Urban locavores might get food from vertical farms

The CSAs that serve my Brooklyn neighborhood are long sold out—I’m on a waiting list for next summer, and even then, who knows if I’ll make it in? Point being, there’s a mad rush to embrace local food in this city, as in many others, a demand currently outweighing supply.

One way to solve that conundrum: the vertical farm. Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier (that last name is so close to meaning “of the apple”) has been working on these skyscraper agricultural outposts with grad students since 1999, but recently he’s gotten a nod of approval from a high ranking official (albeit one with very little actual power): Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

Although we’ve lost as many as 165 community gardens in the city, Stringer envisions bringing them back, although all crammed into a tower—and more for food than for recreation. But that’s the point—it’s a farm, not a garden. It provides food, cleans the air, lets those CSA farmers breathe a little easier in the summer, and brings urban agriculture to the next level—literally.

And while architects and eco-designers across our great green earth have been fascinated with the concept and creating lovely renderings of what could be, we don’t actually have any vertical farms yet. Despommier says we’d need somewhere between $20 and $30 million to build a pilot project, and “hundreds of millions,” according to a New York Times article, to make the ultimate vertical farm: 30 stories to feed 50,000 people.

It’s quite a handsome sum for a perpetually cash-strapped city, but Stringer wants to give it a shot: he’s hoping the mayor’s office will agree to a feasibility study. Meanwhile, I hope my local CSAs have a spot for me next year.


A complimentary approach with vertical farming is sub-acre SPIN-Farming which is now being practiced throughout the U.S. and Canada. SPIN makes it possible to earn $50,000+ from a half acre by growing vegetables on land bases under an acre in size. SPIN farmers utilize relay cropping to increase yield and achieve good economic returns by growing only the most profitable food crops tailored to local markets. SPIN's growing techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you'd expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn't any different from McDonalds. So by offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm, wherever they live, as long as there are nearby markets to support them, and it removes the two big barriers to entry – sizeable acreage and significant start-up capital. By utilizing backyards and front lawns and neighborhood lots, SPIN farmers are recasting farming as a small business in cities and towns and "right sizing" agriculture for an urbanized century.
While vertical farming will still take some time to get off the ground, sub-are farming is already showing how agriculture can be integrated into the built environment in an economically viable manner. You can see some of them in action at