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Urban Farming Insider with Professor Aaron Fox: Urban Farming Expert and educator

Dr. Aaron Fox is an urban farmer and professor who was recently hired to start an Urban and Community Agriculture program at Cal Poly Pomona in the Los Angeles area.

He and his colleague, Eileen Cullen, are developing classes on production, business, policy and community development all related to urban farming. 

They will be offering a “Minor in Urban and Community Agriculture” starting Fall 2018. We caught up with Aaron to discuss his insights on urban farming, discussing:

- Is urban farming just a fad? 
- How do you plan for a commercial urban farm correctly?
- What are trending crops he is hearing urban farmers are growing
- What conventional urban farming wisdom is wrong
- Questions he most commonly answers from his students interested in urban farming, and his answers

and much more! Interview below: 

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Introduction

UV: Can you tell us a little more about the urban farming minor program you're developing at Cal Poly Pomona, a little bit about yourself, and your students? 

Aaron:
 We're getting lots of students that want to learn how to produce food, but they want to do it in the places where they're coming from, like East LA and
more densely populated areas.

So that requires some particular skills and a little bit different than traditional ag programs.

So they hired two of us. They hired me. I was most recently at Michigan State University. And they also hired another professor, Dr. Eileen Cullen, who was a professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison.

UV:  What's your background?

Aaron: My background is, I did my PhD at North Dakota State University in organic agriculture. I was particularly looking at pest management in organic systems but honestly it was in larger scale, more traditional agriculture.

My real experience with urban food systems was actually prior to graduate school when I was working actually in the area you're in right now. I was up in Monterey (California).

I was working in Salinas a lot on school gardens, nutrition, education. I was helping out a local farmer there on her CSA.

So I got a lot of experience actually prior to my academic career in urban agriculture.

I think one of the other reasons that I was hired for this position is I'm really passionate about teaching, and Cal Poly Pomona is a school that focuses on teaching and in particular it focuses on a learn-by- doing approach, so they really want students to get hands-on experience, and that's how most of my classes are run.

Last week we had a drip irrigation class and so we just installed a drip irrigation system up in a garden on campus. And we have composting labs where we're building composting systems, etc.

So it's actually a pretty exciting time to be here right now because we're really building this program from the ground up and we're getting a lot of good feedback, not only from the students but from numerous community organizations in the area that want to partner with us.

UV: And are those organizations commercial or what is their nature?

Aaron:  It's a wide variety. We're getting commercial operations, especially indoor
vertical farm operations that are interested in our students, potential hires, or interns.

Then we're also working with non-profit organizations that are working on food access and food justice and trying to bring urban agriculture into the greater Los Angeles area, specifically to address a lot of the food insecurity issues that are happening here.

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Is urban farming over-hyped?

UV: So the next question I have is, I was talking to someone the other day and he's been involved in urban farming for many years, before it became what is it today. He was kind of griping about the overdatafication and he was describing the urban farming movement, or at least parts of it as almost like a fetish.

So what is your opinion on the gaudiness of urban ag versus its actual utility? Some people might say, you can't really do urban ag at scale, but at the same time it does have these proven community benefits for urban communities.

How do you separate the wheat from the chaff there as far as the concept of urban ag and its utility?

Aaron: There's lots of research on how urban agriculture can benefit communities, on how it can improve access to nutritious food, how it can enhance incomes, how
it can have social benefits for bringing people together, etc.

Personally for me, especially when I have these young students that are coming in and wanting to do this, one thing that's really exciting is that in agriculture for a very long time now, we've been trying very hard to figure out how to get the next generation of folks interested in agriculture.

We haven't really done a very good job. I mean, the average age of a farmer in the United States is 58 of course. But it's been around that same age for like 30 or 40 years now.

So I think one thing that we're realizing is that through urban agriculture, we can get folks excited about food and farming again. That's really important because we've gotten so disconnected from food and from farming that we don't value it anymore. We don't value our farmers.

We don't value our food. There's consequences to that.

So there are lots of tangible benefits, but I think there's also some broader implications too, to not just urban agriculture but to agriculture as a whole.

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Most common beginner urban farming questions?

UV: Right. So next question. You mentioned your students and their enthusiasm. I think that's really interesting because I think a lot of people who come to our
site, they may not be students formerly but they come to the site to engage in student-like activity of learning about urban farming and getting their feet wet at the very least.

So I think it would be helpful if you talked about a couple questions or concepts about urban farming that you repeatedly deal with with students, maybe stuff that seems to be difficult or important to understand and you think that anybody, whether they're a student or not who are trying to learn urban farming, what are a couple of those tough questions and what are the answers?

Aaron: Okay. That's a big question. Honestly, the thing that ends up tripping people up the most with this is not actually growing the plants.  We're trying to make sure we impart that with our students.

(Also), we want to make sure that they're not just prepared to grow something in a vacant lot or grow something hydroponically indoors, but that they also understand that to be a successful in this you have to understand policy and rules. You have to understand business.

You have to understand marketing. You have to understand social issues and community issues.

One of the biggest things that I start off with in one of my classes is, I ask them, "What you really need to figure out is your purpose and why you're doing this."

Because that should really dictate everything else. If you're doing this for profit and you're trying to make a business model out of this, you're going to go down a very different path and you're going to be looking for very different things than if you're doing this for an education purpose or for a community purpose.

So I think the growing aspect, it's not that it's easy but that it's relatively straightforward and that there will be trouble-shooting along the way, but the difficult part is actually figuring out why you're doing this and what your goals are.

Honestly, all the (urban) farmers I've ever worked with, it almost always ends being the same thing. I hear them say, "I grow the best tomatoes," or, "I grow the most beautiful greens and nobody's buying it."

That's not where you should be. You should actually reverse that and you should figure out who you're going to be selling to, what they want and then you grow it. Right?

Rather than growing something and then figuring out what to do with it. I think that's tough for a lot of folks to ... That's not how a lot of us get into urban farming, right?

(We typically start) not from the business and marketing aspect. To be successful, you're going to have to take that into account. That applies to if you're doing it for a
community garden too.

I've got lots of folks who say, "We got permission rom the city to use this land and we've got it all set up. And we've got irrigation and ools. And nobody's coming out."

I'm like, "Well, you probably should have figured out who was going to use this before you set it all up."

You gotta figure out what the purpose is and who this is going to affect before you take your first step.

UV: So to rephrase with that kind of anecdote, one thing you find is that people neglect certain parts of the planning process.

Aaron: Yes.

UV: Okay. Right. So a follow-on question to what you just said, you highlighted how
there's differences between a profit urban farming system and, let's take for example, a community benefit system.

So you could you go through a couple bullet points of what each one has maybe in common, maybe what the differences are. People might ask, "Is the crop that you're going to grow be targeted for size or what are the characteristics for isolating those two specific use-cases?

Aaron: Yeah, I think the easiest thing to concentrate on that subject is if the crops are going to be growing for profit system, you're going to need to figure out the crop that's going to bring you the highest return.

We built an indoor growing facility here on campus just out of a shipping container, and I made the same mistake. I let my student just go down the path before we actually figured out exactly what the purpose of this thing was. 

Once he built it all out, we realized there was really nothing that he was going to be able to grow in there that was going to pay for all the cost of maintaining it.

Except for maybe micro-greens, and so that's what he was left with.

Especially if you're in Southern California where we have like essentially 365 days of sunshine. We've had farmers tell us, "Why are you growing something indoors. You can just do it in a greenhouse here."

So you have to think about, especially from a small-scale urban standpoint is, what can you produce that is not only in demand but that you can have a competitive edge on?

It's basically figuring out what is it that the market wants that they can't get now that you can provide?

Whereas so it's going to be really specialty niche things, and you're probably going to focus on just a handful of products.

UV: What kind of stuff would that be?

Aaron: There's lots of opportunities now for things like micro-greens, for specialty mushrooms.There's some big things right now that we've been asked about.

There is some opportunity for tropical specialty fruit, but you have to be careful because that's kind of a longterm investment and you have to make sure you have the resources to put in a longterm investment for something like fruit trees.

There's some other opportunities as well, there's some folks that are doing quail eggs and things like that in an urban environment and they're finding some good markets for that. It's really kind of finding the specialty market that you can connect with and communicate with and find what they need.

There's lots of opportunities for different culturally significant produce items that are harder to find in traditional venues. Things like that.

UV: Okay. That's the for-profit use-case. What about the community benefit side of
it?

Aaron: I think maybe I'll talk about specifically things for educational purposes. Again, if you're supposed to be using it as a teaching garden, you need to figure out what are you going to be teaching.

A lot of folks, they set up a school garden, they just are like, "Well, I'm going to do a pizza garden." And that's perfectly fine, but you have to actually think about what curriculum you're going to be teaching in that class.

Specifically, how are you going to get buy-in from the stakeholders? How is the principal and the teachers and the parents going to maintain interest in your garden.

It's going to come down to your garden meeting the needs of those stakeholders.

We have a couple students that I've been working with and they said, "You know, I was given permission to take this plot of land over at this school and I've put a lot of effort into it, but I'm not really getting any interest from the administrators or from the parents or from the teachers."

They said what they're really interested in right now is focusing on cultural heritage and they feel like the garden is secondary. And I told her, "This is a golden opportunity. You just need to shape the garden so that it's growing things that are culturally appropriate.

You can teach those lessons about cultural heritage in the garden."

Then from a non-profit standpoint, basically it's making sure that the community you're serving is served by the things you're growing. It's interesting.

This is kind of like a longterm process. But in an urban environment where you're trying to get more stakeholders involved ... I have this non-profit that I was working in Long Beach, and they were growing all these funky heirloom tomatoes that were I'm sure delicious, but nobody wanted them.

Because in the community they we're in, they wanted the boring spherical red tasteless tomato because that's what they were used to.

So you have to take baby steps with some of these things and meet folks halfway, try and provide some opportunities for them to listen to you, you to listen to them and figure out how you can meet everybody's needs.

UV: Great. So one question for you and then I'll have to finish with a couple of rapid-fire questions. The last formal question I have is, you mentioned your background is in pest management with the commercial scale. In your opinion, do you think beginners in urban farming need to worry about pests? And if they do, what are some issues they may encounter and how does the commercial pest management downsize to the urban farming pest management, if it does?

Aaron: Yeah. That's a great question. Because I've actually had some urban farmers tell me that they're working on such a small scale that they don't really need to worry about pests because they're so intensive and they're so on top of things that they'll just be able to deal with it when it comes up. And I think, honestly, that's just a huge gamble.

I think they're just lucky that they haven't encountered anything yet. The main thing that you can gather from the larger scale commercial growers is just all the cultural methods of managing pests.

There's reasons why the larger guys are rotating their crops. There's reasons why they're doing cover crops. All these things.

The feedback I get from the smaller scale urban guys, it's like, "I just don't have the time and space for that." If that is the case, I understand that there's some legitimate space issues, you're going to have to prepare for that and realize that you're inviting in some potential pest issues.

So I think pests have definitely been a problem. We've got some invasive pests down here that are just preventing folks from growing any brassicas in the summertime. And that's huge. That's a huge swath of crops there.

UV: What are some examples of those pests?

Aaron: Bagrada bug is the one I hear about the most. It just tears up (brassicas). There's a lot of opportunity to grow kale because there's a lot of restaurants and smoothie shops and juice shops and stuff that really want kale, but you try and grow it i the summertime down here and it just gets torn apart by bagrada bugs.

UV: Okay. Bagrada. Bagrada bugs. And is like a kind of aphid or what is that?

Aaron: It's in the same broad category of sucking insects. Yeah. It's a true bug.

What's interesting about that is it's originally from somewhere I think in Africa. How did it get here? Where was it first seen? Did it come in through Mexico or something like that?

The fist place they saw it was at the Port of Los Angeles. That's how things get in around here.

So that's a big one. I think it's really those types of big invasive ones that we have real problems with. With aphids and things, folks feel pretty comfortable with ways of controlling them.

Again, whether they're using just physical control methods, like spraying them off their crop, or actually introducing some biological control or using some kind of natural pesticide, etc.

But it's every once in a while that these big pests come in and there's no solutions to it. It sometimes comes down to cultural methods. There's folks in the UC system that just kind of said like, "Just stop growing brassicas for a while." Which again is a tough call.

But I'm actually doing some research right now, looking at whether we can figure out some ways to control some of these big insect pests, like bagrada bugs.

There's some opportunities actually in smaller-scale agriculture because of course the big guys are dealing with this. But one thing that I'm looking into, and this sounds crazy, is actually using a reverse leaf-blower to suck the things up.

Aaron F. Fox: Again, you can't do that in larger scale. It's just the logistics and feasibility are absurd. But if you're dealing with an acre or less, that's not too hard a proposition.

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Rapid Fire Questions

UV:  Cool. Well, I don't want to be irresponsible of your time. But the other quick questions we usually do, first one being what is your favorite fruit or vegetable? Or both if you can't decide?

Aaron: Okay. Vegetable, I've got a huge list of it, but I think I'll say that I reallyappreciate cool season crops.

I know that they don't get a lot of respect. But Ilove beets and I love broccoli and I love Brussels sprouts. I feel like they've gotso much flavor and there's so many interesting things you can do with them.

I feel like I'm having to contain myself here.

Fruits are interesting because I've always loved blueberries, but my wife and Ihave both spent some time living abroad in tropical countries.

So we love a lot of these tropical fruits. Typically the places we've lived before Southern California, we didn't have access to them, but on campus here we're starting togrow a few tropical things, like we've got some mangoes growing, we've gotsome rambutan growing.

So we'll see if those turn out. We're actually growing coffee here, so it's cool to see what we're going to be able to accomplish.


UV: Next question is, what's your favorite urban-thought- related bookthat you think people should check out? Since that's kind of a narrow topic, if you can't think of one, what's your favorite book in general that you think people should check out?

Aaron: That's a good question. One thing that I find is that folks will read one book orone method and they'll feel like that's the only way to do it.

So what I would really suggest folks do is get your hands on books that tell you to do things just in as completely different ways as possible.

I try and teach my students about spin farming and I try and teach them about permaculture and we talk about just how radically these two things can be.

(We also talk about of course, how similar they are as well.)

I think it's good to really expose yourself to abroad swath of material out there and get an idea of all the different ways of doing this and really start figuring out your own way.

UV: Okay. With that being said, do you have a specific title in mind?

Aaron: I think I will refrain from giving a specific title. I think there might actually even be legal issues with me sponsoring something.

UV: What about a non category-specific book, any book?

Aaron: Any book? Oh my goodness. Typically when folks ask me what my favorite book is, one of the books that comes to mind is a book called "Mountains beyond Mountains."

It's about Paul Farmer who's this public house expert that setup a clinic in Haiti. It's really inspiring, but honestly one of the most inspiringparts is just the concept that the title says.

Basically, it's this Haitian proverb ofsaying that beyond mountains there are mountains, right?

There will always be challenges and there will always be things to overcome. And that's not supposed to be a pessimistic way of looking at it.

It's just a way of saying beprepared and be savvy and be ready to take on this adventure and to be excitedabout it and to be passionate about it, but also be realistic about it.

UV: The last one is what's one belief about urban farming that you believe in and that's contrary to conventional belief or conventional wisdom?

Aaron: That's interesting because I kind of am the "conventional wisdom guy" here, so...You're talking to a scientist.

 Let me see if I can come up with something.

Well, one thing I would like to say is this idea that (urban farming) is a fad, right?

I have a lot of old-timers tell me this whole thing of growing in a city and having local food and farmers markets and stuff, we did that in the 1970s, and it went away. So they said, "What's the point ofyou doing it again? What can you actually accomplish here?"

I do not think that this is a fad. I think that this is a really legitimate way of bringing people together, creating communities through food and creating really awesome entrepreneurial opportunities for people in the city.

I think if we can stick to some of those core values, this is just going to continueto take off. I think that there's a lot of government support now. There's a lot ofcommunity support.

There's a lot of industry support for this. And I think, yeah, not every urban farm is going to thrive and survive and not every farmersmarket is going to last indefinitely, but I think this is a really exciting time because I think we're making some really lasting change here and really buildinga really lasting movement.

UV: Great. If people read this article and they want to enroll in your program or atleast find out more information or apply, where should they go?

Aaron: We're still building our website right now, but they can connect with me on Twitter and they're welcome to send me emails.

Twitter, my handle is my fullname. So that's @aaronfreemanfox.

I update, especially on the classes I'm teaching and the activities we're doing and the field trips we're going on, the people we're meeting with.

And then that's connected to Facebook as well. Then for enrollment purposes, we'd love to have folks come out and enroll and be part ofour program.

There's a couple things that are going on. One, in 2018, we're rolling out anurban agriculture minor.

So you would come here at CalPoly Pomona and you can major in whatever you want to major in and you would have a minor in urban agriculture.

Then we're also talking abouthaving a public program, a certification program in urban agriculture that you wouldn't have to be a Col Poly Pomona traditional student for.

Thanks Professor Fox!

Aaron Fox, Ph.D.is an professor of urban and community agriculture at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronFreemanFox or Facebook at AaronFox. To find out more about the urban agriculture minor program launching at Cal Poly Pomona, check out https://www.cpp.edu/~agri/plant-science/

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