About 20 miles east of Northwest Austin, more than 168,000 lettuce plants grow without dirt in a greenhouse using a process called hydroponics.

The process uses a water filtration system to grow petite lettuce at Leaf Safari in Manor. The company sells its lettuce only in Austin and San Antonio to companies such as Whole Foods Market. This keeps Leaf Safari’s carbon footprint low, which is one of the company’s goals along with supporting the local economy, General Manager Scott Rickstrew said.

Although he said the area needs to grow food closer to the people who will consume it, doing so can come at a higher cost for better quality products.

“Locally grown does not necessarily make a cheaper food product,” he said. “… I believe in a whole system that works together. We still need big-crop farming.”

Leaf Safari is one of 1,132 farms in Travis County, which loses about 9 acres of farmland each day because of urbanization. In Austin, there are 23 farms, according to data compiled by the city’s Sustainable Food Policy Board. The SFPB produced a white paper in October for the team handling the city’s land development code rewrite process, CodeNEXT, outlining a series of changes that would need to occur to boost local food production.

“Everyone’s fighting over land use for houses versus condos, residential versus farms, but we’re not really thinking that our [city’s population] is now pushing seven figures, [and] we do not have enough food-sourcing opportunities to feed this community,” SFPB member Sharon Mays said.

Increasing local food production

As more people continue moving to Austin, Mays—who also owns Baby Greens, a drive-thru salad restaurant reopening in early 2016—said she wonders why more focus is not on building grocery stores and encouraging local food production.

Mays said boosting local food production will require several options, such as community gardens, rooftop gardens, urban farms, and vertical farming in industrial or warehouse space.

Hydroponics vs. Aquaponics

“I think that vertical farming should be a part of the conversation,” she said. “It also fits into the spirit of what Austin wants to be, which is innovative.”

In vertical farming, hydroponics and aquaponics—a similar process to hydroponics that uses waste from fish to provide nutrients to plants—could be used to grow more produce, Mays said. The industrial parks near Burnet Road in North Austin could be one of those areas, she added.

Rickstrew said hydroponics could work anywhere, but in Austin the cost of real estate is high. Benefits of hydroponics include more control over the growing environment and less water use. Instead of pesticides, Leaf Safari uses ladybugs and spiders to get rid of harmful bugs.

“It does take a bit of a green thumb, but you could teach a lot of people to do [hydroponics],” he said.

Benefits of locally grown foods

Dallas-based distributor Hardie’s Fresh Foods defines locally grown as anything grown within the state of Texas, said Charles McCowan, the company’s retail produce merchandiser. The industry does not have a single definition, however, so locally grown could mean produced within 50 or 100 miles, he said.

McCowan spends his days traveling to farms throughout the state. It takes only one or two days for produce to travel from a farm to one of the company’s four distribution sites, including one in North Austin.

“It’s that personal touch,” he said. “You can get to know the grower, and we see their farm. They’re not just telling you [about the farm]—you see it.”

Sourcing locally was easier for Kerbey Lane Cafe in the 1980s and ’90s when the practice was not as common and the restaurant had fewer
locations, CEO Mason Ayers said. Today the company uses more than 20 local suppliers for foods such as produce, meats, cheeses, coffee and even peanut butter.

“Sourcing from as many local suppliers as possible is one of our goals,” he said. “We would love to get everything from Texas, but at the end of the day you balance competing values and interest.”

Buying locally means paying more for quality and food safety, but it also maintains the “Keep Austin Weird” motto that encourages buying local, Ayers said.

“Ultimately our view is by taking the money we earn and putting back into the community—Texas farms and ranches—we’re able to make for a better community around us and ultimately that will benefit us,” he said.

Fields of Greens

Community gardens take root

Even in mid-November the Adelphi Acre Community Garden in Northwest Austin is bursting with fresh produce, from dino kale and Swiss chard to sweet potatoes and eggplant.

The year-round community garden opened in April on Adelphi Lane and is one of only three community gardens in Northwest Austin. Residents can rent one of 78 plots, making it an affordable option to grow one’s own food, garden chairwoman Sabrina Joplin said. Volunteers maintain the garden and harvest produce from the donation plot for the food bank at Covenant United Methodist Church on Duval Road.

“Community gardens are a way to open access to fresh and healthy foods for low-income residents,” Joplin said.

Adelphi Acre has three educational garden plots and a composting section. A teaching plot helps children learn about growing and eating their own food.

“There’s something about growing a cherry tomato and eating it straight out of the garden,” Joplin said.

All the produce grown at the Grow Together community garden at Gateway Community Church on McNeil Drive goes to the church’s food pantry. That aspect is why Kurt Compeau said he has volunteered in the garden for 2 1/2 years.

“I have never been in a position to know what homelessness or unemployment feels like,” he said. “… I’m a softie for kids, so if there are kids out there who are not getting food, that’s a problem.”

Volunteer Dave Perkins has been an organic gardener for more than 40 years and said growing food locally provides more control over variety of produce and gardening methods.

“There’s a disconnect between people and where their food comes from,” he said. “… We’re a society used to fast food.”

Opening access to healthy foods and maintaining a connection to food are other reasons Mays said she is advocating for more locally grown foods. She also volunteers with the North Austin Community Garden at the North Austin YMCA. That garden will be expanding to double its capacity by spring.

Mays said the garden provides fresh foods to an underserved community, and there is also talk of looking into opening a farmers market on the YMCA site.

“Historically in Austin farmers markets have been in higher-end neighborhoods,” she said. “I’m very much a believer that healthy food is for everyone. This division of haves and have-nots and access to healthy foods has got to stop.”

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