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Microfarms come to South L.A. frontyards, bringing fresh produce to food deserts (latimes.com)
72 points by clairity 34 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 87 comments

In my mind small scale aquaponics seems to have the advantage that it's not as labour intensive as small scale traditional farming (e.g. it seems to me that things like transplanting and weeding tend to be less labour intensive and you don't usually need to apply fertilizers because the fish do it for you). This is relevant because I believe that labour is a significant factor in making micro farming viable (more so than production per acre, where IMHO micro farming can hold its own).

However the above is based only on my intuition and personal experience[1], I would like to see some studies about that, does anyone know of any?

One disadvantage of aquaponics seems to be that, if you ever happen to scale up and start selling some of your produce, in some countries you can't sell it as organic - because there tends to be a requirement, across several countries, that you grow your crops in-soil for organic certification (Australia, where I live, is one of those countries, IIRC this is also the case in the EU).

To me this feels a bit unfair because typically in aquaponics you won't use many chemicals if any (either for the reasons mentioned above, or because the chemicals would harm your fish), so I think it would appeal the same type of people who buy organic food.

[1] I grew up on a medium-sized farm and as an adult I've got some limited experience in aquaponics, as a hobbyist.

AFAIK aquaponics is less labour-intensive than traditional (soil-based) farming (all parameters being as equal as possible). Pest control is also less of a burden and risk factor, in my opinion especially with ebb & tide systems.

It, indeed, cannot be certified as organic. However some found ways, such as selling (or even creating) to high-end restaurants.

Pertinent (with labour) studies: https://ag.purdue.edu/agecon/Documents/Aquaponics%20in%20Ind...


Personal experience: string interest since 2009, created then maintained many micro to very-small scale experimental systems.

Thank you very much for those links!

You are welcome!

I'm quite astonished to not see more of such projects here, as there an elegant, efficient and interesting cross between aquaponics (and even hydroponics) and IT, as automation is key when it comes to lower labor costs and various risks. The whole domain (high-end food) is economically booming. Launching an experimental project isn't difficult nor expensive, and scaling up is possible. It comes as a fair mix of abstract-and-applied and also buy-or-build challenges, of work to do on a desk and also in the field... It also enables (partially) remote maintenance and expert-diagnostic. All this without any real philosophical tension (no user to lure or to spy on!). One may even avoid killing fishes, for example by raising ornamental species.

Last but not least such a project is satisfying because you design, create, maintain... you see it running, instead of working on a component of a component (...) of some huge abstract org.

Great hobby (I really mean that... my wife and I grow, process, and preserve a significant portion of our own produce in our front lawn), but ultimately, these are only marginally less wasteful than lawns. The distribution costs (environmental and otherwise) of having many small farms easily overpowers the current situation, which allows for more efficiency. Plus, it takes quite a bit of intense effort to farm enough to support people.

We'd do better with large-scale reforms like stop paying farmers to grow food that goes to waste or encouraging more meat consumption (meat is pound for pound more efficient at energy storage for humans, and allows the conversion of faster-growing native species into actual food, if we did it right).

meat is pound for pound more efficient at energy storage for humans

Citation definitely needed here. Meat is an extremely inefficient vehicle for getting calories into humans.

There are a lot of calories in a pound of beef, I think that's what OP was saying.

The other side of the equation is it takes way more energy per calorie to produce.

According to Wolfram Alpha, cashew nuts have over twice the calories of beef. [1][2]

[1] https://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=calories+in+1+pound+of...

[2] https://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=calories+in+1+pound+of...

Except one steer gives you about 400 pounds of beef (https://www.skipperwbreeders.com/recommendations/quick-answe...).

400 pounds of Cashew nuts? Man that's a lot of trees. Not to mention the other nutrients in beef. A piece of beef contains everything a human needs to live. You could just eat beef and you'd probably not be great, but have all your nutritional requirements met. Cashew nuts... no.

According to https://www.quora.com/How-much-fruits-and-nuts-does-one-Cash..., to produce 500 pounds of Cashews, you need 2.47 acres. Now compare this to a pig, which, if you slaughter it at around 270lbs, yields about 154 pounds of meat. That means 3-4 pigs will give you enough meat as 2.47 acres of cashews, and pigs eat everything. Pigs can be kept with about 8 sq ft per pig: https://familyfarmlivestock.com/how-much-space-do-i-need-to-...

Beef is definitely less efficient as a form of meat. It's also not the only form of meat. If you had a few acres to grow things, you should grow some vegetables and a whole lot of forage for your pigs, which will constitute the base of your diet.

You forgot that the pigs/cattle need food.

You could just eat beef and you'd probably not be great, but have all your nutritional requirements met

You'd get scurvy, just for starters. Not to mention what a job a complete lack of fiber would do on your digestive system.

You need to eat at least some of the meat raw, but humans can survive on a 100% animal product diet (it might not be particularly healthy though)

seems fairly intuitive if you just think of fat and protein calories all being densely packed in a piece of meat vs a literal pound of lettuce? Just like people joke with celery being net negative calories, you would lose a good amount of calories just chewing all that lettuce. Almost that entire pound would be water.

Lettuce is not consumed for its calories. Grains, legumes, and oils are the vegetarian sources of calories.

Grains are incredibly inefficient. Legumes are good, but not very good at calorie density.

The idea that oil seed is more efficient than meat is funny, and really shows how the vegetarian-industrial complex has gaslighted the world. Oil seeds are incredibly inefficient, extremely environmentally harmful, and incredibly resource intensive. Not to mention a good portion of modern oil seed relies on petrochemicals to extract the oil...

In terms of calorie density, tubers like Potatos, Sweet Potato, Yam, Cassava, etc, are better calorie stores on microfarms. You're not going to grow enough grain on an acre to feed anyone.

A good chunk of the grains and legumes we grow is fed to livestock.

I had to laugh at "vegetarian-industrial complex" :D.

beyond the fact that farming & industry use most of our water in CA, shouldn't greywater/runoff recapture+storage (instead of using fresh water) help with water usage? and because it's a hobby, there is little wasted opportunity cost, in either land or labor.

and though it's unlikely to make any difference in the farming calculus, south LA is underserved by fresh grocery, so this seems a nice little intersection of empowerment and quality of life improvement in regards to that problem.

Is grey water treated enough to ensure we don’t get e-coli from its use?

my understanding is that e.coli contamination (by the harmful strains) is usually an artifact of cross-contamination from industrial farming. gardeners don't typically have to worry about it. just wash everything like you'd normally do anyway.

edit: also, greywater in this case is usually captured from rainfall, not recycled from sewage, like you might be thinking.

Unless surface to capture rainfall is clean, it can be contaminated with animal droppings. Also if it's treated sewage, I'm not sure if it's treated enough against pathogens.

Contaminated crops usually uptake the pathogens from their water intake rather than from "dirty handling" and given it's within the produce itself, you cannot "wash it off". Cooking solves the issue, of course, but not all produce gets cooked.

Any dirt outside is going to be contaminated with animal droppings. It's where animals go #2.

> Unless surface to capture rainfall is clean, it can be contaminated with animal droppings.

Your going to have a bad time when you find out what most organic fertilizer comes from.

Heh, sure... but hopefully not with unneutralized disease carrying pathogens.

The only neutralization cow shit gets is the sun beating down on it and the microbes within it decomposing it. Cow and other herbivore shit is unlikely to make you sick though, it is incredibly well digested.

Well, horse shit is incredibly poorly digested, so poorly that it's basically just stinky straw, but I never got sick from using it as fertilizer either :)

e.coli is everywhere, including inside us, so that's not a fruitful avenue to assessing risk. only a few strains cause sickness, and as i understand it, those are largely found in, and make it into our food supply from, industrial farm settings.

Right, but it’s through contaminated water. Industrial or not, water is the medium.

but the rainwater's not already contaminated... unless you perhaps happen to live directly downstream from a factory farm, but even then, e.coli isn't airborne, so it wouldn't be in collected rainwater. there are certainly no factory farms in south LA to worry about.

Growing more things in the place of lawns in Southern CA ain't gonna cut down on water usage. I was born and raised in SoCal and the only thing meant to grow there is the natural chaparral. Definitely not leafy greens.

the article says that one of the gardens uses 8% of the water of the grass it replaced. the point is that, while it's not gonna significantly reverse socal's water deficit, it is a net benefit.

And if the area was planted as native chaparral it would use 100% less of the water? I'm not saying this is as bad as a lawn. It's obviously not. It's just not obviously great either.

There's no turf in LA.. the only grass is weed; the rest of it is concrete.

We aren't paying farmers to waste food, we are paying farmers so that big stores don't have shortages or have to increase the price of bread 10x over because there was a bad wheat season. With a 1-2 year lead time on crops, you can't afford to accidentally not produce enough food just because the midwest got a bunch of hail or flooding that year. People can't put off eating for a year while we grow more.

I agree crop subsidies are mismanaged and often way more is spent on crops that don't need subsidization, but without crop subsidization at all you end up with price shocks in the food market and potentially/inevitably shortages and famines.

Do you have any references to back up these claims?

For my first claim (that rapid decentralization will not achieve the climate ends), this is my own analysis based on the fact that growing enough food to feed the world requires fertilizers as inputs. Currently the fertilizers are transported in trucks to farms and spread over large swaths of land by machine. The alternative is for it to be packaged up and spread by hand or with small machines. This would require more resources, for packaging, distribution, and machine production, so would seem intuitively worse for the environment.

For the meat (not saying you should consume a meat based diet but rather one that's mostly plants that properly incorporates meat as necessary... i.e., a traditional diet): https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10669-015-9577-y .

Also, as an aside, if you don't want to turn veggie farming into mining with some extra steps, you need to raise animals that you can grind up into fertilizer. Otherwise, you have to mine petrochemicals or bat poop, which is extremely bad for the environment.

Something is seriously off with the study you cited. This image leads me to believe that the scenarios they are comparing are not remotely close in calories, which would invalidate their conclusion: https://2020science.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Diet-and-...

Additionally, the study is using the USDA guidelines in their model scenarios. Those guidelines are heavily influenced by food lobbyists and are not entirely in line with what sustainability advocates have been pushing. For example, the emissions assumptions made in that paper are assuming that the replacement calories are coming from our "traditional" food system and they are not modeling in any increase in local production. i.e. replacing a chicken breast from Iowa with a bag of Apples from Chile might indeed be a net negative in terms of emissions. But that is not what food advocates are pushing for. It is more like: replace a steak with a head of broccoli from your local CSA. That would likely be very net positive in terms of emissions.

> It is more like: replace a steak with a head of broccoli from your local CSA. That would likely be very net positive in terms of emissions

Except the brocolli is less nutritious and less caloric than the steak. 8oz of steak is more calorie dense and is a form of complete nutrition, whereas a head of brocolli gives you a very tiny amount of calories, some fiber, and a lot of vitamin C. It's missing vital nutrition. Growing enough brocolli to make up for the missing calories is quite environmentally taxing, and consuming enough brocolli to make up for the steak would be sickening.

Here is a generous interpretation of my comment: Sustainability advocates are pushing to replace high emissions foods (like meat and non-local produce) and unhealthy foods (like soda and chips) with locally grown produce.

You linked to a study that critiques USDA guidelines, which has nothing to do with the changes that sustainability advocates are pushing for. And now you are picking apart a short internet comment analogy to try to make the case that beef consumption is a good thing. The fact is, beef is one of the highest emissions foods per calorie that a person can eat. Until you directly address that argument, you should stop "encouraging more meat consumption" (from your top comment).

Not here to say you're wrong but I think you may be interested by the book "Farmers of Forty Centuries" if you haven't already come by it, basically describing the amount of labor it takes to feed the population dense areas of China/Japan/Korea ~100 years ago off very small plots of land.

Basically the answer is a long growing season: getting 3 rounds of crops out of the same field each season, and keeping the dirt rich by collecting everyone's "night buckets" and preparing the hu-manure to turn nutrients back into the soil.

My impression is that growing produce and composting organic matter can produce more calories per acre than industrial farming methods, but the cost is labor, selling vegetables is only profitable with the petro-fertilizer methods.

Thanks, I love books like these!

Thanks for the study link.

Is the article asserting that they can feed the world this way? Also the word climate didn't appear in the article either but I might have forgotten in the few hours since I read it. I saw the story more as a calorie supplement like a victory garden in WW2.

I garden in a small space like the article quite a bit as well and find that worm compost from cooking scraps is sufficient for keeping my soil healthy without specially purchased fertilizer. I imagine most households have quite a bit of organic waste products produced from groceries and could support a modest garden in their yards too.

Yes, you're right that for home gardens composting is enough. However, we are able to sustain the current population -- most of whom is not engaged in farming -- on the current arable land by intense agriculture. This means planting extremely hungry crops that produce high caloric foods.

Your home garden is not intensively cultivated the way most farmland is.

Yes, more people should garden. No one should think it's the end-all answer to our food problems, or even that it's going to make a huge difference. Still good to know where your food came from and some stuff tastes better.

Interesting study. I think most people think the complete opposite. Science communication seems pretty broken.

Seems like it would be better to subsidize a local grocery store in these food deserts regions.

Seems like food desert is a very relative/subjective term. The article mentions there being a major grocery store one mile away. On a recent trip to Atlanta I visited a neighborhood where there was no significant grocery store for more like a 5 mile radius. That’s quite a lot worse. And there are plenty of outer suburban/exurban locations where the a particular neighborhood may be 10 miles or more from the nearest grocery store.

I think the defining characteristic here is the presence of a large population of lower income and lower car ownership (hence distance to a good grocery store being a greater difficulty).

As far as subsidizing a local grocer, perhaps that’s a good idea, but I suspect that if the real problem is serving car-less urbanites then we don’t just need one big grocery store, but rather a number of smaller markets spread through the area so that it’s never a burdensome walk to get fresh food. This is how grocers used to operate. However, small grocery stores don’t have the same economics of mega stores, and inevitably charge more than supermarkets as a result.

It’s not obvious to me that there’s a good way to define a subsidy such that walkable neighborhood markets can offer mega store prices - but only in low income neighborhoods that need the support.

On the other hand, something like community markets and micro farms - if they’re run and organized by the people who live in the neighborhood - seem like a very positive development, since they are empowering people to save money / make some extra utilizing the resources they have and keeping the work and value creation inside their own neighborhood.

Yeah, the other thing is that these food desert studies fail to take into account ethnic differences. For example, hispanic corner stores often basically are a mini grocery store, with fresh produce and stuff. They are not the equivalent of a 7-11. But these studies often only count the Safeways and Albertsons. And plus, I grew up close to these areas and was often in South LA, and they're not food deserts. I have no idea what people are talking about. There are grocery stores everywhere.

Another strategy they use to fudge the data is not counting grocery stores that are not 'traditional'. For example, this map (http://www.povertyusa.org/stories/homelessness-food-deserts-...) has a food desert in Pico Rivera that contains a Food 4 Less.

I think a much more useful study would be to canvas areas and determine what people eat - as large amounts of home cooked meals basically indicate that there is some source of staples, even if it isn’t one of the “approved supermarkets”.

Around here you can get significant staples from the gas station, and not at bad prices either.

> a much more useful study would be to canvas areas and determine what people eat - as large amounts of home cooked meals basically indicate that there is some source of staples

This methodology doesn't lead to the conclusions you're trying to find. It's not valid.

Assume that most people who aren't cooking meals at home from basic staples behave the way they do not because they can't find the staples but because they don't want them. What would your study find? What would it conclude?

All that said, it is certainly true that Los Angeles Hispanics eat large amounts of home-cooked meals.

This is not my experience. I’m Hispanic and most Hispanic mini groceries, while they have vegetables, are loaded with very unhealthy food.

A lot of education is needed to educate people on food choices once more options become available. Just because we ate that food before doesn’t mean we have to keep eating it, especially in a much lower calorie lifestyle.

Um sure, because that's what the populace wants. If the populace demanded differently, things would change.

You could ask grocery stores why they don't locate in food deserts. I don't think you'd like the answers. When I lived in Oakland, CA the local journalist from the local public access tv station news show interviewed a closing supermarket owner. The two reasons he gave were "shrink" and lots of slip and fall lawsuits. This is not the bright sunny news anyone wants to hear.

there's really no vacant infill in south LA unfortunately, and despite it's bad rap, commercial rents in the area are nearly as inflated as everywhere else in LA. we really need to structurally discourage unproductive economic activity (like rents) to get better outcomes for all.

There’s no reasonable way to have property rights and not have rents. Over time, property rights have proven to be one of the most beneficial elements of systems that efficiently allocate resources and produce wealth for all, so eliminating them is a bad idea.

What we need is to fix corrupt local governments that prohibit the supply of new real estate via redevelopment and densification. Having lived in Houston for a while, I saw first-hand how different things are when there’s a robust competitive market with new supply constantly added to (mostly) keep up with demand. If you do a poor job as a landlord you’ll go out of business fast.

Anti-trust, anti-monopoly reform is what we need most, and no more regulatory capture. Perhaps compared with more efficient redistributive measures like the negative income tax or land value tax.

property rights and economic rents have no such entanglements. you may be conflating the common definition of rent with the economic definition. economic rent is that which is above and beyond reasonable maintenance and service costs. providing well-kept housing does deserve (common) rent to landlords, but only for that productive part, not the act of holdng an asset while it inflates in value due to artifical constraints rather than value-producing activities.

home values, for instance, can appreciate in value without (economic) rents, they'd just need to become more desirable in other ways, like making improvements (we need to drastically reduce code and zoning restrictions, and review, permitting, and legal delays to allow this in economically efficient ways).

i'm absolutely in agreement about anti-trust/anti-monopoly enforcement/reform though.

Rent, as a percentage of income spent, has increased more for American's than almost all other expenses in the past sixty years. By 2015, more 38% of renter households were spending 50% or more of their income on rent. That sounds horribly unproductive to me.

Or people can just leave la.

The idea that were all on this team together trying to find solutions is naive, you need to do what's best for yourself and your family

The idea of literally being forced out of where you were born and raised due to richer transplants isn't particularly the best thing (in a figuratively first world/developed country that is)

For all of human history people have had to move to where they can feed their kids.

The smart people are leaving, of course if you want to stay in LA and struggle your entire life you're free to

While this may be somewhat true, you seem to be misunderstanding the premise of living in the US

How ?

My ancestors migrated from other parts of the US to California. If you want to survive you need to move.

They say theres an albertsons a mile away. I guarantee they have fresh veggies and they can easily walk there.

At a brisk pace, 2 miles (there and back) will take about 40 minutes...and then carrying bags of groceries on the way back too.

Easy I suppose if you've not had to do that too many times yourself.

Growing up, we didn’t have a car for a time, and had to make a similar grocery trip every week by foot, in the freezing cold, about the same length. We put on layers, walked as a family (adults and kids), and everyone carried bags back. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t bad either. The walk kept you warm, it was time together, and it became a very tolerable and normal routine.

Very American. A 20 min walk to the store is a “problem”.

It would be a problem for me, here in Germany, too. I wouldn't live anywhere where the next supermarket is more than ten minutes away by foot. Usually there are several in that radius. Where I currently live there are two supermarkets within a ten minute walk. I suppose I could make longer distances work if the infrastructure allowed for safe cycling to the supermarket, but I somehow doubt that this is the case in the US.

Huh. I’m a fatass and figured I’d be the first to complain about walking, but 20 min? I mean my kids walk further than that school each day.

Edit: It would take me longer to drive there if you include parking and everything.

It's not a matter of physical fitness, it's a matter of time.

Bicycles exist.

I used to live 20 minutes walk from the closest non-convenience store.

I carried a medium-sized rucksack and went shopping more regularly.

Obviously not quite as easy for an old age pensioner or people that might also have issues walking with a heavy bag, but the vast majority of people do not fall into that category.

Nowadays I get my big shopping delivered, but still sometimes walk (to the now closer shop) with rucksack. For the further afield discount alcohol shop I often bike there, again with rucksack and/or side bags.

> 2 miles

That's trivial; I do that much to get to the bus stop to commute to work daily in the US.

garden -> microfarm

garage -> microfactory

trailer park -> tiny house village

gruel -> soylent

I'm not sure if there's a word for this other than "marketing", but it's an interesting phenomenon I've been noticing lately. Just re-label something old and it sells better.

See also: the McDonald's celebrity meals, it's the same chicken nuggets or hamburgers they've been selling for decades, but call it the "____ Meal" and get a million new customers.

They are similar in size but not in quality. A microfarm is a profitable (hopefully) but small business.

A garage is where you park your car. A microfactory is where you build goods that you sell. Quite a few famous companies started in garages of course.

Trailer parks are where trailer trash live in old and broken trailers. People with limited means may choose to live in a place that doesn't suck that just happens to be small.

And so on. It's not just relabeling. It's actually doing things better/differently with modern means and technology. I follow quite a few people on youtube into things like farming, making, cooking/baking. It's a thing this century. People with good educations busying themselves in the small with reinventing humble things like farming, baking, etc. and making a living out of that. It's not just marketing. I was born in the seventies and find this fascinating.

These people are choosing to do these things instead of being wage slaves in some corporate hell hole and are making it work with modern technology, hard work, and creative use of resources.

I agree Soylent is weird though. I guess if you hate food and life in general, that would be acceptable as a way to survive. Otherwise, you might get a bit of joy out of eating or making some genuinely nice food. It's not that hard.

People sell stuff from their gardens at local markets on weekends and always have, some are quite productive.

People keep their tools in their garage and that's where they make stuff, like the local wooden toymaker here. It's his "microfactory" and he has 50+ (articulated, stained-in-multiple-colors, interesting and varied in type) on display every weekend for sale, quantity enough to justify the haughty "factory" label for his garage, I'd say.

MANY retirees live in rather nice, well-maintained trailer parks, the only difference between their trailer park and a tiny house village is the exterior cladding. Theirs might even cost more.

Don't buy the hype. These things aren't actually different.

I don't disagree with your original point that marketing is likely the key driver here.

However, I don't think your second point really stands up when considering 'kinds' and classification of things.

jillesvangurp's response was that "micro-whatevers" are a profitized subset of the original definitions (e.g., they are saying a 'microfarm' is a profit-driven subset of 'home vegetable gardens'. You then say that people can and do make money from their gardens, thus arguing that microfarms are not a thing?

The existence of profitable home vegetable gardens does not mean that they are not microfarm's in jillesvangurp's definition.

I guess all those working class people who have been doing this exact thing for centuries better get with the times.

> I'm not sure if there's a word for this other than "marketing",


Exactly this - it's a remarketing of normal working class concepts to upper middle class hipsters so they can pretend to be authentic and salt-of-the-earth. All of the labels the parent listed are associated with hipsters for a reason.

I’m lucky enough to live near several grocery stores and have a high income. I eat junk and am fat. Are we sure this will work?

It's not about being sure it will work. It's about giving options for decent food to people who want it, not physically forcing it into their bodies.

$43/month for 3 pounds of veggies a week is not giving

| subscriptions that cost $36 per month and $43 with delivery.

| For that, subscribers get a 3-pound mix of greens and vegetables every week.

$43 a month gets you 12 pounds a month with delivery which comes to $3.58 a pound ($3 without delivery).

Depending on the vegetables that's a great price.


This article is working on a 10 year past. Food desserts in 2021 Los Angeles are fiction. There are more than 8 grocery chains and online services that will deliver any produce, meat , packaged food that you want. Many also accept EBT cards. This is the extension of a popular fallacy, by lazy journalists.

Any delivered food, be that take-out, or food-in-a-box subscription services, or services that shop for you, even if provided by the chain itself - are very expensive in my experience, compared to typical super-market food. When I usually hear food deserts being discussed - it is usually in the context of how it affects low income areas and population. And any services that charge extra for convenience and that on top of the price of food itself - are likely not a solution that will address the needs of the poor - “why don’t they just have it delivered?” is a bit “let them eat cake”-ish.

Unprepared and standard groceries are the same price online as they are in the store. Delivery fees are waved for 30$ + orders. A smart shopper and meal planner can order once a week and get nutritional and fresh food delivered to their home. A bigger problem in low income areas is people are more likely to eat fast food or higher priced prepared delivery food, because they don’t want, take time or know how to prepare the food.

Isn’t this area of LA also gentrifying? I heard it’s way better than it was 10 years ago.

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