Transforming Vacant Buildings to Urban Farms
How one D.C. start-up leads the way
For Nadia Robinson of D.C.-based Locals Grow Smart, erasing food deserts means transforming the community that raised her. Growing up in Washington, D.C.’s Northeast side, Robinson spent hours in the kitchen and garden with her mother and grandmother, who grew up on a farm. While fresh meals were readily available at her home, she noticed her neighbors struggled with nutrition education and access to fresh produce, often settling for highly processed options. District-level food justice efforts commissioned by First Lady Michelle Obama target the neighborhood, but Robinson sensed a void—her community needed a multi-functional pillar to address more than nutrition. With its 3,000 square foot (914.4 square meters) greenhouse, Locals tackles four problems—food insecurity, job training, feedback loops between climate change and traditional farming, and vacant buildings in city centers.
Unlocking the Genetic Code of Pests
In every acre, in every field, in (nearly) every row of crops on earth, farmers have to deal with weeds.
Within the last ten years, a few dozen scientists have turned to genomics to understand why some weeds have developed herbicide resistance or become more invasive. Genomics’ time in the spotlight is largely due to media buzz around The Human Genome Project, a massive international effort devoted to unlocking the secrets of human DNA. But plants have genomes, too.
Put simply, a genome is the blueprint for an organism’s bloodline — the traits passed down from parent to offspring. It’s usually encoded in the DNA. Using different DNA sequencing techniques, some have partially or fully mapped various crop weed genomes. And while the expensive endeavor can’t offer immediate answers to the problems farmers face in the field, it can provide data to make more effective herbicides down the line.
Organic Farmers Obliterate Weeds With Grit
The idea began with Minnesota's bumper crop of backyard apricots in 2007. Along with the fruit came a glut of pits; the parts traditionally considered as “agricultural residue.” To Frank Forcella, however—a weed scientist and hobby grower stuck with his own pile of pits—there are no leftovers.
The USDA agronomist was sure he could find a use for the waste, and a few web searches revealed that fruit processors often grind up pits to use in sand blasters. This led to a less obvious question (though likely more obvious to a weed scientist): Can weeds be killed with a sand blaster?
“[The idea] sounded too silly initially,” Forcella says. But he and a colleague, Dean Peterson, at the USDA North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory in Morris, Minnesota, kept batting it around. “Eventually, we bought a cheapo sand blaster and started some simple experiments in a greenhouse.”
Their initial work involved growing weeds next to a corn plant; when the corn was about six inches tall and the weed was about one to three inches tall, the researchers blasted both with a split-second application of grit.