Category Archives: urban ag

In Your Kitchen of the Future: Fresh Greens – As Local as You Can Get

You might have heard of Grove Labs by now, and if you have, that is quite an accomplishment, because it was founded a very short time ago (in 2013) by two seniors at MIT who wanted to see changes in the way that food is produced. They approached their frustration with the current system Gandhi-style as in his famous quote, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Gabe Blanchet and Jamie Byron founded Grove Labs and have already amassed quite a team of assistants and advisors to work on their concept of producing a kitchen “farming appliance” that can grow edibles just a few steps away from the kitchen sink and dining room table.

The first time I saw the photos (included in this post today) I was intrigued by their idea, so I decided to catch-up with them to see how the project is going.

At first glance, I questioned whether something such as this could actually produce much fresh produce, and I also questioned whether people’s value systems might be ready to embrace dedicating precious floor space in their kitchens for a big incubator like this, and I also wondered how much work would be involved to keep the production going since only a certain percent of our population desires to do the work required to produce their own food.

Then I thought of all the trophy kitchens full of designer appliances, granite countertops and cabinetry galore and I realized that an appliance like this could certainly have a place in those over-the-top kitchens. And, perhaps the value systems of quite a few urbanites who don’t own garden space in which to grow food might like to have an indoor space in which they could, so I decided that the idea is a sound one. If warehouses are set up to grow food in a similar manner to this in cities, then why not just bring it even closer to where it is consumed to skip the transport to the grocer and then to the home, kinda like buying your own washing machine so you don’t have to go to the Laundromat.

Next, I contacted Gabe and he answered a few of my questions about their idea and their product, which follow. But first, here is another drawing of their concept/design.

Before we see their answers to my questions, know that the founders, Gabe and Jamie, admit that at this point there are many unknowns in this product development stage, but they will find out a lot after the first Alpha testing modules are placed in homes this summer.

In answer to my question about how much they think the appliance can actually produce and how much “work” is involved, they answered:

You’re right, it’s no easy feat to grow good tomatoes (or peppers) under LEDs and indoors — they need a lot of light and the right ratio of red/blue/UV wavelengths, but nutrition, transpiration, stress, and genetics also play big roles in getting good fruit from a system like this. Nature grows the best tomatoes, so as we build the environmental control systems and LED lighting for the appliance, we try to come as close to recreating the natural seasonal cycles (solar, water, nitrogen, climate, etc.) that a tomato would experience outdoors growing in it’s ideal location.

We’re waiting to release productivity numbers until we’ve completed our Alpha testing. But as a baseline estimate of productivity once the appliance is growing at capacity: A big bowl of salad greens for a family of 4 every day plus a constant supply of fresh culinary herbs from an appliance with 8 veggie modules (2 stacks, 4 modules high, ~1.5 ft x 5 ft footprint, ~ 6.5 ft tall).

Lighting, irrigation, nutrition, pH, and climate within the appliance is automated though our smart environmental control system called Grove OS. As we get more feedback from users about how well different plants grew and how the produce tasted, Grove OS learns how to produce better crops through better environmental control and everyone’s home farming appliance improves over time. The main user interactions are harvesting/foraging daily, planting, and topping off the nutrient and water stores every couple of weeks. Our users can purchase seeds of heirloom varieties and exotic species through our app to populate their appliance or transplant their own seedlings.

And in answer to my question about possible pest or fungi problems:

Many design considerations have been made to make is as difficult as possible for pests and fungus to survive/thrive in the appliance from air flow to surfaces. We think the risk of pests is minimal, but we will provide in app support for manually dealing with any pest problem using companion planting, manual removal, and organic pest remedies.

Next, about the potential for this to be given floor space in homes:

We realize that most people don’t have room for another large appliance in their kitchens. That’s a big motivator for why the appliance is built from smaller modules. People can start with a small tabletop system then expand over time. Eventually people will have these appliances incorporated into their remodeled kitchens and even build entire rooms to grow their own food (we call them groves), but we imagine our customers will start with a smaller system in their kitchen or larger systems in their living rooms, basements, or even porches (in warmer climates).

Another concern of mine was how much energy is required to operate the system.

Although we aren’t ready to commit to specific energy requirement figures, we have modeled it several different ways. In each case, energy requirements are minimal – we use only ultra-efficient LED lighting. In previous indoor growing operations (mostly commercial applications) people used high pressure sodium or florescent lighting; That was the real energy driver!

Finally, Gabe said that interest in their product has been “overloaded”. (Also, there is another kind of indoor crop which is quite popular that they think this appliance can also be used for.)

What do you as readers think? I think that we’d be wise to keep an eye on what these two innovators are doing, and on where they will go from here.

To learn more, visit Grove Labs website.

Alegría Fresh: A Prototype Urban Farm in Irvine, California Uses GardenSoxx

A commercial venture is on the move, and its timing is great, as it proposes to save water, fertilizer, and space, while providing fresh, nutrient-dense produce in urban areas.

This Southern California company is setting up an urban micro-farm -which claims to save large amounts of water- in Irvine, California during this time period when the extreme-drought of California is grabbing so many headlines.

The company is called Alegría Fresh, and they have various products on the market which are intended to grow fresh produce by using hydroponic techniques.

They have devised a mini-vertical garden system for urban dwellers for use in small spaces. Their vertical farm set-ups use coconut fiber (coir) instead of soil.

Their latest venture, Alegría Soxx Farm, uses 7500 linear feet of GardenSoxx on one-fifth of an acre in Irvine, California to grow 15 different vegetables, for a total of 13,000 plants.

They expect a 70 percent reduction in the amount of water needed to grow this produce, and a 50 percent reduction in fertilizer required because of the rich growing medium used. They also expect high yields, greater pest resistance, and faster growth rates, calling this a “paradigm shift in urban ag”.

Furthermore, they suggest that this prototype farm, and other future urban micro-farms like it have a juice bar, salad bar, and small farm stand alongside it to sell produce direct and employ local workers, creating a revenue stream that can support the farms.

All Sounds Great, But a Few Comments . . .
One question that I have, should any of the fine folks from Alegría drop by and read this, is how does this farm save water, when the GardenSoxx Q&A states, “as the mesh breathes, it will dry out sooner than normal soil.” I’d love to see an answer in the comments below, please, as many people are looking for solutions such as this to help grow food in our urban areas.

My other question is how adaptable would this system be to other regions of this nation, besides our prized Mediterranean climate growing region of Southern California?

Finally, I love innovation in food growing, but how I wish it didn’t (so often) involve greater use of plastic.

UPDATE: I’ve noticed the video isn’t working, which really is necessary to understand this set-up. See this page for another video. And here is a video of their vertical hydroponic gardening system.

Bioregional Agriculture in Colorado

“Our food system is broken. What kind of society do we live in that pays all of our farmers to grow the same five crops? —Adam Brock”

Adam Brock, who helped found Denver’s by-now-famous GrowHaus*, tells us that we need a bioregional cuisine here in Colorado not unlike the Cajun food found in the Gulf area. Because we live in a region with very little precipitation, we need to start listening to the land, because we can only get our crops that we do today by working against nature. By growing bioregional food here on the High Plains, we’d use less water and produce food with better nutrition. He suggests eating foods such as a salad made with Sorrel, Bison, and Nopali (Prickly Pear Cactus).

Brock explains that Colorado’s farmers have to play into the commodities markets to compete economically with a result that our state’s top crop is wheat, followed by corn, hay, millet, sorghum, and sunflowers. Showing us a pie chart of the state’s water allocations in 2011 (@3:35), 44 percent of Colorado’s water goes to irrigation for agriculture and 30 percent to power generation.

Here is his list of plants that he recommends we eat and plant in our gardens, because they are native and/or suited to our climate:

• Nopal cactus – prickly pear cactus
• Sunchoke (also known as earth apple or Jerusalem artichoke)
• Sorrel (lower right photo)
• Sea Buckthorn
• Currant
• Burdock
• Amaranth
• Goji berry
• Goumi
• Jujube
• Lovage
• Nanking cherry
• New Zealand Spinach
• Prairie turnip
• Western Sand Cherry
• Yellowhorn

Brock has a website ( which lists more plants he recommends for food that work with nature here in Colorado.

He is also instrumental in helping to plan Denver’s first public food forest.

You may listen to his great talk here:


*The GrowHaus is a half-acre greenhouse in an under-served area of Denver which uses aquaponics to produce fresh greens and vegetables to its local community at prices “less than Walmart’s”.

Also recommended: Seattle creates a public food forest; Hardy Perennials for your small farm; and, Denver’s GrowHaus website.

Photos: Wikipedia and GrowHaus.

3 Picks: DIY Verticle Garden, Microgrids, E85 Nonsense

Photo credit: The Dirt

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) A DIY Verticle Urban Garden Using 2-liter Pop Bottles: Phil Stamper posted instructions on how to make a hanging bottle garden. This is a verticle urban garden system that anybody can do with some rope and empty pop bottles. It comes from the Brazilian design firm, Rosenbaum, and it was such a hit that they released these instructions so that they are available to everyone. (Please go to the source to view the instructions.)

2) ENERGY: Is the Future Micro-Grids? “One of the most under-reported stories in the U.S. energy industry today is Connecticut’s ambitious electricity pilot project—one that could have a widespread ripple effect across the country. On July 24, state government officials announced plans for nine micro-grid projects as part of a Micro-grid Pilot Program aimed at ensuring electricity grid resilience and reliability during severe weather events. “Micro-grids” are essentially small-scale electricity generation and distribution systems that integrate various distributed energy resources and can be managed locally and, if necessary, independently from the main grid. Diesel-powered micro-grids are common in the rural areas of many developing countries such as Haiti, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and some military bases, telecommunications bases, and Internet server farms have done the same, in order to ensure a steady flow of power even if a natural disaster or terrorist attack should take down the main grid. … “

3) How much E85 would be consumed if we gave it away? That is my question for Bruce Babcock (of Colbert Report fame) at Iowa State, who suggests that we need an economic incentive to get past the ethanol blend wall by having E85 available at more stations and by reducing its price in a piece titled, “Price It and They Will Buy: How E85 Can Break the Blend Wall”. (Pretty sure I was not his intended audience.) He says, “The resulting demand curve for ethanol above the E10 blend wall suggests E85 consumption of about one billion gallons if E85 were priced to generate a six percent reduction in fuel costs. If the price were lowered further to generate a 15 percent reduction then about two billion gallons could be consumed, and a 30 percent reduction would be needed to induce three billion gallons of consumption. … rather than being a physical barrier to increased ethanol consumption, the E10 blend wall is an economic barrier that can be overcome by increasing the incentive for drivers to use E85 to fuel their vehicles.” K.M.: Or, maybe it would help if you labeled it what it really is. Hardly anyone is aware of the fact that the ASTM lowered the minimum requirement of ethanol in E85 to 51 percent “E51″ in early 2012… “to ensure that ethanol fuel blends for flex-fuel vehicles can meet seasonal vapor pressure requirements in all regions of the country.” Next up, I’d like to see reports from Babcock on 1) the non-mandated use amounts of E85 in our top five corn producing states, 2) the average ethanol blend produced under the E85 label today, 3) who will be paying for the 30 percent price discount of E85 in his proposal and what will that cost? 4) how do your cost discount incentives for selling E85 compare to energy content in the product? and, 5) How much would your economic incentives contribute to the problems of water quality, habitat and soil loss in your state of Iowa?

(Note that the EPA has recently indicated that it will reduce targets in 2014 to address “blend wall” concerns, and, the anti-ethanol sentiments and voices are heating up in Washington, on TV ads, and elsewhere.)

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

3 Picks: Heat Tolerant Broccoli, Micro Gardening, Oil Prices

The Nourishmat

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Heat Tolerant Broccoli: Michael Moss tells us the story of a Cornell scientist plant breeder, and his work to improve vegetable genetics. Get ready for the outcry! “Broccoli hates too much heat, which is why 90 percent of it sold in the United States comes from temperate California, which is often bathed by fog. The heads are fine if you live there, but for the rest of us they require a long truck ride (four or five days to the East Coast) and then some waiting time in a warehouse, tarnishing the appeal of a vegetable that health experts can’t praise enough.”

2) Micro Gardening and Nourishmats: For NPR, Eliza Barclay updates us on the latest and most efficient use of space for urban gardening. “While it’s probably tough to sustain a family on a micro-garden, FAO research shows that a well-tended micro-garden of 11 square feet can produce as much as 200 tomatoes a year, 36 heads of lettuce every 60 days, 10 cabbages every 90 days, and 100 onions every 120 days.”

3) Oil Prices: Laurel Graefe and Rebekah Durham at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta provide commentary on global oil prices. “However, the two seemingly opposing narratives—that of high oil prices and that of an emerging oil and gas abundance—are fundamentally linked. In fact, if it hadn’t been for such high oil prices, this new surge in North American oil production may not have happened. It is much more difficult to rationalize drilling activity in deep offshore areas, hard shale, or tar sands—from which, by nature, oil is expensive to produce—without high oil prices. (West Texas Intermediate, or WTI, oil averaged $31 per barrel in 2003, which, even in real terms, is only about 2/5 of today’s prices.) Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate that the break-even point for Bakken (North Dakota) crude oil is about $70 per barrel and that even a price of $85 per barrel could squeeze out many of the unconventional producers. What does all this mean for prices? Well, keep in mind that oil is a global commodity. So the roughly two million barrels of oil per day that have entered the market from the U.S. fracking boom represent a big shift domestically but only just over 2 percent of global oil consumption.”

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.