Los Angeles-based Sustainable Ag Venture Seeks to Create Network of Urban Farms to Feed and Foster Community
April 9, 2012 | Melinda Clark
What do cuisine, land use, architecture and renewable energy have in common? A lot, according to Urban Green, a company working to connect these “inter-related disciplines.”
Urban Green operates three urban farms and a 4,800 square foot food facility in Los Angeles, CA. The farms employ a variety of growing practices, from traditional permaculture at the first site, which has been running for six years, to hydroponics at a new project in downtown Los Angeles. Urban Green takes a holistic approach to all of its projects, using not only permaculture practices, but reusable and biodegradable containers for its cuisine and renewable energy sources whenever possible.
Founder Rickey Smith originally came up with the concept for Urban Green back in 1985. He pitched the idea to the Fortune 500 company where he was a brand manager, but it was rejected. It wasn’t until 2001, after losing everything in the dot-com crash, that Smith decided it was time to re-create himself, and at last put his plan into action.
Smith says he saw two flaws that needed correcting: the U.S. wasn’t investing enough in infrastructure; and the city of Los Angeles wasn’t prepared if some sort of natural or manmade disaster cut off its food supply.
He says, “I saw southern California as the perfect ground for the idea and decided to implement it there as a whole system approach to food production, trying to localize and evolve food production…If there is disruption in the food system in any way, we still need to have a backup system to alleviate the strain if it does occur.”
As part of this holistic system, Smith explains, “we seek to use the leakage and the waste in our system to create value added products. For instance, we compost the waste from our facilities and send it back to the farm. We’re learning ways to use coffee grounds from our catering business…to grow mushrooms.”
Unlike other urban farm businesses, Urban Green takes a unique approach in that they look for short-term land lease contracts, from three to seven years, for their farms. And, just like good campers who leave their campsites cleaner than they found them, Urban Green tries to improve their rented land before they move on, using permaculture principles to regenerate the soil.
Smith explains the process: “Observing the piece of property, learning from it, what is the trajectory of the sun, what’s in the soil, does it need soil remediation, is it ready to go.” He adds, “We take a long term approach. Three to seven years is short term in a contractual agreement, but we hope to improve the properties that we take on, rather than just come on, start digging and start exploiting…Even though we might be there for a short time, it is our goal to improve the property when we do leave a piece of land.”
Finding land for the farms, even for the short-term, can be a challenge, says Smith. He says that it can often be difficult to balance the different interests at play, between government regulations, state agencies, and cities and municipalities. He cautions that this “presents very unique challenges that people need to be prepared for.”
“Each of these agencies might have different agendas, different policies and it’s very tricky, but we have accomplished it, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” says Smith.
Since incorporating in 2007, Urban Green has succeeded in generating revenue from a variety of sources, including from farmers’ markets, wholesale distribution and catering sales. It also has an education component, with knowledgeable staff who teach classes on permaculture and hydroponics, and who are available to go to homes, schools, universities and businesses and teach people how to develop a farmscape or grow food at their home or office.
But Smith says it’s not about the conventional definition of profit for him. He takes pride in the fact that Urban Green is creating jobs and serving as proof that you can use permaculture principles and whole system thinking in a practical business – and make it work.
“We’ve hit our break-even point,” he says. “I haven’t gotten rich. In fact, I haven’t taken a salary since we incorporated in 2007…I’ve worked in Fortune 500 companies, I’ve worked in high level jobs in the television and entertainment industry, and this is the most satisfying.”
He says he wants Urban Green to serve as an example of thoughtful, values-based spending. He hopes that consumers will learn to put their dollars where their values are.
He advises, “Spend money with your values and the things that you believe in. Don’t make everything just a transactional exchange of goods and money.”
Smith says that Urban Green is starting an exciting new project in downtown L.A., at the Big Art Labs on Clover St.
“It’s a deserted paint factory that’s been renovated by a group in Nevada. They operate in and renovated the space and are leasing it out to film companies that are doing commercials and building sets,” explains Smith. “We are working on building a demonstration hydroponics system as well as a growing space in the center of the complex.”
As for future projects, Smith says that he’s interested in integrating Urban Green’s holistic principles throughout the west coast.
“I want to build communities revolving around the principals,” he says. “I’d like to take it to a larger scale and focus on building integrated communities. You have traditional developers and builders, it would be great to see those people influenced and looking at what we’re doing as a practical way to rethink land development, particularly in L.A. and the regional west coast.”
Smith cites E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered among his inspirations, along with urban landscapers like Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed Central Park. That’s the direction he hopes Urban Green will go – creating a network of functional urban farms and a community around them that can be the new heart of L.A.
“Those parks are inspirational; what I want to do with Urban Green is have this whole connected tissue. That’s the legacy I would like to leave, something that grows beyond me…I would like to create something on the scale of a Grant Park or a Central Park, but have it be a food source for the benefit of society.”