Monday, February 19, 2018

Building a Local Food Movement

Experimental prototype of my garden. Imagine the productivity
of the upper part with the lower part being more architecturally
pleasing. It could be built in stonework, brick, wood, gabions,
etc. It also works well with water features.
I have heard a lot of talk over the last several years about the need to completely overhaul our food system. In particular, the current model of industrial food, produced unsustainably and unhealthily, then shipped long distances to the final customer with no real transparency in how the food was produced is a fatally flawed system. We need a new model of local, regeneratively produced organic food made from a distributed system. There is great interest in changing to that model. In fact, I saw a TEDx talk by Kimbal Musk saying that solving this very problem could be the next boom, possibly even equivalent to the internet boom of the 1990s. The question is, what would that look like? How do you beat an entrenched system with trillions of dollars behind it. Perhaps more importantly, how do you get there? There is considerable infrastructure that would be needed to make that happen.

The first thing to pay attention to is supply and demand. Right now the demand is higher than ever. Awareness of the flaws in the current system is high and people want a solution. They want a solution that helps their health, the health of their children, and the health of the planet. The tricky part is how to deliver the supply. Right now the producers are just not there, or are few enough that they don’t really stand out in the market and aren’t finding their customers. There are so many more producers needed, though. Where are we going to get them? And how are we going to encourage them to get started? I think that the answer to all this is in a complex of businesses operating in its own form of a circular economy. Each business works within the usual business model of that type of business, but changes its practices somewhat to be a part of the bigger whole. Allow me to explain, but first, let me suggest a piece of technology that will make the whole thing possible.

We are in a golden age of technology. Technological advances are automating processes that could never before be automated. The automation that has happened so far has largely been damaging to the ecosystem as machinery and chemicals are used to replace the functioning of natural systems. Technology needs to be used smarter to replace human labor and support and accelerate natural ecosystem functioning. I have seen strides recently showing that machines are advancing to the point where they can do some of the selective harvesting that could previously only be done by human labor. I have been working on the other side of the equation, though, making a system that automates the care of the plants and accelerates ecosystem processes, making a garden that is low effort but still highly productive. I will talk more about that later when I have filed  the patent. For now let’s just assume that the technology will exist that will allow individual homeowners to make use of their back yards to produce huge amounts of organic, healthy food that has been produced very, very locally. Let’s also assume that this technology is effective enough that a garden only needs to be looked at and maintained once a week or less, something I have already achieved.

As I said before, the creation of a complex of businesses who act as their own circular economy could achieve the creation of local food production in urban areas. The core businesses in this model would be a landscaping business, a mushroom growing business, a professional office (containing at least a civil engineer, a landscape architect, and software engineers, though other professions could fit here as well), and a cafe/coffee shop/market.

The first to the plate is the landscaping business. At the start of the venture, these guys would operate like a regular landscaping business, with one small, but key modification. As they trimmed trees, they would separate the trimmings into a couple of categories and trim to specific sizes. I will get more into that in a minute. As the business grows and we begin to build gardens for people, the landscapers would be the team that builds and maintains those gardens. The landscaping team takes the trimmings that can’t be used elsewhere in the process and makes compost and biochar that could be used elsewhere. They could even seek out other innovative work. For example, here in Arizona, tamarisk trees are highly invasive along waterways. The landscaping team could seek out contracts to harvest this and use the wood as a part of the overall process.

The second business that would be needed would be a professional firm. Landscape architecture would be the first and most important profession needed. Most aquaponic and hydroponic setups that are being built today are pretty industrial looking, being composed of lots of white PVC and wires and other such functional parts. This is fine for hobbyists who tend to prefer this sort of look, but if this venture is going to expand into the back yards of average middle class people, it is going to need to be much more aesthetically pleasing. Also, specific functionality would be needed for the technology to function correctly and that needs to be properly designed. Likewise, engineers might be needed for certain aspects of the design, especially as the systems improve in connectivity. I envision gardens with sensors measuring moisture levels, water levels, pH, Nitrogen levels, and more. These sensors could be connected up via Arduino or Raspberry Pi controllers and not only run the system, but also connect to the internet so malfunctions can be detected from afar and corrected quickly. Software engineers would be needed to write and maintain this software and could also create the interface that homeowners would use to plan out their gardens. The software would compile the needs of the various clients and give those numbers to the landscaping team so they could start the required number of plants in the greenhouse, getting them ready to go out at planting time. There are other opportunities here, like using the knowledge gained from experience repairing and building ecosystems to improve or even change wholesale the practices of civil engineering and maybe even architecture.

The third business to the table would be a mushroom growing business. One of the principles that is important for this to work is the understanding that nature is so efficient that other forms of production can be added at various levels. For example, the woody debris collected from the landscaping business could be chipped and composted to make a rich soil. Or it could be used to grow mushrooms, then composted to make a rich soil. The end result is the same, but a new level of production is added in the middle. Growing mushrooms for sale is just the tip of the iceberg, though. A company called Ecovative is making innovative products using mushrooms, like an all-natural substitute for Styrofoam. It is a packing material grown on agricultural waste in any shape that is needed. It isn’t limited to packing material, though. It can be molded into any sort of shape. It could be used to insulate homes. Others are using mushrooms for other materials, like leather. A mushroom grower could also produce mushroom spawn for farmers so they could use mushrooms to process their own waste back into soil and give themselves an additional income. Even the garden system could benefit. A plug-and-play system could be developed and marketed to the DIY crowd to build in their own back yard. These could be packaged in an Ecovative-inspired packing material. With the addition of a couple of key additives, the packing material could be broken up and used as a major component of the starter soil for the new system.

The fourth business for this to work would be a combination café and market. As more and more homes buy into the system, there will be more locally available produce. With the team of landscapers helping, excess produce that the homeowner doesn't need could be sold as local, organic produce. A whole market could develop around the gathering and delivery of produce to the local market. As people see the advantage of using this to offset costs of production and even make a modest second income, they are incentivised to put more land into production and encourage friends to participate. As demand is better understood, homes could look up market conditions when planning out their gardens. Items that are more in demand could be grown in greater quantity. Urban gleaning could even take hold, with local harvesters collecting wild foods from public lands and selling them to the market. The café would act as a gathering place and hangout for customers and those interested in the movement. As more native foods are grown, the café could use them in its dishes to develop demand and even hold classes to teach people how to cook with them. The menu could change daily based on what is available and seasonal. With a couple of classrooms added on the perimeter, the space could be used for open classes and community space. The architecture could be integrated with living systems and the diners and customers could be surrounded by greenery. Mycobacterium vaccae could be integrated into the soil and the air could be filtered through the soil. This could give cleaner air and help give customers and employees a sense of peace, making it a nice place to hang out. Coffee grounds from the coffee shop portion of the café could be delivered back to the mushroom growing portion for further use and food waste could go back to the landscapers for composting. The mushroom growing business could provide mushroom kits for sale in the market so people could grow their own at home.

While those business form the core of this complex, there is plenty of room for other enterprises to fit in. For example, if the building had a garden on the roof, it could be an ideal place for a combined elderly/child daycare facility. The interaction between the age groups would be good for both and the interaction with gardens would also help the growth of the children and the mental health of the seniors. An artisan space would be welcome. Pottery could be made to create refillable mushroom kits. The list goes on and is only limited by the imagination and drive of those involved.

The only thing stopping this getting started right now is partners and funding. There is SO much work to be done to make this happen, but I believe that the market is ripe for this right now. I just need to find the right people to make this happen. Anyone know how to get in touch with Kimbal Musk? I think an idea like this might be just what he is looking for.