Urbanization is higher today than it’s ever been — an estimated 175 acres of farmland is lost every hour due to overdevelopment. And with persistent drought conditions in Southern California, farmers are forced to find more sustainable ways of producing food.
How food is farmed is just as important as where it’s farmed. On average, food can travel up to 1,500 miles — from farm to distributor to grocery shelf — before even reaching our plate. This phenomenon known as “food miles” contributes to higher gas emissions and lower food quality.
In order to solve these growing issues, certain questions must be asked: How do we adapt to volatile weather conditions — working with, rather than against, nature? How do we grow healthier, more affordable food closer to home, while leaving a smaller carbon footprint on the environment? In a densely populated concrete jungle like Los Angeles, urban farming is becoming the clear solution. With the help of innovative technologies, more farmers are starting to grow food in places previously considered unusable — rooftops, sidewalks, even the inside of shipping containers.
This new generation of urban farmers is completely reshaping the world of agriculture as we know it, proving that there are many viable alternatives to conventional farming. Here’s a look at a few local farms that are leading the way towards a greener, more sustainable Los Angeles.
THE GROWING EXPERIENCE
Established in 2008, the Growing Experience is a 7-acre urban farm and community garden located within the Carmelitos public housing development in Long Beach. Founded in the midst of drought, the Growing Experience has experimented with farming methods that use water responsibly.
Their self-sustaining food forest, a space reserved for native California plants, was created with a permaculture design using seven layers of vegetation — including a shrub, vine and canopy layer. It is modeled after vibrant, biodiverse ecosystems that can maintain water-less conditions, a technique known as “dry farming.” Crops that need more hydration are planted at the base of trees which provide necessary shade.
Their aquaponic greenhouse is also something of note. Within a climate-controlled space, 175 white metal columns hold a lush plethora of leafy greens and herbs. Nearby, large fish tanks filled with tilapia and goldfish create nutrient-rich water that pumps to the top of each column and trickles down to feed the plants. The water is collected at the bottom and essentially recycled through the closed-loop system. This aquaponic method of farming is quite impressive — the vertical setup allows for four times the amount of produce in the same square footage while cutting down water usage by a whopping 75%.
Through weekly farm stands and a community-supported agricultural (CSA) program, Carmelitos housing residents are given direct access to locally-grown produce at affordable costs. Various educational programs allow students to spend time on the farm and gain early, hands-on exposure to sustainable practices.
Founded in 2014 by Emily Gleicher and Jason Wood, Farm LA rescues vacant, underutilized land in Los Angeles and turns them into beautiful urban farms. They began this mission with their sidewalk mini-farm project, converting unused curbside plots around the city into food-producing gardens. Farm LA’s efforts were eventually noticed by Bob Berg, a kind neighbor who invited them to use his vacant plot in Elysian Valley to open a permanent urban farm.
Since the farm’s groundbreaking in January 2018, Farm LA has gathered a passionate, hard-working community of volunteers from all over Los Angeles to maintain the space, who do everything from yard work to harvesting the farm’s drought-resistant crops. Though they previously sold lima bean kits to fund their projects, Farm LA focuses mainly on growing food to give back to the community. Portions of their harvest are donated to food banks, senior homes and community fruit shares. In this year alone, they have donated about 100 pounds of produce to those in need.
Farm LA hopes to inspire others to start their own urban farms throughout the city. “We’re firm believers in the contagiousness of urban farming,” says Emily. “We hope sustainable farming becomes more common in all households, whether it’s growing lima beans in a pot on your fire escape or utilizing the space in your backyard for a mini-farm.” For farmers dealing with LA’s desert-like climate, Emily advises to grow things that work with it, not against it. “We steer clear of tomatoes and lettuces and focus more on beans and grains. Setting up low-drip line irrigation and using mulch on top of beds is also a great way to keep moisture in.”
Farm LA has even collaborated with the LA Food Policy Council to push for the Urban Agricultural Zone Act. The act encourages Angelenos to convert their unused land into urban gardens & farms in exchange for reduced property taxes.
Aeroponic technology, a method of growing plants in air rather than soil, has been gaining popularity in the Los Angeles area thanks to companies like Lettuce Grow, who install and maintain aeroponic growing systems in places like homes, schools and restaurants.
At the Lettuce Grow headquarters in Playa Vista, over 100 varieties of non-GMO seedlings are grown and sprouted with just water and liquid nutrients. Zero soil is used — instead, a sponge-like material called rockwool provides plant roots with oxygen and consistent moisture, encouraging faster and healthier growth. The absence of soil allows for other benefits. Because there is essentially no dirt, and seedlings are grown off the ground, pest issues are minimized and any digging or weeding is eliminated. Roots are also given more room to breathe, maximizing their ability to take in oxygen and nutrients.
Lettuce Grow is a sister company of The Farm Project, founded by actress Zooey Deschanel. It focuses on reconnecting people with their food — encouraging families to grow food themselves and bring sustainable practices into their own homes.
STEP UP ON VINE
Located in Hollywood, Step up on Vine is a facility that provides permanent, supportive housing for the homeless — and it’s been making strides towards true sustainable living. The solar-powered, LEED Platinum-certified building boasts an aeroponic rooftop tower farm that thrives abundantly with edible produce like kale, basil and cilantro. The produce is available to tenants year-round — as much as half a ton annually.
Tower farms like the ones at Step Up are proving to be one of the most resource-efficient ways to produce food. Aeroponic crops take up 90% less space, use 98% less water and grow three times faster compared to crops grown traditionally. And since produce is harvested at its peak, food is tastier and more vibrant, with a much higher nutrition value.
Aside from offering tenants a tranquil, healing respite from the city, Step Up’s rooftop farm also contributes some much needed green-space. Since rooftop farms help cool down buildings and help offset what’s known as the “heat island” effect, energy usage, carbon emissions and poor air quality are significantly reduced.
Local Roots is an indoor farming company based in Los Angeles that upcycles 40-foot long shipping containers and turns them into “TerraFarms,” yielding as much produce as five acres of farmland — only in half the time, using as little as 1% of the water and zero pesticides.
In each container, state-of the-art climate control and calibrated LED-lights create ideal conditions to grow leafy greens from seed to harvest, hydroponically. Hundreds of computer-controlled sensors also track airflow and water temperature, while plant health is constantly monitored by cameras.
Though they currently grow produce like butterhead lettuce, baby kale and arugula, each TerraFarm can eventually be customized to grow anything, anywhere. And because of their small size and movability, TerraFarms can be brought much closer to consumers, allowing produce to be harvested at peak ripeness and nutrition. Local Roots’ current clients include Walmart, SpaceX and local restaurant chains. Even the United Nations has purchased a few TerraFarms to feed developing countries through its World Food Program.
With the freedom to sustainably produce food year-round— even in food deserts and cold climates, Local Roots may have created the farms of the future.
Now more than ever, people are starting to understand their food, how it’s grown and where it comes from. Many are making sustainable choices to build a better food system — one where “locally grown” means food was harvested mere steps away from the kitchen.
With the rise of urban farms, people are slowly transforming from consumers to community members — becoming part of the production process and asserting responsibility for the environment. Armed with this new awareness, all of us can start taking the small but significant steps towards the future of agriculture.