Urban farming brings a fresh agricultural perspective to the community
“It is so important that people shouldn’t have to leave their communities to have access to fresh food,” says Tracey Westbrook, “and urban farming is one solution that can make the issue a reality.”We are walking through Westbrook’s innovative greenhouse, Atlantic Beach Urban Farms (ABUF). The operation is highly visible from Atlantic Boulevard, especially heading east and at night, when the purple LED lights glow from inside. She founded ABUF from the perspective of her thirteen years in nonprofit leadership, paralleling a career in entrepreneurship. “I’m coming at this from a community-minded place; Eleanor [Perry, ABUF Greenhouse and Community Relations manager] is the botanist,” laughs Westbrook.
Westbrook and ABUF co-founder Susan King, former executive director of The Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry (BEAM), take great pride in their cutting-edge operation, but every step of the way, emphasize the longterm goal, which is in their words, “a paradigm shift” toward equitable access to fresh food.
Agriculture has always been a catalyst for transformation. Since its birth roughly 10,000 years ago, the manner in which we systemically raise our food — and our food’s food — has been the main stimulant for humankind’s development. Cities were born when we could stop chasing our food and settle for generations in one location. Overdrive was reached during the Green Revolution of the 1940s to ’60s, when agricultural production technologies, including the use of pesticides, irrigation projects, and synthetic fertilizers, spread worldwide. Now, with the planet saturated with people and agricultural chains so long they are starting to break (e.g., the latest lettuce-induced illness outbreaks), the birth of sustainable agriculture makes sense.
We’ve already developed numerous new methods for growing plants that meet the demands of our bursting cities without needing to use our depleted soils. Of these, aeroponics (aero referring to ‘air’) has the smallest footprint and most versatility. Think slender, vertical, self-contained towers of edible plants sitting on rooftops and porches of homes, hospitals, restaurants and other businesses; standing in parking lots like green beacons within urban food deserts; and inside schools and universities as both teaching tools and at-hand, no-shipping-required sustenance. Within this paradigm, produce could be the new fast food.
When you see this version of farming it looks futuristic. But if you have the chance to learn about it, it’s a method that strips back to the basics of the growth cycle. To grow, a seed needs water, light, and nutrients, but perhaps the most important growth stimulant is oxygen, and that is what aeroponics capitalizes on. Exposing plant roots to the air stimulates rapid growth, and there’s a lot of air above our earth to tap. Further, while sunlight is still the main source of light for growth, LED technology is making around-the-clock farming a reality. This creates an alternate food source that is fast, convenient, and accessible.
First, seeds destined to be aeroponic plants are placed into a medium of spun basalt, an igneous rock, that looks like sheets of natural sponge, but with the texture of condensed cotton candy. At this stage, they only need water and light. Once germinated, the sprouts are moved to a flooding table, where they sit in a nutrient and water solution for periods of time. At a certain size, they are transplanted to a cylindrical tower with openings for each plant. This allows the plants’ roots to be fed inside, individually misted with nutrient-filled, purified water that circulates continuously, while the plant’s growth occurs outside the cylinder where it receives light. What you see on the towers are lush, vibrant, polka-dotted plants begging to be picked.
The statistics on aeroponics are staggering: the method uses ninety percent less ground space and water than traditional farming, and plants can grow from seed to full size in six weeks. The towers that ABUF uses in their greenhouse originated at a Santa Monica, California-based company, started by Jacksonville natives, called LA Urban Farms. LA Urban Farm’s vertical gardens have been wildly successful on the west coast and beyond, and a longterm friendship between Westbrook and LAUF’s founders, sisters Jennifer Crane and Wendy Coleman and their cousin Melanie Dorsey, bore the vision for ABUF.
“It is such a blessing that the three of us have found our passion helping people grow their own food, and getting to do it together has been absolutely incredible,” says Crane. “Wendy shared with Tracey how we had found our passion and started our own vertical farming company … and Tracey got so excited and felt so passionate about it that she started Atlantic Beach Urban Farms shortly thereafter.” To learn more about LA Urban Farms’ impressive nonprofit work with the Tim Tebow Foundation and many others, and to view their very long commercial and celebrity client list, visit their website, www.laurbanfarms.com.
LA Urban Farms now has a Florida division, Florida Urban Farms, and also supplies aeroponic towers to restaurants here in Northeast Florida. The Surf Deck Grill, with its outdoor, beachside dining at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, is encircled by the eye-catching living sculptures. Chef de Cuisine Erik Osol says their best aeroponic crop is Bibb lettuce, which has the unique quality of tasting salty, even after rinsing, because it is grown so close to the ocean (a feat in and of itself, as any gardener near the beach can attest). “Diners like that because salt makes everything taste good,” he laughs.
“Jennifer and Melanie are showing everybody that they can grow food,” says Osol. “That’s a big part of the story.” A hearty proponent of alternative farming, Osol says he’s interested in the movement especially from the standpoint of distribution and its carbon footprint. “This technology, it’s disruptive, and we should be doing this,” he says. “For example, New Jersey is giving immense tax breaks to these urban farms, green walls, and LED-lit greenhouses being put into old factories and warehouses. The way I look at it is like solar power twenty years ago — it started as a novelty here and there, like in small things like a watch, and now we have completely solar-powered buildings.”
Putting the tower gardens to use on a large scale is Westbrook’s vision, and that has its special considerations for both growing and distribution. First, because the air is so vital to the growing process, its cleanliness is paramount, and the air in ABUF’s greenhouse circulates entirely three times a minute. The water quality is important, too, and ABUF’s originates from their own well and is then purified through reverse osmosis. The nutrient solution is specialized, and the same solution used in the greenhouse is sold at ABUF for those who purchase towers, or is donated along with granted towers.
ABUF currently grows three varieties of lettuce — Butter, Oak Leaf, and Salanova Sweet Crisp — as well as kale and arugula. Westbrooks says seventy-five percent is sold to restaurants, and they use Sysco distributors as well as personal deliveries to a host of local spots including Atlantic Beach Country Club, One Ocean, Eleven South, TPC Sawgrass, and Fleet Landing. The remainder of the greenhouse greens are sold during their Farm Market days, when, three days a week, their farmhouse is open to the public. One can purchase bagged greens and green bouquets, as well as carefully-curated food items like olive oils, selected at the source in Italy by Westbrook, vinegars, and cheeses. There is a full kitchen with bar seating and tables in the adjacent room that is available for private events. Westbrook has already seen the space grow community and foster collaboration through events such as demonstrations by local chefs, nonprofit fundraisers, and parties that feature her product alongside local food truck fare. She plans to expand this part of ABUF, as just one tentacle reaching out into the community. This, along with restaurant sales, sustains the business, enabling a host of giving projects Westbrook has underway and in the planning stages.
By Meredith T. Matthews
Photos by laird