So what is a local food system and how can it fit within a live-shop-heal paradigm? Like any system, a local food system is a network of component parts with interlocking linkages. The components consist of businesses or activities involved in the production, processing, distribution, marketing, retailing and recycling of produce and other food items within a localized geography. And the linkages relate to the synergies among those various components. It is to be contrasted with the pattern of agricultural production and distribution which has evolved as the dominant system in post-World War II America. A defining aspect of a local food system is the potential for a dramatic reduction in the percentage of retail food prices attributable to transportation, energy and storage costs. As such, there are potential savings that could be passed on to consumers or potential profits to be generated by businesses participating in the supply chain of a local food system.
Businesses and economic activities that are considered as components of a local food system include various forms of urban agricultural enterprises. These are community gardens, rooftop gardens on multifamily dwellings, hydroponic farms at grade or on building rooftops, and greenhouses utilizing aquaponic technology. In addition, farmers’ markets or public markets that serve as retailing outlets for locally-raised produce constitute another potential component. Restaurants and grocery stores that enter into supply agreements with urban farm enterprises serve as additional distribution links to local consumers.
One of the most exciting developments in the evolution of local food systems is the hydroponic farm. As opposed to soil-based recreational endeavors such as community gardens, hydroponic farms are for-profit enterprises operated in greenhouses using a technology in which plants are grown in water. Since they are operated in temperature-controlled structures, they can operate throughout the year. Rooftop hydroponic farms are a variant of the hydroponic format and have been erected atop supermarkets, warehouses and multifamily buildings—ideally new construction designed to accommodate the incremental structural loads and vertical access requirements. As a modern agricultural and quasi-industrial real estate use, the market feasibility of the at-grade or rooftop farm is based on the intrinsic competitive advantage of hydroponic farming within an urban market. This is attributable to the price advantage that urban farms have since as much as 50% of the retail price of produce (such as lettuce) is determined by the costs of transporting and storing vegetables and fruits from distant locations. That logistical advantage—combined with the perceived taste superiority of organically-grown produce delivered fresh and free of pesticides and conventional fertilizers—has become the foundation of the business model of various hydroponic operators.
Aquaponic farms involve the marriage of hydroponics with aquaculture. Not only are vegetables raised, but through a symbiotic and closed-loop system, fish are farmed as well. Fish species such as tilapia, perch, trout, catfish and hybrid striped bass are raised in water tanks for eventual sale in the local market. The accumulated effluent from the fish in the tanks is siphoned off and provided as nutrients for the plants growing in the hydroponic operation. Aquaponic facilities can range in size from an indoor farm operated within a 4,500 sq. ft. space on the south side of Chicago (Green & Gills) to a 365-ft. x 30-ft. outdoor greenhouse operated on ¼ of an acre in Oregon. As such, their footprints can be adapted to hard-to-lease space in older buildings or vacant infill parcels. Aquaponic operations would typically entail a greater level of investment in machinery and equipment than hydroponic facilities. Accordingly, incentives directed towards capital investment in machinery and equipment may prove effective in attracting such operations.
In a future post, I will continue my discussion of the components of a local food system. – Lamont Blackstone