Editorial: Encouraging developments in lettuce and kale
We applaud the buy-local, grow-your-own, go-organic movement that’s leading more and more people to make the switch from packaged foods to healthier fresh fare. One of the leaders of that trend is John Lash, Concord School District’s new food service director. He’s partnered with area farms, orchards and a meat producer and completely revamped the menu of foods served in the schools. The schoolchildren get fresher, tastier food, and the money the district would otherwise have spent elsewhere stays in the local economy.
Another of the leaders, we suspect to everyone’s surprise, is Concord developer Steve Duprey, purchaser of the state’s first FreightFarms shipping container garden. Installed behind his Marriott Courtyard Hotel, it’s capable of growing three times more salad greens than the hotel restaurant can use. The rest, Duprey told Monitor city hall reporter Laura McCrystal, will be bagged and sold to markets and restaurants under the Steve’s Greens label. Ultimately, Duprey hopes to place 10 of the $60,000 mini-farms across the state.
The interiors of FreightFarms containers glow a neon purplish-pink, the work of energy-efficient LEDs calibrated to produce the spectrum of light most conducive to rapid plant growth. In such light, it is easier to picture Farmer Steve not in bib overalls and a straw hat, but in a wide-lapelled white leisure suit out of Disco Fever or the uniform worn by the crew of the Starship Enterprise. FreightFarming is futuristic gardening: self-contained, computer-controlled, hydroponic and programmable by smartphone. Is it the future of urban farming? Concord will soon find out.
Because the rugged shipping containers permit year-round gardening, under ideal conditions they are capable of producing 65 times the yield of farming in the traditional way, a company co-founder says. But even with out-sized yields, for the economics of urban gardening to work, farmers must produce high-value products like arugula, basil and other greens or exotic mushrooms – and humans can’t live on those alone. At least for now, staples like wheat, oats, barley and corn must be raised on land lit and heated by the sun. Yet in a state where the vast majority of what’s eaten arrives on trucks, every step toward food independence helps. It means less fossil fuel is burned, more local jobs and more money kept in the local economy.
Concord residents with a little bit of land can now raise hens for meat and eggs and keep bees – check city ordinances before placing your order – so dedicated urban dwellers can take meaningful steps toward meeting their household’s food needs. We count that as progress and cheer when people rip out a patch of lawn and plant a garden.
In more and more cities, abandoned buildings are being torn down and vacant lots turned into community gardens. While we don’t believe it will rescue blighted cities or put a big dent in agribusiness, it’s an exciting development. Urban farming puts people of all ages in touch with the earth, aware of the source of food and the vast difference between a fresh-picked and canned green bean. It also helps to build community when people who might have stared straight ahead when in an elevator together wind up side-by-side pulling weeds and picking tomatoes.
The same edition of the Monitor that brought news of Duprey’s farming endeavor also included a story about an architect’s proposal to convert a vacant 300,000-square-foot mill in Troy into a regional farming complex that raises vegetables and farms fish, along with a community kitchen and a farm-to-table restaurant. Nearby in Keene, city officials are hoping to find a partner who will raise vegetables and fish using excess power produced by the methane generated by the city’s old landfill. And in Concord, we’ve yet to give up hope that a new, wood-fueled steam plant will arise in the South End and produce enough energy to make year-round farming practical on a nearby site.