spring of 2009, the last semester of their senior year, they concentrated on figuring out how to grow mushrooms in coffee, turning to YouTube and any other source they could find for help. After spending more time elbow-deep in coffee mud than they care to remember, they finally produced 10 buckets worth of coffee-fueled mushrooms. Nine of the buckets became contaminated. But the 10th was “gorgeous,” says Arora, and they rushed it over to nearby Chez Panisse, the most well-known restaurant in Berkeley. “We thought, why not start at the top?” says Arora.

Serendipitously, founder Alice Waters herself just happened to be in the kitchen. After she’d tasted the mushrooms that her head cook chopped up and sautéd for her, she asked Velez and Arora to bring her some more.

Fortified by Waters’ powerful thumbs up, and figuring they had nothing to lose, the guys rushed the same winning bucket over to Whole Foods where the produce manager also took an interest in this new version of sustainably grown mushrooms.

Suddenly their cool kitchen science project started to seem like a promising business idea and both guys soon turned down the jobs that had been waiting for them post-graduation – Velez was bound for investment banking and Arora for consulting – to become full-time entrepreneurs, and mushroom farmers.

In for the long haul

They’re working from 6:30am to 8:30pm almost every day of the week, have 19 people on the payroll, and a sometimes scary-huge inventory of bagged mushrooms to sell. But they have absolutely no regrets about the choice they’ve made and see even more potential for growth in their future.

“This grow-your-own-food movement is no fad,” says Velez. “Look at us – we gave up conventionally successful jobs to become farmers.”

They’ll be among the many farmers we’re introducing in our film and among the many reasons we’re so excited about this project.

Here today, gone tomorrow – and that’s okay

September 27th, 2011


San Francisco is a city known, among other things, for its high rents and extravagant housing costs. The term “housing crisis” is used here not to indicate a bottoming out of the market but how hard it is to find an affordable place to live. In short, it doesn’t have much in the way of vacant land. Pretty much everything that can be developed has been. The waiting list for community gardens averages from two to three years.

Yet, in the middle of all this expensive real estate is an ongoing experiment called the Hayes Valley Farm. With the support of a pro-urban agriculture mayor and city-granted access to water, a team of volunteers led by three part-time employees has turned what used to be a rubble-strewn lot left over after dismantling a highway exit ramp into a small farm within walking distance of City Hall.

We hiked there recently to see for ourselves what determination and hundreds of truckloads of dirt can produce. Co-director Jay Rosenberg greeted us and invited us to find a place to sit among the squash and fruit trees, and listen to the birds. Against the backdrop of screeching brakes and full-throttled trucks, as impatient drivers maneuvered onto nearby 101, we counted 10 different bird calls. Rosenberg told us that close to 40 different types of birds had moved in over the past year.

We joined him and a few neighbors who had dropped in for the morning and continued our chat about city wildlife and how the farm had changed the neighborhood — “I never knew who I was living next to before, and I’ve lived here for 20 years” said one. We also talked about how much work it had taken to transform this former highway into the lush bee-happy planting ground we were sitting in. Tons of hours, dirt, and goodwill, for starters. And then we asked about long-term plans for the farm.

“There are none,” Rosenberg told us. The farm is considered an “interim-use” project by the city and developers are already circling because the lease is up next year. In due time this space would probably be turned into condominiums.

We were unsettled. You mean all this work was for nothing?

Not exactly. “This farm has inspired the growth of community gardens all over the city,” Rosenberg told us. “It was never meant to be an ongoing venture. Our mission all along has been to educate people about sustainable agriculture.” And in even better news, the farm has entered talks with the city to find a new, long-term location to farm on for next year (stay tuned)!

We sat there a few minutes longer and watched as people walked through the gates of the farm — sometimes in groups, but more often alone, and always, it appeared, in awe of being able to step from a sidewalk onto dirt that supports vegetables, fruit, and bee hives right here in the city. Before we packed up our stuff and left for home we counted a few more bird calls, too.