Please help fund the Barnraiser Campaign to Support Rooftop Farming and Urban-Adapted Seeds in the Bay Area. Interview with Benjamin Fahrer, Top Leaf Farms, by Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com Media
A Seed, Rooftop Farm and Food System Vision!
The Main Goals of the Project -
1. Build a farm facility to grow, develop and produce urban-adapted seeds and organic food.
2. Strengthen our urban agricultural alliances with existing groups and help supply high quality organic seeds and starts.
3. Educate and train a new crew of urban farmers and seed stewards, prepared to meet the challenges of food production in a time of climate change.
Please join the campaign to create a successful rooftop farming operation and a thriving urban adapted seed project. The future of humanity's food supply relies heavily on the seeds that we have today. By helping us build a robust seed catalogue, you are helping to ensure more food security for all of us, in this time of a changing climate.
Read the campaign details and donate here.
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Interview with Benjamin by Willi –
This this campaign underpinned by economic justice goals? Please give us details if so.
So given the current state of housing affairs in the East Bay, due to the tech industry takeover of SF, we now have economic refugees that have been displaced to the East Bay that has created an imbalance. In a recent blog by the SF Gate, Oakland has risen to 4th in the nation for most expensive rental market. So if shelter takes up an average of 70% of your income, our other basic needs, Food, water and clothing are often compromised, organic food is often just too expensive, when the reality of rent is so costly. Our main economic justice goal is how to provide equal access to the food we grow and the products we supply so that we do not add to the rapid gentrification that has gripped the area. Ironically the SF bay area is also home to a huge food scene that prides itself on Sustainable, Local, Organic and Wild, in what I believe is the true SLOW food movement, however this type of food is often only accessible to those of privilege as it is often expensive for many to afford.
With this economic justice goal of providing more healthy food access we have enlisted the help of the Oakland Food Policy Council Director Esperanza Pallana to advise us on these issues. We plan to provide not only produce to local residents but also organic seeds and nursery starts to home gardeners for other urban agricultural projects that have been very successful in accomplishing their economic and social justice goals that they focus on. Some of these groups that we are working with include Planting Justice, City Slicker Farms and Urban Adamah.
We are also looking at other forms of pricing to our customers based on their income and the cost of production, similar to how Peruvian farmers price their goods for market. We will be using other forms of currency such as Bay Bucks and alternative means of distribution to those who need good organic food. I really want to provide an urban farm model that is not dependent upon grants that a lot of non-profit urban agricultural projects need in order to ‘make it’. I realize that the non-profit sector would be a good way to go, some saying it is the only way to go, given how costly the resources are to grow in the city, yet this model is one that limits many from pursuing the urban farming path and I think this creates a myth that urban farming cannot be a viable business for the smaller local produce.
What is the role of permaculture in this project? Where is this nascent movement helping and where is it is failing?
I have quite a bit of experience in Permaculture and do credit a large part of my growth to being inspired by the ideas and techniques that permaculture promotes. I have implemented a lot of the techniques, use the design principles and look at how my projects measure up to the ethical intentions of Permaculture and I would say that there are a lot of ‘permaculture ideas’ within this project and I definitely design from this perspective, yet I tend not to identify with permaculture as the main design system being implemented here. In my 15 years of experience within the movement I have observed a lot of self-serving and conflicting agendas, as well as a lot of white privilege being demonstrated without the awareness of it. As a white male of privilege working in Oakland, I am very sensitive to this pattern and do not wish to repeat it. This observation has recently led me to disassociate with permaculture rather than identify, and I am not sure when and how this might change.
As I explored, traveled and visited permaculture projects throughout the world I found them to be overall very inspiring yet also insular and limited, mostly because of a self-rewarding complex that a lot of Permaculture practitioners seem to fall into. This complex is one in which they have all the answers and know how to do it all, when in truth a lot of them don’t have any practical experience in these fields. I can understand their perspective of seeing the system as a whole and you can see how all the parts fit together, yet I don’t think this gives license to proclaim and start teaching on these subjects, which often is the case.
Also many people in permaculture come in with a savior complex in which they arrive to fix the problem, which in my mind, is really no different than those who first colonized cultures who also came to ‘fix’ problems with the ‘best of intentions’. Before any person can really grasp the complexity in which permaculture is trying to address, many years of experience seem to be in order before teaching on the subject, hence the conflict of approaches from those who coined the concept, Holmgren and Mollison, two very different approaches. Both are extraordinary men, however Mollison seem to proliferating more of the savior complex that I mentioned above and also modeled a very masculine approach that borders on misogyny. I think that is another reason why we see so few women in leadership roles in permaculture, granted this is changing, yet it is a pattern and the pattern is the design and design is the subject of permaculture.
I feel that permaculture really helps inspire people and gives them a lens to look through, yet one needs to understand that it really is an assemblage of best practices from many different fields and seems to culturally appropriate them in a new package, something that societies of privilege have done throughout time. I am aware that our project is coming in with ideas and placing them into a community and I want to be sensitive to this so that we fit in, rather than stick out or come in trying to “better’ the neighborhood.
I would love to see more humility, reverence and respect be cultivated within the permaculture movement so that it is more inclusive and can join forces with other groups in making systemic change rather than be on the fridge. There are some who do this but I think many like being rebels and radicals and thus find a niche within permaculture that actually supports that.
Who are your roof-top farming design mentors?
Josiah Cain who is currently the Director of Innovation at Sherwood Design Engineers has inspired and mentored me a lot through this process. Josiah and I have known each other since 1999 when we did our Permaculture Design Course at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. It was Josiah who first brought me into this project as he was contacted though another consultant to advise on the living roof, once he heard they wanted to grow food, he called me and we worked on the conceptual phase together through his firm DesignEcology. Josiah has an incredible background as a landscaper and designer and holds a masters in Landscape Architecture from Harvard. He worked for a number of years as the director of Rana Creek’s Living Architecture program in which they designed and installed the 2 acre living roof at The California Academy of Sciences.
I have also been inspired and mentored by Ben Flanner of the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm in New York. When looking for examples of rooftop farms I immediately came across the Brooklyn Grange and began to inquire. Ben was very helpful in providing info and lesson’s learned in their process of building over 2.5 acres of rooftop farms in New York City. These are open, monolithic, intensive farming systems as opposed to extensive green roof systems or those farms that are hydroponic and mostly under greenhouses. I truly admire and I am inspired by Ben and his team for pioneering this area of rooftop growing. Cutis Stone also just released an amazing book, Profitable Urban Farming and has a incredible web platform for people to learn how to start their own urban farm. I have found his resources spot on and inspiring.
Tell us how – and who – must determine the load of the materials that you want to install on the Oakland buildings?
I am working with a design build firm, Nautilus Group (NGI) who has several projects under development in the East Bay. Their goal is to build housing that has alternative ideas incorporated to the design, such as less cars and less waste in the building process. NGI also has a policy in place that if any of their projects has a roof large enough to install a rooftop farm they will. This began with the Garden Village project in Berkeley in 2013 in which I was hired as a consultant to look at the 12,000 square feet of roof and figure out the feasibility of farming the roof within the limitations and resources of the building. Through a involved and integrated design process we created a very lightweight system that is somewhat of a Hybrid hydroponic system as it relies on nutrients being delivered through the irrigation system, however is does have a growing medium that includes organic materials . It is not ‘soil’ but a engineered growing medium that we have specifically designed for the project.
The other products used in the roof build up are certified green roofing materials with specific weights and functions for living roofs. In working with NGI the building was designed to support the roof farm. The project in Oakland is the same process yet 3 times the size and the lessons learned in Berkeley are being applied. In the end the city and state approves the project for building, the licensed engineer, in this case NGI, stands behind the numbers that ensure the building can support the load. We had to test our system quite a bit to get the saturated weights to work and also have a system that would produce an abundance of food.
What are the building safety codes involved in roof-top garden?
Just like any occupied roof area there are safe guards of railings and setbacks from the edge of the building. We have designed in some additional barriers that limits access to the growing areas as well as planting the perimeter of each roof with a native hedgerow that provides habitat for beneficial insects and provides some windbreak. Other codes are in reference to pounds per square foot of live and non-live loads so that the building integrity is maintained. We also have to provide additional signage to make people aware and to proceed with caution. The safety codes in regards to growing food are similar as to a ground level operation, in regards to set back of non-organic operations and roadways, although we are vertical so we utilize that distance as well.
How many ways can you solve the water access requirement on a roof?
Well there are two main things related to water on the roof. First, the use of water that the roof requires and secondly the storm water management that the living roof provides. In regards to the water use our system has a number of features to first reduce the amount of water that would normally be used. We use a drip tape system that takes advantage of drip irrigation technology to deliver water to the plant roots. The growing medium we have created includes a bio-char product that BioChar Supreme has produce for us that has amazing water holding capacity but is a stable source of carbon, meaning it doesn’t breakdown like other carbon components normally found in a soil based system, the biochar creates an amazing sponge. Under this medium we have a drain board material that includes water retention cups that are filled from the irrigation water that then allow the plants roots to wick up moisture when they need it. We can monitor the saturation of the whole roof with moisture meters and this information is sent back to the irrigation system so that we never over water.
So we have this great system that uses less water, and the water is does use is mostly recycled from our processing area. People don’t realize that it takes almost as much water to clean the produce as it takes to grow it. We have a processing area located in the basement of the building in which all the produce is washed to be kitchen ready, this requires a triple wash system. In our scenario we will use almost 100 gallons of water per day. All this water will be filtered and then collected in a storage tank where we then adjust the pH and add nutrients to enrich for use on the roof. We estimate in the summer we will use only 1/4 of the water in our system compared to a farm that grows food in a way that we often see, in the ground, still with drip irrigation, but not utilizing some of these extra practices.
The other relation to water, that of storm water management, is a primary function of living roofs. The plants and medium both filter and retain a lot of the water that would normally runoff of a building. In our situation we will be retaining between 75%-90% of all the water that falls on the roof. The remaining runoff is channeled into surface level bioswales, and in the case of extreme storm events some water will be leaving the site, yet will be filtered of all containments. In the urban environment this is a huge environmental service that is catching on more and more as we realize the toxicity of the urban environment in which we live.
What is a “climate-adapted seed?” Do you mean “pollution-adapted”? Do you have some of these hybrid seeds right now?
When we say ‘Climate adapted’ seeds we are talking about two specific climate adaptations. The first is in respect to the actual climate of a specific bio-region and the second is in reference to Climate Change. In our current food system people have begun asking the question “where does my food come from?” More and more people want to eat more locally to help reduce the amount of food-miles that their food travels from farm to table. Hence the Local food movement has exploded under this new desire to eat more responsible and support local farmers. However people rarely ask the question “where did the seeds come from that my food grew from?” The answer is most often from a seed farm far, far away. To look deeper into the seed industry requires an unveiling of a complex corporate industrial system whose purpose is to control our food supply. This might sound a little extreme but if you think about it, it makes sense. Those who control the seeds, control the food, who then control the largest industry on earth, the one we all depend on.
All seeds are products of the plant from which they came. We know that plants adapt to their environment as soon as they start to grow. They adapt to the type of soil, what it is made of, it’s depth, the air, the water, daylight, latitude, the weather etc. Thus when we start growing plants in our bio-region and save seeds from them, those seeds are more adapted to growing in this area. Through a observational and scientific process we can start selecting for different traits such as vigor, size, disease resistance as well as flavor, texture and appearance. We begin to develop varieties that can perform better than the ones we started with based on what we are trying to achieve. In our case we are looking at not only the greater bio-region and improvement effort but also the urban climate and selecting for traits that will allow certain varieties to perform better in an urban setting. Some of these contributing factors are high yielding in small places, performance within varying micro-climates, shallow soils and container growing.
Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds is on our advisory board to help guide us in this effort and in the selection of the varieties that we will initially start with that include a number of greens that we plan to source from Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed. We are also working with open pollinated heirloom varieties that self seed meaning they are not hybrids. This allows for our practices and plants to be true to seed, meaning the seed produced by the plant will have the same characteristics as the parent, as opposed to hybrids which are not true to seed, hence their proprietary nature. We will work on some hybridization but the goal will then be to stabilize it so that it will grow true to seed.
Most of us know we face unprecedented challenges in respect to climate change. The different extremities of weather conditions during the seasons, rising temperatures and droughts affect the crops we grow and their resiliency. We have lost over 96% of commercially available seed in the last 100 years and with it a lot of specific traits that most likely would help us out in these times of climate change. For example farmers in India needed a specific variety that could grow in salty conditions when a cyclone in 2009 destroyed a levy built by the British. A WWF-India search led to the reintroduction of a variety almost lost. From just four seedlings the Sundarban region in Northeast India has re-established this heirloom variety and is ensuring food for the people. There are many stories of varieties that could grow in climates that others could not. We are going to need all the genetics we can get to grow through this period of changing climate and having seeds that are adapted to our local climate along with traits that are resilient to drought, fluctuation in temperatures and pests, is a much significant approach to local food security.
So when we think about building a healthy local food system, we need to include seeds into the discussion. I have been working with a number of seed farmers, growers and companies over the last several years discussing what steps are needed in order to build a robust seed economy based in the public domain and helps preserve and build the level of diversity that we will need for future generations. The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) has been spearheading this more organized effort for over a decade and truly those involved have spent the better half of their lives devoted to this work. We are also working with Steve Peters of Seed Revolution NOW in creating a bio-regional seed hub for Central California to provide more assistance to farmers wanting to grow for seed and in the distribution of locally adapted organic seeds to all farmers.
Do you have plans to grow marijuana?
Not at the current moment, although Oakland is dubbed ‘Oaksterdam’ and is one of the largest distributors and suppliers of Cannabisto the general populous in the Bay area, if not California. It is only a matter of time before new laws will make growing Cannabis a very viable option for many farmers. We have joked that our operation would be a good finical investment if we took this route, however right now it has a drug culture that comes with it that poses other threats and issues that we don’t wish to support. Also growing cannabis could easily overshadow the growing of food and we truly want to create a model that can sustain itself by growing wholesome organic food. With that said, if we were to look at Cannabis cultivation I would look at the cultivation of CBD varieties that are more specific for their medicinal characteristics rather than the THC content which is cultivated for their psychotropic attributes. To me this cultivation of medicine is much more in line with growing food because as most of us know, food IS medicine.
Where is the labor pool coming from to manage the gardens and seed production?
We will be managing the operations with a small crew that we are hiring through our existing local and farming networks. We have an amazing initial crew already and plan to expand a lot this year as our installations and operations pick up. We are primarily looking for organic farmers and builders that live in the area. There is a large population of Latino farmers who live in the city as well as others who have come from rural communities looking for work. Many landscapers have great work ethic and some with food growing skills who we plan to enlist and also partner with. We are also starting an urban farmer training program that focuses on production and vocational training in this field of work.
What is a “seed steward?”
A seed steward is someone who has taken on the responsibility of growing and saving seeds. They are the people who are carrying with them the potential of life to continue to exist. These are very important people who have been vital parts of society in the past. In the US and many parts of the world we have forgotten the role of the seed steward as it has been lost within the industrial agricultural complex that we have today. In my opinion it is one of the most important cultural roles of today. Reclaiming our food sovereignty through seed sovereignty is something that contributes immensely to society. A mentor of mine in the seed world, Bill McDorman, often asks the question “what are you doing today that will have any significance a thousand years from now?” Saving and working with seeds has that type of potential.
Do have specific participation requests / requirements in place for the Garden Village residents?
Garden Village is our flagship farm that we are currently building in Berkeley. Our ideally situation would be that a majority of the food grown goes to the residence of the building, thus their main role would be in eating the food and respecting the space that it is being grown in. This is not designed as a community garden, but rather a farm that is managed by skilled farmers to produce the most food possible per square foot. We plan to harvest daily with an on-vine inventory system in which we only harvest what has been ordered, this system eliminates waste. Our produce will be delivered per preference of doorstep at a certain time or available in the common room for pick up. We will also have a weekly ‘market’ to build community on the common deck of the village. Residents can participate in specific farming and harvesting activities once a week and upon request. Our Seed and Nursery farm that we are building in Oakland is only two miles away and will serve as a vital resource to help establish our operation. Once the second project at 5110 Telegraph secures its building permits we will be coordinating with our other projects and move up on to the roof, which is almost an acre of production space. Our aim is to grow and distribute a fossil-fuel free food. Solar powered delivered by hand and by bike all within 3 miles of the farm.
To me, working with the private sector and the government is a dicey path. What lessons can you share to date?
Yes it is sometimes contradictory and hypocritical to work with some of the agencies and forces that causes a lot of the problems and issues that we need to fix, yet it is a path we need to take more often if we are going to create lasting change. What I have learned is to understand that many people within the government and private sector are not inherently bad people but sometimes just self-absorbed or selfish. What we have is a systemic problem as our culture conditions us through the nature of capitalism. My wife, Rupa Marya, recently helped me realize that a common problem in our society today is our lack of empathy and that this lack is reinforced by capitalism driving force of commodifying everything. In many ways we need to participate in this system in order to live, yet at the same time we need to build alternatives that can hopefully provide better models to live by so that the future generations can step into a more sustainable and regenerative culture than the extractive capitalistic one that we have today.
Counter to Joseph Campbell’s idea, my vision is to shift from the Individual as Hero to the Community as Hero. Your thoughts?
Yes, I agree that the shift from the individual to the collective is needed on many levels. One of my mentors Brock Dolman often says that we talk a lot about the eco-system restoration that is needed, yet there is a much greater task at hand, that of "Ego-System Re-Story-ation”, this is no more evident than in the urban and city development and planning. The ways in which our cities and buildings are constructed are, literally, a vast displays of egos; from the architect, to the planner to the builder. It is rare to find construction with the environment, rather than on it, which is most often the case. I have become more and more aware of trying to cultivate projects in which the project is at the center rather than the person. My goal would rather to become obsolete as the project gains momentum, for it is only a matter of time before I do become obsolete and I hope that I can leave the world a bit better though the growing and cultivating of a project and seeds that sprout for generations to come.
Please donate here.
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Benjamin Fahrer - Ecological Farmer and Builder
Benjamin is an ecological designer, educator, land consultant, natural builder and foremost a farmer. For the last 18 years he has worked to create models of alternative ways to produce food that values nature. He started building, framing houses, when he was 14, 9 years later in 1998 he started growing food at James Creek Farm in Carmel Valley, a farm growing exclusively for Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. This is where he fell in love and acquired a deep passion for farming and the building of ecological systems.
Benjamin completed his Permaculture Design Course in 1999 at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and went on to steward homesteads and start community gardens. In 2003 he began to manage and operate Oceansong Organics in west Sonoma County. He continued his study in practical permaculture application with a diploma and becoming a registered teacher in Permaculture Design in 2007 from Bill Mollison of TAGARI and a certified teacher with the Permaculture Research Institute.
In 2008 Benjamin became the farm supervisor at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where he lived, worked and taught seminars in ecological design, permaculture and organic food production. He also became involved in local food systems and the SLOW food movement. In 2006 Fahrer was delegate at the Slow Food gathering Terra Madre and was the US flag bearer in the opening ceremonies when attending at the 2008 gathering. Benjamin has also participated in many conferences and forum’s including a unprecedented gathering The Table of Free Voices held by Dropping Knowledge in Berlin in 2006, in which 112 leaders answered the 100 most pressing questions of our time in a remarkable combination of open source technology and conversation.
Benjamin's passion lies in building ecological landscapes and addressing responsible land stewardship. He is currently the owner and operator of topleaffarms.com, a CA licensed contractor specializing in urban agriculture systems and roof top farming. With Top Leaf Farms, Benjamin is designing and developing integrated systems that produce food, grow seeds, soil and starts specific for the urban climate. As now more people live in cities than not we must re-address how we can produce within the urban environment and make these landscapes more functional.
Top Leaf Farms specializes in urban agriculture, rooftop farming, storm water management, water re-use and urban forestry for carbon sequestration: all working for system change in our current climate change.
Willi Paul -
Willi has been active in the sustainability, permaculture, transition, sacred Nature, new alchemy and mythology spaces since the launch of PlanetShifter.com on EarthDay 2009. Willi’s network now includes multiple blog sites and numerous list serves with a global presence.
Mr. Paul has released 25 eBooks, 2325 + posts on PlanetShifter.com, and over 350 interviews with global leaders. He has created 74 New Myths to date and has been interviewed over 30 times in blogs and journals. Please see his cutting-edge article at the Joseph Campbell Foundation and his pioneering videos on YouTube.
In 1996 Mr. Paul was instrumental in the emerging online community space through his Master’s Thesis: “The Electronic Charrette.” He volunteered for many small town re-designs with the Minnesota Design Team. Willi earned his permaculture design certification in August 2011 at the Urban Permaculture Institute.
Willi’s current focus includes the integration of permaculture, mythology and the Transition Movement with the Myth Lab.
Mr. Paul’s eGroups -
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consult . design . build . farm
farmtheroof at gmail.com