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Bootstrapped Urban Neighborhood SIP Veggie Farm

Create an instant neighborhood farm on a vacant lot with DIY Sub-Irrigated Planters (SIPs) to enable sustainable, highly productive organic gardening.

Photo of Avi Solomon
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In an unstable world, efficiently growing food locally provides a true oasis of security.

Sub-Irrigated Planters (SIPs) are the most efficient and foolproof way to grow tons of food anywhere with a little sunshine. Even preschoolers (with a little help!) can make and plant their own SIP using two 5-gallon food-grade buckets or larger plastic containers. The SIPs remain free of weeds and minimize maintenance, needing watering only once every 3 days. The SIPs are highly scalable and can be easily set up on and moved from rooftops or vacant lots while obviating the risks from contaminated urban soils. Vacant urban lots can be utilized (with municipal permission) to setup instant SIP farms.

Making a SIP farm then planting, growing, harvesting and selling their own vegetables will boost any local community's sense of accomplishment tremendously. Everyone is very likely to eat the veggies they grew themselves (they're tastier!), providing good health as a "side-effect". Each community can organize a local farmer's market or farm store to sell the produce, recruit volunteers and solicit donations.

What resources (money, time, people, technology, etc) will your concept need to be successful?

Local Volunteers (these could also be school kids or ex-prisoners), Vacant Urban Lot, Food-grade 5 gallon buckets donated by local restaurants. Proceeds from selling the farm produce can be reinvested in the farm.

What steps could you take to implement this idea today?

Demo the SIP farm on any vacant urban lot.

How can your idea be scaled so that it's implemented in cities around the world?

5-gallon buckets are available globally and are inherently scalable to fit any vacant space. SIP farm gardeners with a growing season under their belt "qualify" for helping other neighborhoods start their own SIP farm.

My Virtual Team

Ciara Byrne, Sonia Lee, Peter Marshall, Katie Cangemi, Holly Battelle, Carla, Mike McDearmon, Bernise Ang, Campbell Frey, Kate Gillette, Johan Löfström, Stefanie Plant.
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Attachments (3)

earthtainer-construction-guide.pdf

EarthTainer SIP Construction Guide

inntainer-construction-guide.pdf

InnTainer Construction Guide

newark-greenhouse-capstone-project.pdf

Newark Community Greenhouse Project Report

40 comments

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Photo of Valeria

Hey very nice blog, all the stuff that you provided here is really very helpful. This is great & very innovative idea for SIP. Thanks for sharing this.

Photo of Tejas

This is a very good idea that is easy to setup and implement in neighborhood or community. An urban farm can be a vast source of vibrancy and introduce many benefits....

What if this could evolve into a community enterprise that could grow into supplying school cafeterias and restaurants? Please take a look at my concept and let me know what you think:
http://www.openideo.com/open/vibrant-cities/concepting/urban-farming-enterprise/

Photo of Avi

Nicely developed concept Tejas! Also look in my diagram under Weekly Farmer's Market. Hospital cafeterias could be another outlet for the produce.

Photo of Stefanie

Great idea Avi, and actually adds a technical component to a concept I've been working up related to urban farming but highly linked to education. Please check it out and let me know what you think: http://www.openideo.com/open/vibrant-cities/concepting/urban-youth-farming-2013-teaching-kids-nutrition-job-skills-and-community-involvement-while-returning-pavement-to-nature/. Your SIP idea could be the key to transitioning damaged urban land into viable urban farms, at very least until more large-scale infrastructure rebuilding could turn vacant lot land into healthy top-soiled fields. I also like the idea of being able to transport the farm planters if land ownership came into question.

Photo of Avi

Thanks Stefanie! The essence of guerrilla warfare is mobility:)

Photo of Johan

great to see this once again. Big plus for being easy to transport. So if the lot becomes bought by someone, so you need to relocate, it will be extremely easy to do so with this concept!!! Just choose another empty, unused lot, rent a truck and move the whole farm in a day!

Photo of Avi

Flash Garden:)

Photo of katie

I love this idea. Food deserts are a major problem in under-resourced communities. A mobile, fresh market taking space in a open lot would bring healthy, locally grown produce to areas where people do not have easy access to fresh foods. It could also be recognized as a safe zone in the neighborhood, with community residents "taking back" dilapidated areas. A couple suggestions:
- enable farmers to accept food subsidies (i.e. food stamps)
- invite local CBOs to set up tables to inform families/individuals of local social support services (i.e job readiness, child care, etc); mobile health vans could also be onsite providing health screenings, immunizations, etc.

Photo of Avi

Thanks Katie, these are very good suggestions. I'm adding you to the virtual team for this concept.

Photo of katie

Thank you! There was a comment about how education would be incorporated to this project. One idea could be that neighborhood schools could put tasty, healthy recipes (low cost to make) in students' backpacks that match the produce currently grown in the neighborhood farm. The recipes could be traditional/cultural favorites of the people who live in the community or inspire cooking traditions of other cultures. Either way, they should be healthy & guaranteed to please!

Photo of Avi

Here's how one schooteacher in Florida is doing it:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALwgcDerOGg

Photo of Bernise

Love this idea and how it's developing, Avi and Katie! I couldn't help but think of this concept I was inspired about sometime back - it involves adding a restaurant/community kitchen component: http://staging.openideo.net/open/localfood/concepting/picnic-restaurant-meets-tedtalks

I wonder if this could help close the loop from food production to consumption, using education and building community in the process ;)

Photo of Avi

Thanks Bernise! You should repost your concept adapted for the current challenge. It would go well with TEDx in a Box:
http://ideo.org/projects/tedx-in-a-box/completed

Photo of Kate

To build on Katie's and Avi's idea...when the community center I worked for in Dallas was considering a community garden, one of the most shocking statistics to me was that it costs around $1.75 for 1,000 calories of unhealthy food versus a whopping $18.00 for 1,000 calories of nutritious food. That is unbelievable and yet the reality, which makes it incredibly difficult for those struggling to put food on the table to find a way to create a healthy meal. How do we address that? A "pull demand" from families/children can be helpful. Community gardens and education around them are an amazing first step. Enabling children/community to actually see the food growing, pick it and then prepare it is a key aspect. Parents would come to the community center telling us their children were asking for healthy snacks, new fruits and veggies, etc. It really does work! But enabling education around the purpose of the garden is a crucial component. Keep up the great work Avi and the Veggie Farm team!!

Photo of Meena

Valuable personal insights, Kate!

Photo of katie

Thanks Bernise for linking back to the community restaurant/kitchen concept. I think you're completely right that by creating an experiential connection with the garden and food would help close that theoretical and consumption loop. There is a social enterprise organization in Chicago call Inspiration Cafe (http://www.inspirationkitchens.org) that helps homeless men and women gain skills and experience in the food industry. I think the concept you were working on this spring would be an excellent modification of the cafes in Chicago. Having the garden and restaurant co-located at the same space would help people experience all of these elements of food at one time (maybe even learn new skills to help become job-ready). Your idea about beauty services is a great one! I'm almost envisioning a community health spa/learning center where someone could garden, eat a healthy meal in the restaurant, and learn how to make an all natural foot rub all at the same place!

Photo of Avi

Thanks Kate! I'm adding you to the virtual team for this concept:)

Photo of katie

Kate, I completely agree with you. The cost of nutritious food as compared to unhealthy or fast food is unconscionable. It has long nagged at me that being able to afford Whole Foods (or similar) is a privilege not afforded to all. There is something very unjust about that. I bet there would be quite the demand if Whole Foods had a mobile van that traveled food desert communities and that accepted food subsidies. How amazing it would be if all families could choose organic milk at a fair price if they wanted it?

Photo of katie

Avi, thanks for sharing the link to the teacher in FL. I think her addition of a near-peer mentoring component is excellent. As I was watching, I was thinking that in addition to the obvious benefits to the science class, there could also be tangible exercises for other classes: math (determining how many crops to plant each season, supply & demand), home ec (how to cook nutritious meals).

Photo of Avi

Katie, here are some ways to integrate the SIP making and veggie growing process into the school curriculum:
-Learn Economics (calculate ROI, selling produce at the farmer's market, saving money by not buying vegetables at the supermarket)
-Learn Biology (photosynthesis, nutrition basics)
-Learn Physics (adhesion and cohesion of water molecules)

Here's a sample lesson plan from the Earthbox school curriculum:
http://earthbox.com/pdf/education/standards-elementary-sample-lesson-plan.pdf

The scope of the learning is only limited by the teacher's imagination!

Photo of Holly

Kate, the cost to calorie statistics are really interesting. Thank you for sharing them! This provides important, concrete information in favor of producing more fresh vegetables and fruits!

Photo of Holly

I really like this idea! I think this is a great way to get a community involved in a project together that promotes sustainability and healthy eating.

In addition to holding a farmers market, the community could also have local non-farmers agree to purchase a weekly basket of veggies. This concept of community supported agriculture is popular around the Washington DC area where people want to purchase local fresh vegetables but do not always have the time to grow them themselves or go to a farmers market. Moreover, by charging a delivery fee, the community garden can employ teenagers, students or other members of the the community garden to be deliverymen. This would allow residents who do not have time to help farm the community garden to support the project and enable people to easily purchase fresh local vegetables.

Photo of Avi

Holly, CSAs are great for extending the reach and impact of local farms. I'm adding you to the virtual team for this concept.

Photo of katie

Holly, you have a great idea about resident delivery people! Teens would be excellent for this (i.e. modern paper route). This would be especially helpful to people with disabilities, seniors, or anyone with mobility challenges. To build a little off your idea, we could think of this as a living green/living socially where the importance of all of these elements is communicated and shared. For ex, teen delivery people not only gain work/volunteer experience but they also learn the value of helping community members and the importance of fresh foods. Perhaps even a bike co-op could be added to encourage the use of environmentally friendly transportation.

Photo of Holly

Maybe the delivery trucks could double as a mobile farmers market. On days when there is not a formal farmers market set up, the mobile truck could make a few stops around the city and use twitter to tweet where they will be throughout the day. This could help in ensuring that fresh veggies will get to neighborhoods that lack good access to high quality, fresh food.

Photo of An Old

I think this is a great concept and the ease of being flexible makes it all the more plausible. In your resources you mention ex-prisoners, but couldn't this also be a great opportunity for current prisons to truly rehabilitate as well? Surely there would have to be an appropriate profile for current prisoners, but it has the real potential to help them build the toolkit they will need once released such as provide food, social skills, and work ethic. I imagine it could have an incredible impact on recidivism!

Another option might also be to team them with troubled youth programs as a preventative measure for future generations. There are some really strong concepts involving the interaction between the young and the old and I see the potential for that connection between troubled youth and adults. Crime is often a big factor in cities facing economic decline and what better way to revitalize the city than by rehabilitating its people and not strictly punishing them. If it worked, it would also have the benefit of reducing the cost of the prison system and freeing up some resources.

Like I said, lots of potential! Thanks for sharing.

Photo of Avi

Nice ideas Campbell! Your comments reminded me of Cathrine Sneed's Garden Project in San Francisco which pioneered the rehabilitation of prisoners via gardening:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oH-jbBLARE

Photo of Mike

Avi, this is an awesome concept and I like how you present clear paths to implementation! I wanted to share a project with you that you might dig, especially because it demonstrates how an urban garden can galvanize a community in addition to providing lots of great food - and also that you don't even need a vacant lot to do it!

The project is called Growhouse in downtown Phoenix's arts district and utilizes almost all of the available space in the yard surrounding a historic home. Not only does it produce loads of fresh vegetables, it's become a favorite hangout during monthly art walks. They also have a sweet outdoor brick oven and host pizza parties on Friday nights.

The best part to me is the DIY nature of the project and the idea that if you can't get things to work out on a vacant lot you can use your own property if you got it!

More on the Growhouse: http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/bella/2010/04/growing_your_own_in_phoenix.php

Thanks also for sharing all the great DIY downloads!

Photo of Avi

That's awesome Mike! As an apartment dweller I've been able to start a veritable SIP tomato "factory" on my balcony with no need to secure permission from anyone. SIPs also help conserve water as there is almost no runoff (the overflow hole indicates when to stop watering) while the SIP plastic covering prevents evaporation.

Photo of Carla

Ooo..! So many possibilities with this idea! Maybe local schools could each adopt a different lot and compete to raise money for their schools. Or grow food directly for their cafeterias. Or partners with local university students to improve their farming strategies or business model for the market.

Were you thinking of making the farm a source of income for those involved or would all the money go back into the farm? Would those who grow the produce have the option of keeping it for their own kitchens?

Share Our Strength, an American anti-hunger organization, has a program called Cooking Matters that helps low-income families make healthier options in the foods they buy and teach parents and kids how to cook healthy meals. Perhaps they could be a good partner - teach community members to make healthy, tasty meals from what is grown on the farm.
http://cookingmatters.org/where-we-work/how-we-work/

Photo of Sarah

Great idea Avi! Love how easy it is to implement!

Photo of Peter

It would be great to have a network of these local garden centers that had a farmers market of produce grown from vacant lots. Not only would the farmers market atmosphere help sell more produce, it could attract advertisers and other avenues of funding for reinvestment.

Photo of Sonia

This is really creative! Besides producing healthy foods, I think it can really help local volunteers (e.g., young people, formerly incarcerated) to develop marketable and technical skills. Also, do you see adding on a community education component so that those participating can understand the value of urban farming and of changing food habits?

Photo of Avi

Thanks Sonia. I envision the community education as inherent in the gardening process. Once people in the community taste the farm produce they get it! Further information can be provided to those interested at the weekly farmer's market.

Photo of Ciara

I really like this idea. For the next generation (maybe) of urban farming, for which you need more sophisticated equipment but no sunlight so you can grow indoors, see Plantlab. http://venturebeat.com/2011/09/02/indoor-farming-plantlab/

Photo of Avi

The Inntainer is an open-source SIP design for growing indoors:
http://earthtainer.tomatofest.com/

Photo of Jamie

This is an amazing idea that needs more PR! As a rutgers social entrepreneurship student in Newark, I have never heard of this project. Great to learn that quality food is being produced in this community and that collaboration is allowing for youth to reconnect with the earth and where food comes from. This is the starting point for the greater movement for development of communities by fighting obesity while promoting healthy and informed lifestyles! I am very inspired and want to be involved!!

Photo of Avi

Thanks Jamie! You should contact Lorraine Gibbons of Garden State Urban Farms in Orange, NJ http://www.gardenstateurbanfarms.com

Photo of U of M

Wow- you took a fanciful idea from our team and really thought out how this could be quickly implemented and scaled. Very creative- thanks so much for offering this!

Photo of Amanda

Wow, Avi! This is great :) What a wonderful, transportable way to occupy unused spaces. Also, I love the element of getting kids invested in the project!