A Solar Tractor for Urban Agriculture

By Bill Moore

Posted: 11 Feb 2010

An amazing amount of the world's food is grown in urban settings, according to John Readers in "Cities".

He reports that a 1990's survey of 100 cities in 30 countries found that one third of urban households in these metropolitan areas grow food, either for their own tables, to sell or both. From London, where some 16,000 tons of vegetables are produced within the confines of the larger metropolitan area to Shanghai, with a population of 14.2 million, which produces enough food to be self-sufficient in vegetables, while producing much of its own rice and meats, including pork, poultry and pond fish, urban agriculture is an important trend. Even the United States, he notes, "produces more than a third of the dollar value of its agricultural output within urban metropolitan areas."

Living in the verdant and sparsely populated center of America where fields of corn (maize) and soybeans stretch far into the distance, and where giant diesel tractors pull monster-sized discs and planters, the fact that much of our food stuffs isn't grown on the hundreds of thousands of acres of deep, dark soil surrounding me, frankly mystifies me and helps me understand why Steve Heckeroth has devoted so much effort to develop and perfect his solar-powered electric tractor, depicted in the video below.

It's my view and that of many others that as we move further into the 21st century, with its ever-growing populations, steady urbanization and resource constraints, that growing much of our food closer to where it's consumed will become central facts of life. Having machinery like Steve's tracked vehicle that can double as a tiller, front loader and more, while not using fossil fuels, could someday become common sights in cities across the globe, where even today's urban planners are envisioning not only productive kitchen gardens in green spaces and infills, but even stretching vertically into the sky.

This isn't really a new vision of the future. One of the more interesting passages of Cities is an account in the mid-1800s of the feeding of inhabitants of the city of London. After enumerating the millions of lemons, oranges and pineapples that arrived in the city by fast sailing clippers, as well as the 1,200 cattle and 12,000 sheep that were butchered every Friday in and around Smithfield market, Reader writes about the vast tracts of gardens surrounding the city in Greenwich, Chelsea, Battersea, Putney and Brentford, some 17,000 acres in all, "whole acres of it... covered in glass."

"Flocks of chickens were deployed to combat insects, their feet dressed in socks to prevent them from scratching out crops; toads were brought in at six shillings a dozen to take care of slugs and snails... Each day, wagon-trains transported tons of produce to Convent Garden market and the 'same wagon that in the morning brings a load of cabbages, is seen returning a few hours later filled with manure.' The land was so generously composted and deeply dug that if produced four and sometimes five crops a year."
This is the south of England in the reign of Queen Victoria we're talking about, not the San Joaquin Valley of California of today.

Castro's Cuba had to reinvent its agriculture system when the collapse of the Soviet Union starved it of Russian-subsidized oil and fertilizers, as recounted in The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. John Reader notes that because of the U.S. embargo and the cut-off of Soviet aid, "the amount of food in Havana is estimated to have fallen by as much as 60 per cent between 1991-1995."

In response, Castro declared, "that no piece of land -- however small -- should be left uncultivated." Even the front lawn of the Agriculture Ministry was dug up and planted in food crops by government employees. Because no synthetic fertilizers were available, the Cubans focused on developing a sustainable, and out of necessity, totally organic food production system, what Reader refers to as the "most impressive conversion to science-based, low-input urban agriculture in history..."

As the population of Nairobi, Kenya exploded, it turns out that the 1948 Master Plan intended in the colonial period to create a "Garden City," proved unwittingly prescient, bequeathing the poor of the capital with open spaces on which to grow crops for themselves and to sell to earn income.

"Most of Nairobi's urban farmers are crushingly poor;" writes Reader in Cities," three-quarters of them cultivate land which is not theirs, and nearly half are using public land." Ironically, growing food in Nairobi is illegal. Planting pretty ornamentals is not.

Here in the States, Zach Dundas writes in True/Slant about the woes of late of "libertarian" urban planning where few measures were "taken to protect productive agricultural land from conversion into exquisitely unproductive tract housing." The cities with the least growth restrictive policies -- Las Vegas, Phoenix, South Florida -- are, he points out, the ones with the most depressed housing markets.

A resident of Portland, Oregon, he admits..

"...we engage in headache-inducing cooperative politics to try to slow the erosion of the agricultural base close to the metropolitan area. One result, as I reported for Good Magazine recently, is the extraordinary (and now trendy) bounty of locally grown food available in the city. One thing that distinguishes Portland from most mid-sized American burgs is the fact that an inner-city dweller can drive 20 minutes and arrive at a small farm."
Which brings me back to Steve's electric tractor. It's clearly a great idea -- and I've reported on a similar initiative out in the Hudson Valley some years ago -- one that he's entered in an online competition for a $50,000 grant from Pepsi. He wants to use the money to improve his tractor design with the goal of eventually commercializing it. I think it's worth your vote: it was mine. You have until February 28th to vote, so please do so. CLICK HERE NOW.

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