The New Urban Farmers

Innovators in Austin are helping this booming city to grow more food—and working on ways to feed those who don’t have enough.

The city where cowboys and hippies have long come together over breakfast tacos is breeding a new kind of food pioneer.

Michael Hanan and Lloyd Minick, friends since their days in college just outside Austin, Texas, saw their ideal place in the world as social entrepreneurs. They tossed around grand ideas. One of those was farming.

“Agriculture has perhaps the greatest impact on the environment of any industry or human activity,” says Hanan, 29, a seventh-generation Texan.

They plunged into sustainable methods of growing and settled on aquaponics, a system of cultivating aquatic and terrestrial crops at the same time, cycling water and nutrients between them. “We saw a huge opportunity to innovate,” he says, “and make a small dent in that giant impact.”

Today that big idea takes the form of Agua Dulce, their expanding aquaponics operation in southeast Austin.

If they succeed, their plot will feed the neighborhood, the city, the state. They’ll sell produce from a farmstand by the road, to restaurants around town, and beyond—a Texas-based grocery-store chain has already committed to buying their greens to feed demand for local organic salad.

Hanan and Minick join a growing number of entrepreneurs in urban agriculture nationwide. They’re part of a much larger revolution to re-engineer our food supply through advances in technology from farm to fork—beginning with production in fields, greenhouses, and labs, to new approaches in managing food waste, packaging, labeling, and in distribution.

Back in Austin, they belong to a varied cast channeling both the city’s creative energy and the sustainable movement into efforts to produce more food in and around the city—and to feed its citizens nutritiously and affordably.

Public officials, nonprofit visionaries, investors, and a host of farmers, chefs, and eaters are making it happen—all while attempting to keep pace with a booming population and tackle gritty, big-city challenges.

Ten years ago The Omnivore’s Dilemma sparked the average American’s interest in food sourcing, and “locavore” entered the lexicon. Organic food continued to gain favor. As the hometown of Whole Foods, Austin was already firmly planted in that movement. When a staff of 19 opened the store in 1980, it was one of the country’s first natural food stores—and arguably the seed of its rich, inventive food scene.

Around the same time, Michael Dell would cement Austin’s reputation for innovation after launching a computer company in his dorm room. High-tech companies soon went from idea to IPO in and around its “Silicon Hills.” People poured in to join the sector, bringing money and ideas—and spurring the city’s meteoric rise.

Austin has been the fastest growing U.S. metro region for five years running, with more than a hundred people moving in each day. But not all have benefitted from the city’s robust economy. Real estate has skyrocketed, pricing out many longtime residents, while sprawl has gobbled up agricultural land, each with a ripple effect on food and a focus of those working on solutions.

Food and Tech Unite

From those defining moments, the singular, once-modest city found itself with a world-class reputation in both high-tech and food. Now the two realms are converging.

Case in point: Jarred Maxwell and Curt Nelson, co-founders of Austin Foodshed Investors. Both had backgrounds in tech—Maxwell as a Dell engineer and Nelson with Hewlett Packard and start-ups—and saw a gap in innovation. “We eventually decided we would take the angel investing model and apply it to local, sustainable food,” says Nelson.

They’re part of the “slow money” movement, which takes its inspiration from Slow Food and targets local food systems and small producers. Their two-year-old firm has funded a dozen entrepreneurs, including a local dairy and those yielding products like tea made from a native shrub.

Another transplant from Silicon Valley, Yogesh Sharma envisions upending conventional farming the way Airbnb reinvented travel lodging.

His company, Lettuce, “is an urban farming network,” he says. He contracts with owners of small plots—front yards and church lawns— around the city, and farms them using sensors and a system to monitor variables like heat and moisture. Participants won’t have to lift a finger—starting in December they’ll get a weekly CSA-style delivery and a share of the revenue.

Last year Hanan and Minick took top prize in an annual competition organized by Food+City, a non-profit linked to the University of Texas. It’s yet another group investing in the integration of food into the urban landscape.

Hanan and Minick launched their company tech-style too. They began with a Kickstarter campaign, connected with like-minded investors, then signed on with a business incubator—the city has about a dozen dedicated to food. “In a room of mostly app developers, we were the urban farmers,” says Hanan.

They started in their backyard, growing vegetables, herbs, and tilapia on about a tenth of an acre. Now, at a new three-acre location, they project to harvest twenty times more—250,000 heads of lettuce and other greens and 7,500 pounds of fish a year.

The fish live in 500-gallon drums next to the greenhouse; with a system of pipes, the farmers transfer water between the two locations. In short, fish waste provides nutrition for plants, which in turn filter and purify water for fish.

Yields can be 10 to 20 times per square foot higher than that of traditional farming, while using 90 percent less water. “We never discharge any,” says Hanan. In a region that in recent years has been prone to drought—when it hasn’t been flooding—the future of farming in central Texas may not be in terra firma.

Defining Sustainability

The job of deciphering the food system, as it’s called—how Austin grows, sells, eats, and recovers its food—now lands squarely in the office of Edwin Marty, Austin’s first food policy manager and part of the city’s sustainability department.

He’s one of more than a dozen food system specialists who’ve been hired by city governments around the country, reflecting a new sensibility about the role of food in urban planning, its environmental impact, as well as the twin problems of obesity and food insecurity.

Marty, who is tall and dark-haired with a full beard, defines sustainable food in terms of people: “Can they get it? Is it affordable?” he asks. “Is it the kind of food that’s good for their body? Is it the kind of food that’s good for the earth?”

When Marty started his job in 2014, he needed data. To chart Austin’s food system, he worked with a local MBA student to develop a set of several dozen metrics.

One surprise in the resulting report—for a city that takes pride in its 52 community gardens and 23 urban farms—is that initial estimates suggest the city grows only one percent of its own food. He sees a “massive” untapped market for locally grown food.

That’s because Austin consumers expect to find locally grown food not only at farmers markets and in CSA boxes, but also in their grocery store produce bins, in their school cafeterias, and on their hospital meal trays—that kind of institutional demand, as it’s known, is outpacing supply here.

Yet since farmers receive less return when they sell to wholesalers, who in turn sell their products to grocery stores and schools, says Marty, “it’s difficult for small growers to make it work.” They’d need to expand their operations to meet the higher-volume demand and withstand that lower profit margin. “Most growers need a very strong sense of confidence that the market will support this investment,” he says.

As a way to incentivize those on both ends of the equation, Marty’s office launched a pilot program, modeled on one in Los Angeles, to score institutions and companies based on the sustainability of their food purchasing, taking into account such elements as food miles, animal treatment (think cage-free eggs), labor practices, and seasonality. He’s started with city of Austin itself, the University of Texas, and Apple’s Austin campus—initial scores are expected this month, with goal-setting to follow.

Meanwhile, restaurants and grocery stores are directly engaged with local farmers. Whole Foods has a low-interest loan program for local food producers to purchase things like cattle, equipment, and buildings.

Todd Duplechan, the owner-chef at Lenoir, a thriving restaurant named for a native varietal, is one of a handful of Austin chefs who have gone beyond name-checking farms on their menus to develop strong, collaborative relationships with area growers. Duplechan has even provided seeds for ingredients he wants on his menu. “We’re doing it to foster better produce in the future,” he says.

Urban Growth vs. Urban Farms

Austin’s breathtaking rise means vastly increased demand for housing, and new buildings are rising all around the city. But there’s a cost: The region is losing surrounding farmland to development at a rate of nine acres per day.

That meant taking a new look at land within the city itself, one of the reasons the city and the county jointly established a 13-member food policy board in 2009. It provided assistance right out of the gate by enabling urban farmers to pay lower commercial rates for city water instead of higher residential rates.

Last year the board put forth a number of recommendations for revising Austin’s land development code. If implemented, those measures would more broadly support food production throughout the city, protect farmland, ease the way for more farmers markets, and assure that food access is a factor in future multi-family housing developments.

The proposed measures reflect that food systems aren’t yet part and parcel of urban planning, though nationwide that’s been evolving. In Imagine Austin, the city’s 30-year plan for managing growth and development, food wasn’t treated separately alongside forecasts for housing and transportation, although stakeholders worked to have it represented throughout the plan.

“There are important reasons to have farms in the city,” says Michael Hanan of Agua Dulce. He originally envisioned building a farm closer to Bastrop, a farm town east of Austin where, he says, electricity costs a third as much as it does in Austin and water is cheaper too. But he wants his farm to enrich lives. He and Minick plan to host educational workshops and tours on the farm.

“Almost universally,” he says, “people really love to see a farm and have some connection to where their food comes from.” And he wants to live in the city. “I’m one of the few farmers that gets to live in an apartment,” he says.

“It’s Ferocious. It’s Violent.”

The grand dame of Austin urban farming, Carol Ann Sayle, and her husband, Larry Butler, planted their first seeds in 1992 at Boggy Creek Farm. The produce table they set up at the end of their driveway grew into a thriving farm market that now operates four days a week during most of the year.

But things are different now. “The weather is changing,” says Sayle. “People from up north ask me, ‘Well how is the farming down there?’ I say, ‘It’s ferocious. It’s violent.’”

Sayle knows this land has always endured cycles of drought and flood, but lately it seems more extreme.

She calls 2011 “the horrible year.” It didn’t rain from one November to the next, and even then it rained only three inches. That summer, she says, a thermometer tucked into the soil registered 130 degrees. “It was too hot for okra and eggplant, and those are the ones that love hot. It killed them all.”

The mercury didn’t rise nearly as high this summer, but farmers will look back on 2016 and remember rain—too much of it. Unseasonable downpours brought moisture problems: Rot, fungus, and insects went wild, wreaking their own muddy havoc on everything from squash to strawberries.

Facing consequences of climate change along with land pressures from the city’s growth, farmers may need to pivot in new directions. “We’re going to see an explosion in alternative growing methods,” says Erin Flynn of Green Gate Farms. Her own farm is eyeing the possibility of floodplain agriculture, which the city is also exploring since it owns hundreds of acres in the floodplains.

Sowing the Seeds of Austin’s Future

This fall, children returned to public elementary schools to find their monthly cafeteria menus with some new fine print: A tiny Texas-shaped logo had been inserted after the yellow squash and the cucumber and tomato “dippers,” as cut raw vegetables are called, signifying state-grown produce.

“I view the cafeteria as a classroom,” says Anneliese Tanner, the Austin Independent School District’s director of food services. “We serve 77,000 meals a day,” she says, and she intends to include more Texas logos on the menus.

The kids, too, will pitch in. “We’re asking our schools to plant any type of greens this fall,” she says. “On the November menu, we have braised garden greens”—and a plan to supplement with greens from a local farm, should the children’s crops fail to thrive.

While many food service directors trained as dieticians, Tanner has a degree in food systems. Her innovative moves toward more sustainable cafeterias don’t end with local sourcing. “Local is very important,” she says, “but it can’t be the driving factor. Sometimes we can make a decision that has a much bigger sustainable aspect, but it’s not local.”

She’s working with a vendor to begin serving only grass-fed beef next year, because in addition to being more healthful, cows that graze on grass have a smaller environmental footprint than those that are entirely corn fed. “Those ranches aren’t in Texas,” she says.

Access to healthy food won’t necessarily end when the bell rings at 2:57. In a new program launching with city funding and a farm partner, mobile markets will peddle fresh produce on Friday afternoons at schools in food deserts and in neighborhoods with higher rates of food insecurity.

“Food Sovereignty”

That’s a theme echoed in Marty’s food system report, which revealed a second surprising trend: serious poverty. “Austin’s a complicated place,” says Marty. “The impression that Austin gives is of a super-exciting, up-and-coming, dynamic city.” Before he moved here, “poverty was not really something that came up very much in my research of Austin.”

And yet one in four kids is food insecure in Austin’s Travis County, according to the Indicators Report. Marty thinks that figure is “a gross underestimate.” Five zip codes out of some 30 in the city lack full-service grocery stores. And while the population of Austin is growing at twice the national rate, its low-income population is growing even faster.

While some Austinites don’t have enough to eat, others seem to have too much. The food system report also revealed that the city wastes nearly 200 million pounds of food a year.

Since 2004, a volunteer-based nonprofit called Keep Austin Fed has been transporting extra food, mainly from commercial kitchens, to people who need it. Meanwhile, efforts in both the public and private sector are boosting rates of composting—in theory, repurposing waste to replenish the land.

“Taking care of the land that you’re standing on means the survival of your people,” says Ronda Rutledge, director of Austin’s Sustainable Food Center. She credits her Cherokee identity with her own view of sustainability, or “food sovereignty.” As she sees it, that’s the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced by environmentally sound, sustainable growing methods.

The nonprofit she heads has worked since the 1970s to promote urban agriculture and food education. The center started its first farmers market in 2003; today it runs three around the city. In a light-filled building along Austin’s light-rail tracks, her team offers cooking classes in English or Spanish geared to healthy, seasonal eating, many of them free. The center’s emphasis is on helping people feed themselves.

“To us it’s more than just handing out canned goods. There’s a place for that,” she says. “But we’re looking at it a little bit more long-tail. How do you not only feed yourself and your family today, but how do you do it long-term?” For Rutledge, all roads lead back to the land: taking care of the one thing, she says, that gives you the food to begin with.

Follow Austin-based author Beth Goulart Monson on Twitter.

This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.

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