They aren’t on your typical farm. Dozens of small beds of greens are lined up under tunnels in this “micro farm” on the Ohio State University Mansfield campus, which is built on top of a parking lot.
They’re being trained as part of a project at the school, which recently received a $2 million grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to create a new model for urban agriculture. The project connects and supports dozens of small micro farms so they’re both economically and environmentally sustainable.
The long-term goal is to expand the project to hundreds of micro farms and to bring healthy foods to urban food deserts — neighborhoods where access to grocery stores or fresh foods is lacking — all while researching and tracking the project’s impact on the community, on green space, and on the environment.
Increasing Yield Per Acre
While urban farms have taken off in recent years, it’s difficult to keep them afloat. A study out of NYU found that about two-thirds of urban farmers were failing to make a living, with sales under $10,000 per year.
Project lead and associate professor of environmental history Kip Curtis says the micro farm system is different from a typical urban farm because it maximizes the number of crops produced in a small space — in this case, only one-third of an acre — and takes a whole food system approach to be more profitable.
That involves training, growing the same things in the same way, and marketing and selling all the produce before it’s harvested.
The small, nimble size of the micro farm may also allow the model to complement city living well. Squeezing rows of crops into beds without needing the space between rows for the use of trucks can be 4 to 5 times more productive per acre than field agriculture.
“So it’s sustainable in kind of a systemic way,” Curtis said. “We anticipate being a positive part of the life of the community, and that’s really what sustainable means.”
Micro Farms and the Environment
Agriculture currently contributes 10 to 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change. Fertilizer, for example, produces high levels of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas; cattle produce methane during the digestive process.
Sustainable farming, meanwhile, aims to reduce the negative impact on the environment by incorporating practices like avoiding pesticides or chemicals, conserving ecological resources, and reducing soil degradation.
One of the main goals of the project is to be sustainable and environmentally sound, while still being efficient and profitable. Researchers will also be tracking if the micro farm model could reduce the carbon footprint.
“One, [the micro farms] are organic, so we’re not going to be using excessive amendments, toxic chemicals, none of that stuff will be in the garden so it won’t be washing out into the surrounding environment,” Curtis said.
He added that small, sustainable farms like this one provide food directly to the local community, cutting travel emissions.
“The second is, because these are production sites in the community where the food is being consumed, you’re shrinking your supply chain — which means instead of driving your vegetables from Arizona or California, you’re literally bringing them across the street,” Curtis said. “So you’re reducing your carbon footprint of agriculture as well.”
The 10 participating farmers, or producers, used their most recent gathering to check up on their first test run of crops — radishes and baby lettuce. Once more of their micro farms are up and running, they plan to expand to more participants and a diverse variety of vegetables.
“Over across the way we’ve got some bok choy, swiss chard, basil, tomatoes, carrots, beets, ocra, eggplant,” Curtis said. “You name it, we’ve tried to get some of it in there.”
Researchers will track the finances of the micro farms over the next three years but will also try to measure if they’ve had an impact on the health of the local community.
“It’s exposing people to local food, which we know is a subtle way of going, you know, you should eat better,” Curtis said. “And so, what if we saw diabetes reduction, we saw obesity reduction, we saw some of the health benefits of fresh food production. This is an effort to say, can we apply, and study, and leave something behind.”
Walter Bonham is one of the producers who was born and raised in Mansfield.
“We can try to take better care of ourselves in our own communities, versus needing to depend on other states, or even other countries sometimes to provide all of our produce,” Bonham said. “Doing it locally would help our economy, and help our communities. By having this program and by them pursuing this ambitious goal, it allows other people to attach themselves to this, which makes it easier for the community to make changes.”
This year’s pilot growing season will be a good indicator of the micro farm project’s potential to deliver on its goals.
This story is part of a multi-newsroom collaborative project called Middle America’s Low-Hanging Carbon: The Search for Greenhouse Gas Cuts from the Grid, Agriculture and Transportation. The effort, led by the nonprofit news organization InsideClimate News, includes 14 Midwest newsrooms and aims to give readers local and regional perspectives on climate change.