Wednesday, February 27, 2013
A farm in the heart of downtown San Diego. That’s the vision of Brandon Martella. But the 24-year-old architect’s farm doesn’t stretch outward, it rises upward 500 feet -– like a skyscraper greenhouse.
"The whole concept is to challenge the a-typical means of American produce consumption and transcend that boundary of where your food comes from to where it’s sold," said Martella, a recent graduate of the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego.
Half of Martella’s so-called “vertical farm” is for residential living, the other half, for growing crops, like lettuce, corn, tomatoes, carrots, and even grains. The bottom level is a farmer’s market.
"You can actually walk into the market and look up and see 500 feet of fresh vegetables being grown," he said.
Residents have the option to grow and sell their own crops, but Martella has also designed plans for hired help.
"I kind of picture this transient worker," he explained, "that’s typically how farming is, and so at the base there are units that are right next to the farming so the farmers who live there could actually tend to their crops."
Martella said his farm is capable of producing 500,000 pounds of food every three months – all within easy reach of 30,000 downtown residents. He sees it as the answer to a food supply strained by population growth and climate change.
"A statistic that really struck me hard was that according to the FDA the average American consumes 707 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables a year," said Martella. "And if each one of us is consuming that much, the food demand with population growth –- there’s soon to be a crisis."
Martella’s crop tower is sustainable and doesn’t require any dirt, chemicals or pesticides.
"The system I would want to use is to reclaim the gray water from the residential and that would actually feed into the building, be pumped to the top through a series of aerobic reactions or charcoal filters so the water would be cleansed," Martella said. "And you can actually use extracts from worm casings and that’s what feeds the plants."
Martella's idea started in his apartment window in January of 2012 as part of his senior thesis. He grew enough lettuce to last him two weeks using a hydroponics system he rigged up himself.
"And the whole thing was 12 water bottles chained together, and then you have a fish tank at the bottom and you pump the water up to the top and it’s a drip system and so the water drips all the way through. I figured if I could do it in my apartment, why not scale it up 500 feet."
Thirty miles north in Escondido, Bill Bramer has been a farmer for 33 years. He owns the 160-acre BeWise Ranch where he grows a little bit of everything, including tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, beats and baby lettuce.
Brammer agrees there is a benefit to growing crops inside where it’s environmentally controlled. Last month he lost 40 percent of one of his strawberry patches to freezing temperatures. He said Mother Nature is harsh.
"Last year we had 10 acres of tomatoes that we couldn’t pick because it got so hot for three days and everything got sunburned," he said. "All the fruit just cooked on one side so you had to throw it all away."
Brammer said he’s not a big fan of hydroponically grown crops because he said they lack nutrition and flavor:
"Here we’re in a riverbed. Minerals have come through for centuries and centuries, so all those minerals in that spectrum are in that soil for that plant to be able to absorb," Brammer said.
Brammer said he likes Martella’s vertical farm concept, but says he'll continue to weather the climate and stick with the dirt.
"I’ve never had a greenhouse tomato that’s tasted like a good vine ripe outdoor tomato," he said.
Back in downtown San Diego, Martella is hoping a developer will sprout some interest and build his vertical farm on what is now a parking lot on First Avenue and Island Street.
I picked that site because it’s a very dynamic site, there’s the trolley stop right there, you get a lot of activity from that, the convention center is right across harbor you have high-end residential with kind of middle-range residential and then even long term hotels.
“I think he’s come upon an excellent concept in the sense that he’s proposing to mix agriculture in a downtown urban fabric, so that’s novel," said Sherry Ryan, professor of city planning at San Diego State University's School of Public Affairs.
Ryan said her only critique is that she thinks his design is too big for downtown.
"And it kind of sticks out, and so what I’d like to see Martella do is to try to take that same concept and blend it into the suburban fabric that is San Diego. He could for example go to south eastern San Diego or Encanto. There’s a lot of vacant land there," Ryan explained.
But Martella said he’s set on adding some green in the San Diego city skyline.
"And the tomatoes aren’t going to taste like a swimming pool – they’re going to probably taste like the best tomato you’ve ever had," he said.