Grow Up

Urban farms are cramped. It comes with the territory, literally. The philosophy of urban farming is that society should maximize the usage of what’s nearby before we go sprawling off and cutting down remote forests to grow food. We’ve got plenty of space; we just don’t use it because it’s smaller, a little harder to access, and unsightly. The idea that your food comes from the rolling green hills of a family farm is a little more appealing than thinking it comes from some decrepit no-man’s land in the middle of a noisy city. But the reality is that the fruit and veggies that we all buy each week are most likely grown on huge corporate monoculture farms thousands of miles away, watered with scarce potable water, doused with herbicides and pesticides, pollinated by migrant honeybees trucked in seasonally, picked unripened and brought to you on trucks and ships spewing diesel fumes. In fact, sadly, half of the food grown in the world rots before it makes to the dinner table. Even more is thrown out after it spoils at home. So when the alternative to that nastiness is a nice guy, a few miles away, growing fresh, organic food in rich, loamy soil, then the pretty, storybook idea of a farm becomes much less important.

An urban farm is also much more intellectually and creatively interesting, and it can economically make sense, too, since property is cheap, materials can be found for free and fuel and transportation costs are almost eliminated. Eli and his business partner Dave Homa have managed to get maximum productivity out of a minimum amount of space.

The outdoor farm space at UFF is an amazing example of making the most of what you’ve got. Eli and Farmer Dave dug up, stomped down and covered up a jungle of the crazily invasive Japanese knotweed (known around here as bamboo). They landscaped with wood chips and flagstones, mounted pallets to walls to use as trellises, salvaged wood cable spools as tables, made plastic sand boxes into water gardens, and built two poly tarp greenhouses. What little free space they have is stacked with salvaged wood, metal and plastic stuff they might find useful one day. It’s a beautiful, isolated space, surrounded on the three sides by tall and dense stands of knotweed just beyond a chain link fence. This farm, maxed out as it is, had no room for a beehive. Not at ground level, anyway. But the building, a long, low one story structure, has a very nice flat roof. We went up to scope it out.

A couple of problems with roof idea became evident pretty quickly. One was that we’d have to build some sort of stairway, ladder and/or small crane rig to get hive parts up and down. Bringing up empty hive boxes would not be to much of a problem, but getting them down when they are full of honey, weighing 50 pounds or more, would be much more difficult, although not impossible with a little engineering and ingenuity. (In typical creative fashion, Eli has a 20 foot section of iron fire escape he wants to haul across town to the farm to solve that problem.) The second problem was a deal breaker. The condition of the roof was bad. This is an old building and the part we envisioned to hold the hives, an overhang over the original loading dock, was in terrible shape, full of holes and moss. In fact, a roofing job had just begun at the far end of the building and working toward UFF’s section. The roofer (wearing the blue shirt in the pic; Eli’s on the left; the landlord in the foreground) was not thrilled with the idea of pounding nails next to a hive, and Eli and I weren’t thrilled with the prospect of moving a thriving hive to another location in the middle of summer.

Time for Plan B.

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