Sustainable Ag Startup Sees Aeroponic Technology as Key to Re-integrating Agriculture into Urban Environs
February 14, 2012 | Danny Jensen
Eating locally within a hundred mile radius is certainly an impressive feat. But imagine the convenience of picking fresh produce from a farm that’s only a hundred feet away, or even ten, while still living in a crowded city.
The Waters Wheel, a Los Angeles-based company, aims to do just that by bringing the farm to your doorstep or rooftop by using aeroponic tower farms – recirculating systems that use clean recycled water in place of soil to grow food. The Waters Wheel is one of a few design-build installers of these unique aeroponic systems developed by Future Growing, LLC, an urban farming technology development company.
Aeroponic farming, in case you didn’t know, is the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil or an aggregate medium. Aeroponic growing systems, which leverage carbon dioxide from the air, nutrient infused water in the form of mist delivered to plant roots, and a light source either artificial (fluorescent, LED, etc.) or from the sun to enable plant growth can be located indoors inside of a building or even an airport, underground, and stacked on top of one another.
Bringing Sustainable Farming Technology into Urban Communities
Inspired by the cyclical transformation of water on earth from liquid to solid to crystal and gas, Quezada envisioned a wheel of water as the perfect metaphor for our endangered ecosystem, and ultimately a threatened water system. To achieve this vision, The Waters Wheel seeks to use aeroponic tower farms and other sustainable technologies to re-integrate agriculture into urban areas to increase access to fresh, nutritious, and sustainable produce, while at the same time conserving energy, water and space by utilizing rooftops and vacant lots.
Working in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors, the company is helping to bring sustainable agriculture to urban communities across the country, including New Orleans, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
According to founder Rafael Quezada, The Waters Wheelis “enabling gardening in apartments and condominiums that have no soil, using systems that don’t require digging and tilling, weeding and pest control, that use 1/20th of the water needed to farm agronomically; that are light enough (without soil) to be placed on virtually any surface, that yield enough organic food on a weekly basis to help disintegrate the monolithic, centralized agriculture industries in distant places; systems that, if greenhousing is needed to house them, can be sheltered without massive structures and built affordably.”
One of The Waters Wheel’s latest efforts related to its for-profit social enterprise program, is the development of a twenty tower aeroponic farm at Hollygrove Market and Farm, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Collaborating with Aquaponic Modular Production Systems (AMPS), the company is introducing the first recirculating farm to the city.
Doug Jacobs, an AMPS team member responsible for construction of the tower farm and its maintenance, explains that “with design and technical support from The Waters Wheel we were able to get approval from the executive committee at Hollygrove Market and Farm to host the tower farm and we were able to complete the installation last week. The tower farm will allow us to grow 40 pounds of salad greens a week on 200 square feet. This is four times the amount that can be grown in soil.”
According to Jacobs, the pollution and limited growing space in New Orleans as well as soil contaminated with lead, heavy metals and other pollutants, forces local farmers to rely heavily on soil that is brought in from outside of the city. By eliminating the need for soil and the constant care required to maintain it, he believes The Waters Wheel tower farm will enable local farmers to grow more with less space, water, nutrient and energy consumption.
Bill Pastellak, community coordinator for Hollygrove Market and Farm, notes the benefits of The Waters Wheel project: “The tower farm will be an integral part of the market and farm. The main crop they plan on growing will be salad greens and leafy herbs such as basil. These produce items are highly perishable and don’t travel well, so having the ability to grow them on-site and harvest on-site greatly increases the quality of salad greens we can offer to our customers. The tower farm will also play a role in our site tours, demonstrating to visitors alternative, highly productive methods of growing vegetables in an urban setting.”
The Waters Wheel has also partnered with Hosco Foods International in St. Louis, Missouri, to help bring locally grown, sustainable produce to mid-western food deserts. Additionally, the company works with Gibran Jones-Burchett and Family to develop roof farms for various St. Louis pre-schools, grammar, middle, and high schools.
As part of the company’s non-profit efforts, The Waters Wheel is collaborating with the launch of an Urban Renewal with Nature Program at Westchester Magnet High School in Los Angeles, as well as an ongoing project with Farming the Future, also in the Los Angles Unified School District. (Additional information on current projects can be found here: http://www.waterswheel.org/).
As urban populations continue to grow, Quezada sees an opportunity for The Waters Wheel to help increase local access to fresh, nutritious food, while simultaneously improving the urban landscape. “We have a lot of interest from owners of buildings in the high-rise districts of the downtown cities where we’re working,” he said. “These buildings have huge roof spaces and we’re eager to provide farming on those roofs where fresh foods can be picked and enjoyed, enzymes and nutrition still vibrant and alive.”
Further down the road Quezada hopes to partner with major grocers and restaurants, which will in turn enable The Waters Wheel to become active in other parts of the world where “food is needed most, but where a presence is only possible through an increased ability to self-support our operations.”
While The Waters Wheel aeroponic tower farms may sound and look like a futuristic agrarian dream, Quezada’s goals of reconnecting people with the source of their food and minimizing our impact on the environment and water cycles is a vision rooted in our agrarian past. By reintegrating agriculture back into our daily lives and where we live, he believes we can dramatically reduce our impact on the planet simply by heading up to the roof.