Monthly Archives: February 2015

NY City Growers: Getting Kids to Think and Grow Outside the Box

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.20.58 AM A couple of wonderful organizations in New York City–Brooklyn Grange and City Growers–work with thousands of kids to participate in urban farm projects.

Edible Brooklyn
had a piece piece on “Brooklyn Grange’s City Growers Program Challenges Kids to Think Outside the Box”–not just for food, but in making various life decisions. Here’s a clip:

“Thanks to Grange co-founder Gwen Schantz, now the farm’s COO, who has a background in nonprofit work and development, the Grange secured a grant through the Greening Western Queens Fund. “Enter Cara Chard,” said Cole Plakias, “and here we are four years later, and City Growers has hosted over 10,000 New York City youths on the farm.”

City Growers is the name of the Grange’s nonprofit cohort, its educational program that turns both farms into a “learning laboratory,” said Cara Chard, who is at the organization’s helm. Chard was a school teacher in New York City before delving into urban agriculture, “and [food education] was definitely not happening when I was there [in the schools]… I’m just excited that even teachers are taking steps to include agriculture and urban farms in the classroom. I think it means good things for the food movement, and it’ll help these kids have a better sense of not only environmental education but food education.”

With its two full-time employees leading the charge, City Growers tackles the project of showing New York City students of all ages what farming is, how it works and why it should matter to them. “We give students the opportunity to have experiential, hands-on learning in the garden to reinforce what they’re learning in school — biology, ecology, food systems, nutrition education — and get to encourage them to explore the intersection between ecology and health. What’s good for our environment is also good for our bodies,” said Chard. “We’re trying to get kids to come to their own conclusions, and giving them the opportunity to engage on the farm.”

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign last fall, City Growers has grown from two to five programs, each geared toward introducing New York City children to urban agriculture and the relationship between farm and fork: Farm Explorer, a basic introduction to farming; Insect Investigator, which educates participants on farm bugs both beneficial and pesky; Honeybee Education, which allows students to peer inside one of the farm’s active beehives; Rainbow on Your Plate, a farm-to-table education program; and Growing Urban Farmers, a sort of urban farming boot camp.

Chard, a self-proclaimed “bee nerd” and experienced beekeeper, is most excited about Honeybee Education. “We’ll have an observation hive,” she explained of the class. “How that works is that there’s essentially a glass structure that is built to hold multiple frames of live bees. You go into regular hives and pull out frames of bees and place them in the observation hive… In the observation hive, you can watch baby bees being born, which is really cool. It’s cool to share with these little kids.”

Both she and Cole Plakias emphasized the importance of exposing the visiting children to the bees, as well as to other insects on the farm. Awareness, and combatting a fear of bees and other insects, is crucial not only to supporting bees and other communities of beneficial insects, but also to illustrating a necessary and often unseen part of the food production process.

Cole Plakias, who grew up in New York City, remembers being terrified of bees as a kid. “I was really quite scared of bees, thought worms were disgusting and soil was dirty. We can challenge these preconceived notions that New York City kids hold,” she said. “The only insect interactions they have are with bothersome insects in their apartments, like cockroaches. So seeing them interact with the insect world in a positive way is really great — just being in nature in general.”

Cole Plakias also recalled a visiting student in pre-City Growers days who, when asked by Cole Plakias if he was studying the environment in school, said yes before telling a startled Cole Plakias, “That has nothing to do with us. That’s out there in the country with trees and stuff.”

“Their whole lives are sort of in boxes,” said Cole Plakias, “the apartment, the elevator, and lobby, the subway. Over half the youth in the world might have this life where they’re devoid of experience in the natural world. But it’s really important that we stress this experience with the environment. If we can get kids thinking about how urban and natural environments interact and how the effects of that relationship present themselves, maybe we can get them to effect the necessary changes.”

City Growers encourages its visiting students to think outside of those boxes; there’s as much learning as unlearning to be done when the children visit the farms and are challenged to think about the natural world differently. “There are all kinds of little victories,” said Chard, “like realizing that a kid might be a future leader in the food or environmental movement, or there are the victories of getting a kid to put her professionally manicured hands in the soil and realize that it’s life-giving instead of something to avoid.”

And this is what’s at the heart of City Growers’ lessons: “It’s instilling a sense of wonder for nature, for where our food comes from,” said Chard, who feels that this is the most rewarding work she could have dreamed up, and who has seen bug-shy third graders’ delight at worm balls (exactly what it sounds like: a writhing, baseball-sized cluster of earthworms) and surly high schoolers become starry-eyed while working on the farm. “Farm education kind of naturally instills a sense of wonder, but that we’re on the Brooklyn Grange, and there are these absolutely gorgeous rooftop farms with a beautiful skyline — it definitely facilitates that. All kids are naturally curious, and awakening that and celebrating that are our main objectives. We have a lot of problems with our food system, so we want these kids to think of themselves as future problem solvers of these issues.”

Farm to School Factoids

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 3.24.50 PM Nebraska has launched an ambitious farm to school program. According the NSAC blog, Nebraska is “a state where one in three children are overweight, grant-funded school gardens and farm field trips have introduced healthy eating habits and hands-on agricultural experiences to kids in more than a dozen schools across the state. Participation in farm to school activities has been proven to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. Nebraska currently spends more than $3 million of its school food budget locally.”

As part of their marketing outreach, Nebraska created these farm to school factoid images (see below). What would similar factoids look like for Iowa City?

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Wyoming could be the site of an innovative vertical farming concept

2854412619_d03f328457_mUrban farming has been a major topic of discussion for us this semester. Places like New York and Los Angeles often come to mind when thinking about urban areas, however the next big breakthrough in urban farming may come from one of the last places most would expect: Wyoming.

According to its website, “Vertical Harvest will be a Wyoming based agri-business that will enhance the local economy by operating year round to sell, for profit, fresh, locally grown produce to the community through multiple venues at a competitive, consistent price.” The company looks to construct a three-story, 13,500 square-foot hydroponic greenhouse in the Western Wyoming town of Jackson.

Here’s an exert from a recent article in

In a year, the greenhouse should be able to crank out over 37,000 pounds of greens, 4,400 pounds of herbs, and 44,000 pounds of tomatoes [Note: this sentence originally listed all these measurements as tons, which is too many tomatoes. We regret the error]. The yields are high compared to traditional farming, because of the efficiencies of the farm’s hydroponic system. But it still will be only a fraction of the produce needed for the town, which has fewer than 10,000 residents but many more tourists.

“The demand is far greater than what we’ll be able to supply,” says McBride. The farm has already pre-sold its future crops to local restaurants, grocery stores, and a hospital. It’s a reminder of the fact that vertical farming, despite some advantages, would be a challenging way to try to feed many people in a larger city.

But on a small scale, it’s a way to add both local food and jobs. McBride and Yehia hope it will serve as a model for other communities, and may eventually expand themselves. It’s a business model that they’re convinced will work.

“It’s a feel-good story, which is why so many people were partnering with us from the beginning,” says Yehia. The team plans to open the farm early next year and will harvest the first crops a few months later.

What is Happening to Our Oceans?

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 2.53.54 PMI recently read an article by , and the simple graphics they used were shocking and extremely effective. Simple GIFs illustrate facts such as:

“Between 1950 and 2014, half of the coral reefs across the oceans died.”

Between 1950 and 2014, Pacific Bluefin Tuna, sharks, and North Atlantic Cod were all almost fished to extinction. Between 5% and 10% remain.”

Ocean deadzones are spots in the sea where life no longer exists. They occur when massive fertilizer runoff (or other ocean crises) set in motion an oxygen-depriving chain of events leading to the death in one spot of fish, crabs and other sea creatures. In 1975, there was one documented deadzone. In 2014, there were 500+.”

and, “Oil drilling in the Gulf Coast didn’t start and stop with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. But the practice is younger than you might think. In 1947, there was just one oil drilling site. In 2014, there were more than 30,000″

I think adding a simple visual adds so much power to these messages. It’s interesting to think about what similar GIFs could be made in relation to food, farming, and agriculture as they relate to droughts and floods.

For more information on the state of our oceans, check out “Scientist Sylvia Earle (TED Talk: My wish: Protect our oceans)”


Teens Sue Government for Failing to Address Climate Change for Future Generations

Interesting story in EcoWatch on the Children’s Climate Crusade, which is taking their case against climate inaction to the courts.

Here’s a clip:

“What exactly are these young people asking for? “Every suit and every administrative petition filed in every state in the country and against the federal government asks for the same relief,” Wood says. “And that is for the government … to bring down carbon emissions in compliance with what scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

The young plaintiffs simply want the courts to require “the legislatures and the agencies to do their job in figuring out how to lower carbon emissions,” says Wood. Do these litigants have any legal grounds to stand on, though?

Turns out, yes. “You find it in case law going back to the beginning years of this country,” says Wood. “The U.S. Supreme Court has announced the Public Trust Doctrine in multiple cases over the years and it’s in every state jurisprudence as well.”

The Public Trust Doctrine says “the government is a trustee of the resources that support our public welfare and survival,” according to Woods. The doctrine “requires our government to protect and maintain survival resources for future generations.” Relying on this long-standing legal principle, young plaintiffs have cases at the state and federal level.

At the federal level, five teenagers, and two non-profit organizations—Kids vs. Global Warming and WildEarth Guardians—partnered with Our Children’s Trust to file a federal lawsuit. Their petition for their case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court was denied in December, but the plaintiffs vow “to advance their climate claims in lower federal courts until the federal government is ordered to take immediate action on human-made climate change.”

Study: Growing trees, soil carbon sequestration can reduce impact of climate change

3020089052_f3722b8135_m A recent study by researchers at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford University in England has found that growing trees is one of the most effective ways to absorb carbon emissions.

The researchers examined Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) as ways of removing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which can “reduce the impacts of ocean acidification and anthropogenic climate change,” according to the report. In addition to trees, the researchers also examined other ways of lessening emissions including geo-engineering, soil carbon sequestration, and utilizing biochar (the byproduct of using low temperatures to burn food waste) as a soil additive. Using current trends and research, the scientists projected impacts between now and the year 2100.

The study’s authors concluded: “Nevertheless, it makes sense to continue investing in the development of ‘low probability, high impact’ post-2050 options in the hope that viable, large-scale NETs might be available in the unfortunate (but increasingly likely) event that they are required. The nature of these investments will vary by technology, but one thing is certain – without viable CCS large-scale post-2050 NETs will not be available.”

Here’s an article from The Fifth Estate:

Growing more trees is one of the most efficient ways to absorb carbon emissions, researchers at Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and Environment have found.

The researchers compared the potentials of a range of emissions abatement approaches including geo-engineering, carbon capture and storage, adding lime to the world’s oceans, reforestation and afforestation, soil carbon improvements and the use of biochar – created from burning wood waste at low temperatures – as a soil additive.

Afforestation, biochar and soil carbon proved to be the most workable and achievable methods. They are termed “no regrets NETs [negative emissions technologies]” by the research team, as they have low upfront capital costs, co-benefits such as enhanced soil fertility, no dependence on experimental technology, offer economic and environmental co-benefits and have fewer uncertainties than the other options canvassed.

The working paper stated they were the “most promising” NETs that could be implemented between now and 2050, as all other approaches were either in experimental or theoretical stage, extremely expensive or logistically unworkable if abatement is to be achieved within a timeframe that can limit global warming to two degree centigrade.

The research was undertaken as part of the institution’s stranded carbon assets research program.

Story Group: Iowa Farm Faces Extreme Climate

An Iowa farmer faces weather extremes from The Story Group on Vimeo.

Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser doesn’t need a federal report to tell him the climate is changing. Climate changes already affect how, when, and what he plants, works his fields, buys machinery, and plans for the future. More extreme weather, including more very heavy precipitation events, have pushed Gaesser to adapt in creative ways. “You wonder how you’re going to take care of the crop the way it should be taken care of,” says Gaesser.

Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past 40 years and are projected to increase over the next 25 years, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment. To learn more about climate change impacts on agriculture and the Midwest, go to

Compass Green

justin One of my dearest friends has an amazing brother (Justin Cutter) who decided to jump start a project (similar to what we have been wanting to do) with an intent on reaching elementary and middle school kids to inform them on sustainability. Justin built a mobile garden in which he can take to students all over to lecture and teach about the importance of soil. I hope that this encourages us in our personal projects! Check out his website.

Here’s a clip of a recent interview:

“Cutter just completed Compass Green’s fall tour through Oregon and Washington, where the organization spread its message of sustainability to over 5,000 students.

Cutter and his work were recently featured on Disney Channel’s Pass the Plate series, and we spoke with him to learn more about Compass Green and learn some handy tips on growing your own food at home!

SH: What is the message and inspiration behind your project?

Cutter: The message behind Compass Green is quite simple: Our choices around what food we eat are affecting our body and our planet. Currently conventional farming is destroying the planet we call home, but we can easily make a huge difference for our health and the health of our world by sustainably growing more food ourselves and by supporting our local sustainable farmers.

I am inspired by the great amount of power that we, who eat 3 meals a day, 365 days a year, have for positive change.”

Rooted in Soil: Art Exhibit at DPAM in Chicago

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.29.10 PM Check out the “Rooted in Soil” art exhibit at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago. According to the museum: “Soil is omnipresent: a life-sustaining but overlooked medium whose cycle of decomposition and regeneration forms the very basis of life itself. Yet human activities such as large-scale farming and deforestation are compromising the health of soil on a global scale. This exhibition will bring together works by contemporary artists that explore multiple aspects of soil, documenting natural processes and human interventions, and proposing radically innovative solutions that combine leading-edge scientific approaches and fresh artistic and philosophical perspectives.”

Curators’ Laura Fatemi and Farrah Fatemi did this interview on WBEZ: