Home Community Vertical Farming Grows on the Southside

Vertical Farming Grows on the Southside

How does your garden grow? Defranco Sarabia (left) and Ricardo Herrera are South Side residents leading a grassroots initiative exploring vertical farming and how the concept can be scaled and applied for use by individuals, businesses and organizations. See the story on pg. 01. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

Residents along the South Flores Street corridor are spreading the word about vertical farming and how it could someday benefit their neighbors and beyond.

Members of the grassroots South Flores Community group have been initiating small-scale projects where crops are grown in stacked layers in a compact, controlled environment.

The system produces nutritious, affordable food while using less water, they add.

Practitioners apply soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics or aeroponics. A range of structures, from buckets to buildings, can house vertical-farming systems.

Defranco Sarabia, one of the partnership leaders, said his neighborhood’s production began when the group conducted a GoFundMe campaign.

“Our goals were to make a vertical-farming system, learn about it and make it better,” said Sarabia, who is a mass-communications student at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. “We thought, ‘How can we bring that into communities in need?’”

The South Flores association was inspired by local organizations, including LocalSprout Food Hub on the near East Side, billed as “a collaborative environment for small food businesses to make their products, equipped with a large solar array and edible landscaping.”

Sarabia also is a board member with Gardopia Gardens, an East Side nonprofit horticultural organization.

Sarabia, Ricardo Herrera and fellow group members met their $200 fundraising goal quickly.

“There’s a lot of community support; so many people who believe in the concept,” Sarabia said.

Coffeecionado matched funds so the organization could develop a vertical-farming system for the South Side beverage shop.

Owner Patricia Butler-Aguilar said having the endeavor at Coffeecionado creates an opportunity to educate community members.

“I wanted to have (a vertical-farming system) at the shop because, as we are in the South Side, it would be incredible to educate our Hispanic neighborhood that vertical farming and urban farming was created by their ancestors, the Mayans, and to have another great reason to be proud of their heritage,” said Butler-Aguilar.

The South Flores group also spent about $100 to develop a vertical-farming system, made out of food-safe buckets, for a local pastor who operates a halfway house.

Herrera, a Palo Alto College student, said upscaling vertical farming teaches more people to organically grow produce for themselves, especially in areas where affordable, nutritious foods are scarce.

“Right now, because you can only grow leafy greens, it’s not at a scale where you can feed people,” he added. “Once we adapt to grow corn and wheat, then we can think about how to face the hunger needs that people have.”

Advocates of vertical farming believe it could be an affordable, community-driven way to help meet increasing demands on food supplies. Courtesy photo/U.S. Department of Agriculture/Oasis Biotech

Other advantages of vertical farming, advocates said, is that it uses up to 90% less water than traditional farming, and that it only needs a fraction of the space required for traditional farming.

Whereas commonplace cultivation means farmers must ship or drive miles to market their produce, with the South Flores group’s process crops go nowhere except to the grower or perhaps distributed to neighbors. It also is healthy for the environment, proponents say.

“The goal will be to replace horizontal, traditional farming with vertical farms to allow that land to grow back to its natural state and we’ll be able to even out (carbon dioxide) emissions,” Herrera said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, vertical agriculture “could help increase food production and expand agricultural operations as the world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050.”

Another goal for the South Flores group is affordability.

“If you go online right now, to get a vertical-farming system, it’s over $600,” Herrera said.

Some smaller ones cost less, but reducing the size means fewer get fed.

“Are we making sure everyone has access to this? That’s something we’re working on,” Sarabia said.

District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran looks forward to working with the South Flores organization to help provide her constituents with greater access to fresh, affordable produce.

“This is a great group of people, and it shows not only their entrepreneurial spirit and community activism, but that they’re addressing an immediate need in our community,” she said.

Viagran said more neighbors could see this as an efficient urban-farming option: “We want to have fresh fruits and vegetables close to us, and this is a way to do it.”

The South Flores growers aim to partner with others to help build vertical-farming systems and refine techniques.

They also want to join with students and host workshops to teach community members how to make their own systems.

For more, visit www.facebook.com/thesouthflorescommunity.



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