02/17/2012 05:17 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2012

Farm City

Alec Baxt claims to have gotten goose bumps from his first visit to Eagle Street Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Baxt is a native born and self described "New York City kid." His personal search for self reliance and sustainable community led him first to Alaska, then to French Guiana, and eventually to Tarrytown, New York where he studied organic farming at Stone Barns. Like Alec, roughly 70 percent of us make our homes in cities. Even so, we rely on our farms and farmland for sustenance. And, we still abide by the seasons and cycles of nature. Urban farming is Alec's attempt to cultivate a deeper relationship between urban dwellers and their natural environments.

Convinced of the transformative potential of urban agriculture, Baxt is doing his research and learning the trade. His visit with Annie Novak who runs the 6,000 square foot Eagle Street Farm and his current work with Ben Flanner at the 40,000 square foot Brooklyn Grange Farm are steps forward in his own vision to cultivate FarmingUp, an economically-viable, farm scale, rooftop farm spanning 3-acres. The farm will allow him to cultivate delicious tomatoes in the middle of Manhattan. It would also make FarmingUp the largest rooftop farm in the world. Such an endeavor would be another major contribution to a growing urban agricultural movement that is transforming urban spaces industrial warehouses, community gardens, vertical walls, and even rooftops -- and generating healthy communities from the rooftops down. It is an effort that seems to echo Wendell Berry's challenge that, "There are too few actual farmers left to reform anything. So, as a practical matter, reform is going to have to come from consumers. Industrial agriculture is an urban invention, and if agriculture is going to be reinvented, it's going to have to be reinvented by urban people."

Health from the Ground Up, Up, and Up

Urban agriculture is no small task. In the world of food and farming, nutrition starts with soil. That is to say that, soil quality directly translates into the nutrient content of the food we eat. During his years of travel and work outside of New York City, Baxt became a self-proclaimed, "Soil Zealot." So, when he looked to move back to New York City, he brought his righteous view of soil with him. His fanaticism led him to do something that was sorely lacking in the world of urban agriculture, he set out to do a field study to determine whether or not two carrots of the same variety, grown in totally different soil, would have different nutrient profiles. Given that most rooftop farms use synthetic soil, Baxt was particularly interested in the nutritional value of the food that rooftop farms are producing.

It turns out that nutrient content is also the building block of taste. As Baxt describes, "Nutrition is what makes a carrot taste... well, carroty." Baxt worked for several months to compare the nutritional and taste value of his roof-grown foods to field-grown vegetables with similar methods and climate and handling. As Baxt explains, "I had read Dr. Donald Davis's paper on the USDA data indicating that the nutrient density of fresh produce has generally declined ever since USDA started collecting that data a generation ago." Baxt concluded that we basically know, " Everything that we need to know to grow great food and for the most part we don't do it." Urban Farming, like most of agriculture, is still an enigma. Yet, many are making the case that urban farming has huge potential to transform community and environmental health, and stimulate local economies.

But, there is some wariness, especially about the health of urban grown vegetables. Baxt explains, "During the trials, a number of people asked about contaminants in the urban environment." They were concerned that pollutants would find their way into the food. But, Baxt continues, "Our lettuce showed that all of the heavy metals fell within regular background levels. That is to say, minute amounts of heavy metals can be found everywhere and they were no higher in the lettuce grown at our trial site, on an industrial rooftop in Brooklyn, than they were in vegetables grown in the more rural setting of the Stone Barns Center." By contrast, "A head of lettuce that we had purchased at the bodega closest to our trail site had an order of magnitude more Cadmium than the rooftop-grown lettuce." Cadmium, which is highly toxic and has minute permissible exposure limits, often enters agriculture through the use of sewage sludge.

Green Infrastructure

Rooftop farms sit at the dynamic intersection of hyper-local food supply and green infrastructure. Aside from the unparalleled opportunity to maximize access to local food, while at the same time reducing the transportation costs and food miles, urban agriculture offers a number of other environmental benefits that include -- temperature control, control of combined sewage overflow, and habitat for wildlife. Not only does this open options for fresh and nutritious foods in food-scarce areas, it can also help to jump start a more localized food economy. Temperature control is an important effect of rooftop gardening as plants reduce a building's overall heat absorption, diminish solar radiation, and reduce energy consumption as a whole. Rooftop farms also reduce and delay the rate and amount of rain runoff. In a city like New York, this is a big deal, since storm water run-off and combined sewage overflow can be major problems. Promoting soil cover of otherwise impervious surfaces, like a roof, increases water absorption and decreases the likelihood of overflow because water is instead used by plants. Greenery on urban rooftops also contributes to increasing biodiversity within an urban environment, green roofs and rooftop farms offer increased habitat to bird species, butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects that contribute to the health and stability of our environment. The projected cost of the 3-acre rooftop farm is $2.5 million. But Baxt believes that these costs will be offset by production, as well as the environmental and community health benefits.

Enduring Communities

As the world's population expands and we expect to see 9 billion people on the planet by 2050 we are already thinking about the limitations and design of our spaces and our places. Already, 70 percent of fruits and vegetables grown in the United States are grown in urban edged areas with growing pressure for development. New York is also the home to 1.5 million food insecure residents people and many kids growing up in urban areas, sadly, believe that their food, literally, comes from the grocery store aisles. Instead, as volunteers and consumers flock to urban agricultural spaces there is an opportunity to learn more about food production. Community members become excited about their own role in transforming the communities in which they live, and a connection is formed between farmers and consumers, which also serves to deepen the connection between urban dwellers and the earth.