The Green House Project: Sustainable Agriculture in Urban Areas

Final Report for LNE99-128

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1999: $122,315.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $266,891.00
Region: Northeast
State: New Jersey
Project Leader:
Ralph Coolman
Rutgers University
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Project Information

Summary:

The Green House Project believes that participatory education is a key to keeping a healthy agricultural presence within our urban and suburban communities. Our efforts focused on three fronts. Over the past three years we developed a model year-round production system on Rutgers University Cook College campus targeted at local, urban markets that had 86 people contribute to construction, management and harvesting. We integrated this effort with local elementary, university and adult educators reaching an estimated 597 students in formal class settings. Our year-round food production efforts resulted in a contribution of over 25,000 pounds of fresh organic produce to local feeding programs that affected over 1000 families. Our community outreach program worked with 642 families on a diversity of local issues from community gardens to emergency health care to nutrition education. A total of 15 farmers contributed to the overall intellectual development of this effort. In addition, an estimated 343 farmers, consumers, and business people attended our workshops on localization of the food system.

Introduction:

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, with almost 8 million people on 7800 square miles. As a result, New Jersey faces many of the dilemmas of urban areas, including social stratification, environmental degradation, hunger, joblessness, crime, and isolation. Clearly, without some model for integrating the local landscape into the needs of the local community solutions to these problems become increasingly difficult. To meet these challenges, The Green House Project applies sustainable agricultural practices to urban areas.

The Green House Project creates a model year-round food production system for the New Jersey area. Elliot Coleman’s passive solar greenhouse design is used to produce fresh organic vegetables year-round at two locations. The first greenhouse is in New Brunswick and serves as an education center that provides food for Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen. The second greenhouse is at North Slope Farm and serves as a demonstration and training center for local farmers. In addition, The Green House Project addresses the difficult task of integrating sustainable agriculture into the urban environment through education and employment programs.

Project Objectives:

The Green House Project addresses the difficult task of integrating sustainable agriculture into the urban environment through education efforts targeted at the next generation of urban citizens.

Our objectives are to:

1) Create two passive solar greenhouse sites that demonstrate to local farmers the economic potential of marketing to local residents;

2) Integrate demonstration sites into local grade school, high school, university and adult training programs;

3) Provide training and materials to those responsible for continuing education of present and future farmers;

4) Evaluate the potential of solar greenhouse technologies as an alternative production system for the northeast region.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Grace Agnello
  • Karen Anderson
  • Lisanne Finston
  • Megan McGlinchy
  • Michael Rassweiler
  • Pearl Thompson
  • Michael W. Hamm

Research

Materials and methods:

The Green House Project believes that participatory education coupled with research and evaluation is a key to putting agriculture back into urban and suburban areas. To meet this goal, Elliot Coleman’s passive solar greenhouse design is used to produce fresh organic vegetables year-round at two locations. A Rutgers University greenhouse site serves as an education center on urban agriculture. A second greenhouse at North Slope Farm serves as a demonstration and training center for local farmers. The Green House Project addresses the difficult task of integrating sustainable agriculture into the urban environment through education efforts targeted at the next generation of urban citizens.

Research results and discussion:

Development of a model year-round production system in the first year of The Green House Project resulted in: 1) design of a permanent greenhouse using a modified version of the Ovaltech III Greenhouse made by Harnois, 2) one enclosed 30’ x 48’ greenhouse producing a variety of cold hardy crops, 3) initial development of a 20,000-square-foot demonstration site, and 4) redesign of the greenhouse to meet the needs of a local organic farmer.

Education efforts the first year focused on several fronts resulting in: 1) 4 Culinary Arts graduating classes with a total of 26 students all of whom had starting positions in the local food industry, 2) writing four curriculum (plant propagation, solar energy, soils and urban ecology) for elementary schools, 3) integration of an agriculture curriculum into the fifth and sixth grades at The Greater Brunswick Charter School, 4) instruction on urban agriculture and season extension in two courses at Rutgers University with enrollment of 38 students, 5) meetings at local farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to discuss season extension efforts, 6) development of an intern training program with local organic farmers, 7) a workshop on season extension attended by 8 local farm interns, 8) a workshop with twenty students from The University of Puerto Rico on organic crop production in temperate regions, 9) a workshop for over 50 high school students.

Development of a model year-round production system in the second year of The Green House Project resulted in: 1) completion of two enclosed 30’ x 48’ greenhouses, 2) production of cold-hardy crops (braising mix, spinach, spicy salad mix, oriental salad mix, greens salad mix, upland cress, mache greens, arugula, mustard greens, tatsoi, red Russian kale, and mibuna) from September to March, 3) Production of heat-loving crops (tomatoes, melons, eggplant, and peppers) from March to August, 4) initial development of a 20,000-square-foot demonstration site planted with raspberries, elderberries, sage, catnip, wormwood, hibiscus, asparagus, Bittermellon, chamomile, mint, sorrel, chervil, chives, Echinacea, lemon grass, oregano, thyme, tarragon, basil, rosemary, calendula, marigold, violets, northern sea oats, Indian grass, summer savory, onions, tomatoes, melons, peppers, eggplants, and cucumbers, and 5) development of an irrigation system for each greenhouse.

Education efforts the second year focused on several fronts resulting in: 1) 4 Culinary Arts graduating classes with a total of 28 students all of whom had starting positions in the local food industry, 2) integration of written curriculum in K-2 class at Greater Brunswick Charter School, 3) instruction on urban agriculture and season extension in two courses at Rutgers University with enrollment of 37 students, 4) continued development of an intern training program with local organic farmers, 5) a workshop on season extension attended by 5 local farm interns, 6) a workshop with over 36 students from The University of Puerto Rico on organic crop production in temperate regions, 7) a workshop for over 35 high school students, 8) an evening workshop season extension and sustainable cuisine attended by 25 people, and 8) development of NOFA-NJ Winter Conference on season extension attended by over 250 people from the Northeast region.

Development of a model year-round production system in the third year of The Green House Project resulted in: 1) production of cold-hardy crops from October to March, 3) Production of heat loving crops from April to October, and 4) continued development of a 20,000 square foot demonstration site planted with a variety of vegetables and herbs.

Education efforts the third year focused on several fronts resulting in: 1) continued work with Culinary Arts students resulting in starting positions in the local food industry, 2) continued use of the written curriculum in K-2 class at Greater Brunswick Charter School, 3) instruction on urban agriculture and season extension in two courses at Rutgers University, 4) continued development of an intern training program with local organic farmers, 5) a workshop on season extension attended by 43 people 6) a workshop with over 31 students from The University of Puerto Rico on organic crop production in temperate regions, and 7) a workshop called “All Local, All Year” attended by 43 people.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Our outreach efforts focused on education at levels of the local community. Over the past three years we developed a model year-round production system on Rutgers University Cook College campus targeted at local, urban markets that had 86 people contribute to construction, management and harvesting. We integrated this effort with local elementary, university and adult educators reaching an estimated 597 students in formal class settings. Our community outreach program worked with 642 families on a diversity of local issues from community gardens to emergency healthcare to nutrition education. A total of 15 farmers contributed to the overall intellectual development of this effort. In addition, an estimated 343 farmers, consumers and business people attended our workshops on localization of the food system. Overall, we shared the experiences of this project with a broad range of community members including students, teachers, researchers, farmers, business people, non-profit organizations and local citizen groups.

Project Outcomes

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

The first year of The Green House Project has had a direct impact on the New Brunswick community. A total of 236 students at all levels of training have taken formal instruction on urban agriculture, season extension and organic food production. Our workshops have exposed another 78 people to the importance of urban agriculture in the urban/ suburban setting. In addition, a core group of five local farmers are working to develop new approaches to year-round production in the New Jersey area.

Potential contributors to The Green House Project include local farmers, educators, non-profit organizations and businesses. The second year of this project our efforts will shift to on farm greenhouse construction and marketing produce from our demonstration site. Our initial efforts will focus on local restaurants committed to a healthy, sustainable farm community.

The second year of The Green House Project has had a direct impact on the New Brunswick community. A total of 182 students at all levels of training have taken formal instruction on urban agriculture, season extension and organic food production. Our workshops have exposed another 275 people to the importance of urban agriculture in the urban/suburban setting. Efforts at market development progressed well this year. We are currently developing an extensive research plan for new crop with Chef Pierre of Stage Left in New Brunswick.

The third year of the project focused on market development in the New Brunswick area. We began working with local restaurants to develop sales from the year-round production system. Perhaps the most important development was a USDA Community Food Project grant for the next three years to focus on developing direct marketing contracts between local food businesses and local producers. In addition we emphasized outreach activities with the local community through two workshops that brought growers, buys and consumers together to discuss the applications of our efforts.

Economic Analysis

The simple hoop houses were constructed cost approximately $4,000 for 1,440 square feet of enclosed space. The major development cost is the labor required to construct the greenhouse. We estimate it takes approximately 250 hours to complete the Harnois kit. We produced both cold hardy and heat loving crops each month of the year in our greenhouse. All of the crop we produced were donated to low-income families or used as promotional materials with local businesses. So we have little data on potential income from the investment of capital and labor in this enterprise.

However, our experience shows the key to success using this technology is persistent and innovative marketing. In fact, the second phase of this project is to focus on marketing strategies for year-round production systems. We are currently starting a USDA Community Food Project to look at localization of the food system. In that grant we focus on the estimated $90 million New Brunswick residents spend on food each year to boost local farm incomes through direct marketing contracts between farmers and the food industry including schools, produce markets, restaurants, food distributors and neighborhood stores. In addition, we help low-income families boost resources through a program of year-round vegetable production. The self help efforts of low-income families makes more cash available for purchasing additional food from local sources within the community. We use the infrastructure and knowledge gained over the past three years to increase incomes in these two vital components of our community.

Farmer Adoption

There is an incredible interest in season extension technologies in the Northeast. We estimate that half of the farmers attending our workshops were practicing season extension technology to some degree. The other farmers were attending the workshops because they had a sincere interest in incorporating these technologies into their operations. The major limiting factors are capital and time. Many farmers were reluctant to invest the thousands of dollars on new infrastructure given the fact that it required an estimated 250 hours to construct. In addition, the adoption of year-round production puts added pressure on farmers to intensify marketing efforts while increasing the overall workload on the farm. We are currently addressing these issues though a Community Food project grant that looks at local marketing strategies.

Areas needing additional study

Over the past three years we have developed The Green House Project as a strategy for linking community development and environmentally sound food production. Our collaborators within The New Jersey Urban Ecology Program, The Cook Student Organic Farm, Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen, Promise Jobs Culinary Arts Training Program, The Greater Brunswick Charter School, North Slope Organic Farm and The Northeast Organic Farmers Association have worked to complete well-defined objectives. We have: 1) helped develop the Community Health and Environmental Coalition of New Brunswick (CHEC-NB) a community based coalition dedicated to long-term improvement of the local environment, residents health and food security which is now considering application for 501-c3 status; 2) constructed two passive solar greenhouses that produce fresh organic vegetables year-round; and 3) introduced food systems curriculum into local elementary, university and adult education efforts.

Fortunately, New Jersey has a vibrant food industry that generates an estimated $22 billion in sales each year. Our vision of the New Brunswick Food System has three interacting components dependent upon each other to survive and thrive: 1) peri-urban farmers, 2) urban low-income families and 3) the New Brunswick Food Industry (Figure 1). We believe that further efforts must focus on a strategy to increase the economic activity among these components. Future efforts should seek to increase existing exchanges at farmers markets, school food programs, corner stores, and restaurants. In addition, attempts need to be made to identify and expand food production in new markets by localizing food production.

Local communities need to use the economic potential of their food system to boost income for low-income urban and farm families. For example, our next effort will focus on the estimated $90 million New Brunswick residents spend on food each year to boost local farm incomes through direct marketing contracts between farmers and the food industry including schools, produce markets, restaurants, food distributors and neighborhood stores. In addition, we hope to help low-income families boost resources through a program of year-round vegetable production. The self-help efforts of low-income families should make more cash available for purchasing additional food from local sources within the community. We use the infrastructure and knowledge gained over the past three years to increase incomes in these two vital components of our community.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.