Blog: Urban Barns' Technology Changing Local Landscapes

This blog focuses primarily on sustainable agriculture, trends in food manufacturing and consumption, and how it effects Los Angeles.

Sure, heightened health, food and environmental consciousness over the last few years has increased the availability of organic, local, gluten-free, fair-trade cereal; but it has also had a much greater impact, spurring Green-friendly state and federal laws, and inspiring manufacturers, farmers and producers to define themselves under the guise of sustainability and accountability.

 One such company is Urban Barns. In the middle of January, Urban Barns, a commercial sustainable farm, is holding its first “big press” launch in Langley, British Colombia, just outside of Vancouver. They then intend to introduce 40-50 locations across the United States (including Los Angeles), while simultaneously expanding globally.

 Like many of the reactionary local and/or organic farms that have sprung up over the years-- in an effort to offset what some believe are rampant harmful mainstream farming techniques-- Urban Barns champions a vision of eco-and-health friendly farming sans GMO products. The difference between Urban Barns and your average local farm is that the former operates on a massive scale, in an entirely in-door environment.

“The vision of Urban Barns is to provide an outstanding, chemical-free product, a vegetable that's not grown with herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides to consumers at a reasonable price in our local areas.” Said Richard Groome, President and Director of Strategic Marketing at Urban Barns, “The idea is to grow locally, within a certain circumference of all major metropolitan areas around the world.”

Over the last two years, Urban Barns has been developing a farming technique called Cubic Farming to, among other things, help improve harvesting efficiency and reduce food waste, said Groome.

As the name suggests, Cubic Farming capitalizes on cubic space, utilizing horizontal space as well as vertical space, thereby more than tripling product output compared to traditional farming. All crops are enclosed in machines 8 feet high by 20 feet long by 8 feet wide, which can be stacked three high and are housed entirely indoors. The sun plays no role in the process; the crops are grown exclusively with LED lights.

 “The easiest way to explain it is we've introduced Henry Ford's assembly line manufacturing processes in the automobile industry that was introduced in the 20s and 30s to farming for the first time in the history of farming,” Groome said. “So instead of the people going out in the field and harvesting the products, the people stay put and machines are on a conveyor belt and they move to the people and the people help harvest the products.”

 Once the produce is harvested, goods are delivered to stores within 24 hours.

 By setting up “Cubic Farms” close to large cities, Urban Barns plans to reduce energy expenditures by eliminating the need for long haul drives from the farm to the store. This, Groome said, will also ensure fresher produce upon arrival due to reduced spoilage during transport.

 Urban Barns is currently only growing “leafy green stuff”, including Boston Butter Lettuce, Oregano, Spring Mix, Thyme and Basil. This is “Phase One”. “Phase Two” offerings will include various varieties of tomatoes and fruits. Urban Barns has announced a research collaboration deal with McGill University school of agriculture, which will involve researching growing viability for other fruits and berries, said Groome.

 It will be interesting to see what kind of debate, if any, the launching of Urban Barns will create-- as in, whether or not small local farms will reject the notion of a monolithic, sustainable farm. After all, if the technology is good, and communities benefit-- particularly communities without the resources to locally grow certain crops without a controlled environment (imagine the middle east attempting to raise tropical crops)-- certain regions might benefit enormously from the advent of Cubic Farming. That would radically alter the ability of climate-challenged communities to have access to local, pesticide-free produce. If the process reduces the amount of water needed per crop compared to standard farming, as the website claims, than protesting such a company would seem rather antithetical to the tenets of ethical farming and green ideals.

 According to Groome, Urban Barns encourages all local farms that exercise progressive farming techniques, and refrain from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and GMO products. Groome could not anticipate what the reaction of smaller farms to Urban Barns would be, but he insisted that the important issue at hand was having a positive impact on the planet.

 How do you define commercial sustainability when half of the produce is lost and no one's talking about it?,” Groome said, “So I could argue that we're 200% more sustainable that an average farm because half of the stuff from an average farm doesn't get to a supermarket and doesn't get your shelves, right? It's a very complex issue, and I think we as a species have to figure out better ways to grow things for consumption, rather than destroying our planet and rather than lacing ourselves up with chemicals...”

Urban Barns is poised to hit Los Angeles soon, and I can't wait to see its effect on the local scene here!









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