More Than Just Peaches

Andrea Ness and Andy Freidburg, owners of Aluma Farms

Andrea Ness and Andy Freidburg, owners of Aluma Farms

According to Andrea Ness you need to be a little crazy to be a farmer, especially if your plan is to grow chard and tomatoes in urban Atlanta, Georgia. “A good kind of crazy,” she laughs. Andrea Ness and Andy Friedburg run Aluma Farms on a 3.8 acre piece of land in Atlanta, Georgia. It is situated on the Beltline, Atlanta’s newest and largest sustainable redevelopment project. The objective of the Beltline is to convert old railroad corridors that used to circle Atlanta into 22-miles of multi-use trails and parks. Three years ago, Andy and Andrea earned city approval to lease land on the Beltline at a fairly affordable rate of $12 a year or one dollar a month. The essentially free land along with the free water are crucial to the feasibility of this project; one of the greatest obstacles to most urban agriculture projects is the high price of city land.

The farm definitely draws in curious passersby. According to Andrea and Andy people will stop their cars in the middle of the street and get out to see what’s going on. For many locals the realization that there are kale and carrots growing in urban Atlanta is pretty remarkable. Some are so intrigued they return later to volunteer.

The produce from Aluma farms is sold through a weekly farm stand. They also have a small CSA (community supported agriculture where individuals can buy shares in a farm and regularly receive a selection of produce in return) and sell through restaurants. Andrea and Andy enjoy working with chefs who really care about local food and a few chefs even come out to the farm to get their hands dirty. But the vision for Aluma Farms is to focus more on the farm stand, ideally having it open for five days a week and carrying other products from local farmers such as eggs, meat, and dairy. Providing fresh produce in a food desert is a top priority for Andy and Andrea so they take EBT cards (Electronic Benefits Transfer, a card used to issue food stamp benefits) thanks to an organization called Wholesome Wave which sets up EBT card purchasing at markets and doubles the purchasers value. This means that if a person buys $20 worth of produce they only pay $10 and Wholesome Wave reimburses the farmers the rest. Small farms have to charge more because of their limited quantity of product and Wholesome Wave allows them to do that while also making the food more accessible to consumers.

There are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of urban agriculture in the capital of the Peach State. There is a new Atlanta Farmers Alliance of almost 50 farmers which grew out of a need for a more unified voice in order to direct private funding to urban agriculture projects more effectively. There is a recently appointed director of urban agriculture in Atlanta and the city has also identified vacant plots which have the potential to be used for urban agriculture. But Andy and Andrea wonder whether institutions can provide enough support to make locally grown food accessible to everyone. For example, the city could require Atlanta public schools to purchase food from farmers or develop other such policies that will both support farmers and a population which might not have access to fresh produce.

Andrea and Andy are attracted to farming because they want to be outside, run their own business, and grow their own food.  But that doesn’t mean urban agriculture is by any means an easy occupation. Tending to crops is a relentless responsibility and at the end of the day many farmers don’t even make minimum wage. But these two energetic farmers are fueled by their belief in the extraordinary value of feeding urban populations fresh produce. So yes, you might say they’re a good kind of crazy.



The Sweet Life: Slovenia Edition

Dr. Janko Bozic checking his AZ hives

Dr. Janko Bozic checking his AZ hives

For a small country—roughly the size of New Jersey—Slovenia still generates a lot of buzz. Not the breaking news kind of buzz, though Slovenia’s love of bees is definitely noteworthy. The International Federation of Beekeepers’ Association has deemed Slovenia Europe’s “heart and soul of beekeeping.” This is not surprising considering that out of a population of 2 million there are currently 10,000 beekeepers in Slovenia.

One of those beekeepers is Dr. Janko Bozic, a professor who teaches classes on animal behavior and beekeeping at the University of Ljubljana. I met Janko (pronounced Yanko) in the botanical gardens in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, where he was tending to beehives which were part of a university architecture project. The university students devised the bee house, which is more like a bee mansion, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, to allow visitors to get a closer look and a gain a deeper understanding of bees and beekeeping. The structure was spanking new, having been completed only a week before I arrived.

Janko has been beekeeping for almost as long as he can remember. In primary school Janko participated in a beekeeping club, but had no ambitions of becoming a professional beekeeper back then. His father, though, had other ideas and brought a beehive home for Janko after telling Janko’s teacher it was his son’s greatest wish to keep bees. Janko went along with his father’s plan and the rest is history. To this day, many schools in Slovenia still have beekeeping clubs, since beekeeping is a long standing and much cherished tradition there. According to historical accounts beekeeping was practiced by the Slavic immigrants in the 6th century. When the Austrian Empress Maria Teresa established a beekeeping school in Vienna in the 18th century, Slovenian Anton Jansa (1734-1773) was its first teacher. After his death, Maria Theresa issued a decree requiring all teachers of apiculture (the study of bees) to use his books and Jansa is still considered the founder of modern apiculture. Today, Slovenian beekeepers produce a wide range of honeys, including Janko’s favorite, chestnut honey, which has a relatively bitter taste and is believed to have healing properties.

The bees ducking in and out of Janko’s hives are Carniolan honey bees which are known for their gentle nature and ability to adjust population size to nectar availability. Carniolan bees are native to Slovenia, southern Austria and parts of the Balkans, and are the second most popular among beekeepers after the Italian bee. Although the bees are widespread, Slovenians have developed a unique type of hive called “AZ hives.” The AZ hive prevents the need for heavy lifting because it allows beekeepers access from a rear door. This makes an inspection of the hive much less intrusive for the bees and easier for the beekeepers because they can stand or sit while observing the hive.

Bees are so revered in Slovenia that the Slovenian government is currently working to have the United Nations declare May 20th, Jansa’s birthday, as World Bee Day, in the hopes of raising international awareness about the crucial role honey bees play in human livelihood. This is a timely mission, considering the clear evidence of declines in wild and domesticated bee populations. Multiple factors have been proposed to explain the decline such as pesticide use in agriculture, the emergence of new diseases, and stress caused by climate change. In fact, the reason for Janko’s visit to the hives that day was to try to address one of the major global threats to bee populations. While we were talking, Janko was preparing formic acid evaporators to protect the bees from Varroa mites, an invasive species which is one of the biggest challenges beekeepers face in Europe and North America. Janko says he is not necessarily worried about the survival of bees themselves, but the future of pollination is less certain. Current industrial agriculture practices pose a real challenge for bees to find food. For example, in monocultures, or fields that only have a single crop, everything blooms at once, so bees that rely on that field for sustenance have nothing to eat for the rest of the year. According to Janko, in many fields in America bees are brought for short periods of time and then moved because they cannot survive on the crops in one field alone.

Janko is particularly interested in the social interactions of bees. Bee communities function based on relatively simple principles. Swarms of bees have no central entity which gathers information and commands the collective, rather their decisions are based on countless interactions between individuals in order to come up with a unanimous final agreement. Janko studies bees not just to ensure their survival but also because he believes humans have a lot to learn from these cooperative critters.


The Afterlife of Viennese Coffee

A row of oyster mushrooms in the indoor growing facility at Hut&Stiel

A row of oyster mushrooms in the indoor growing facility at Hut&Stiel

There is nothing unusual about Manuel Bornbaum and Florian Hoffman's love for coffee. After all, they live in Vienna which may well be the coffee capital of the world—Viennese coffee house culture is on UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage and many of Vienna’s coffee houses date back to the 18th century. But Bornbaum and Hoffman aren't looking for a rich espresso or a creamy cappuccino. They are on the hunt for used coffee grounds in the order of about a ton of grounds a week. Bornbaum and Hoffman are not waste collectors or coffee refuse connoisseurs, they are Vienna’s only commercial oyster mushroom growers. These two childhood friends from Northern Austria both attended university in Vienna where Florian studied mechanical engineering and Manuel studied agriculture. After brief stints in other professions they became fascinated with urban mushroom farming and started their company, Hut & Stiel. But the most unique part of the business is that for the substrate in which to grow the mushrooms they use coffee grounds, a common by-product of European cities—and especially Austria. Manuel says that besides the prominence of coffee, Vienna is the perfect place for this kind of venture because of the large vegan and vegetarian movements and the city’s focus on regional and sustainable food. 

Manuel showed me around Hut & Stiel’s underground facilities and walked me through the mushroom growing process from spore to salad. The first step in the process is to take a mushroom spawn—a substance that has been inculcated with mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus—and mix it with the coffee which serves as a substrate for the mushroom (or the material from which the mushrooms will grow). Bornbaum and Hoffman chose to grow oyster mushrooms because of the convenience they afford. Normally, when growing mushrooms, the substrate has to be sterilized to ensure it is free of bacteria and other molds. But oyster mushrooms grow faster than almost every other type of mushroom, so they can be cultivated without the complicated process of sterilization.

The mycelium coffee mixture is kept in one room for 3 to 4 weeks so the mycelium can grow through the coffee and then the bags are moved to another room where they start to produce fruiting bodies otherwise known as mushrooms. Holes are torn in the bags so the mushrooms can grow through and then the mushrooms are harvested. Two weeks later each bag is harvested a second time and then two weeks later a third time. In total each bag produces between one and two kilos of mushrooms. Mushrooms require cool and humid growing conditions so reliable air conditioning in the summer is essential.

Hut & Stiel also has a lab where they are experimenting with different mixtures for growing their own spores which are used to start the fungal culture. This is essentially done by taking the spores, which are extracted from mushroom caps, and mixing them with coffee grounds and grains like millet. Right now Hut & Stiel doesn’t use its own spores for the mushrooms they sell because it is a very sensitive process and they haven’t yet developed a method where they can ensure the quality of the spores. Low quality spores mean no mushrooms and no mushrooms mean no business.

Everything about Hut & Stiel is hyper local. Every coffee pickup and mushroom delivery has to be accessible by the company’s electric bike and so the farthest delivery point is 7 or 8 kilometers. Besides old age homes, Hut & Stiel also collects coffee grounds from the restaurants it delivers mushrooms to as well as other bakeries and coffee shops. When most people consider the prospects for urban agriculture the first thing that usually comes to mind are the obstacles that arise as a result of their small scale, but other activities such as collecting coffee grounds from numerous urban institutions to use as a medium for mushrooms are unique to urban farms and would not be possible for a large scale farm.

Although Hut and Stiel has no problem selling its product now, Manuel says it was initially challenging to market the mushrooms because as a small new business chefs didn’t take them seriously. Also, mushrooms are not very prominent in Viennese cuisine and oyster mushrooms in particular were not popular because they have a short shelf life and are hard to transport. But with Hut & Stiel’s model, the time between harvest and delivery is usually only two to three hours and so the freshness is a major selling point. Media publicity also didn’t hurt. The business first attracted the attention of a radio show and then the biggest newspaper in Austria. Once the media exposure picked up they had absolutely no problem marketing their mushrooms, and TV interviews, additional articles, and documentaries quickly followed.

In fact, in the short two years they have been in business, Hut & Stiel’s product has been in such high demand that this is the first time they have more mushrooms than they have sold. This has given them the opportunity to produce value added products, such as pestos and spreads, which they sell at markets and grocery stores. They are also experimenting with mushroom based vegan sausages which Manuel says are turning out to be delicious. Hut and Stiel also runs tours that include tastings of the products at the end, as well as full day workshops once a month on home mushroom growing. The transformed mushroom products and the tours have been so successful that Bornbaum and Hoffman are currently forming a second company. According to Austrian law, farms have to make 75% of their revenue from the produce and 25% can be from other sources such as classes or processed produce. Since these additional parts of the business are growing rapidly, Bornbaum and Hoffman have to start a new company to manage it.

I was curious what it was about Hut & Stiel’s model that makes it so successful. According to Manuel it is because mushrooms aren’t polarizing like some other urban agriculture ventures such as aquaculture or insect farming. Oyster mushrooms in particular are actually called the veal mushroom because of their meaty taste, and so they can really be marketed as a meat alternative. He also thinks the concept is attractive to many different communities such as the vegan and vegetarian movements and even people in the biking movement. They also utilized an unused basement which was too wet to use for storage so they are not using extra land. But there is still room for growth for these kind of enterprises and Manuel hopes to increase the demand for mushrooms by showing how sustainably they can be produced and how delicious they taste.

Even though he spends most of his day working with them, Manuel has not yet gotten sick of mushrooms. His preferred way of eating them is roasted over a salad or pasta. But his favorite part of the job is meeting all different kinds of people. For Manuel this is the crux of urban agriculture. In Austria, urban agriculture is not needed to ensure an adequate food supply as the country has plenty of land for farming. But the power urban agriculture has to bring people together makes it an essential component of the urban landscape.


Snails Crawl Back into Viennese Cuisine

Baby snails feeding on leftovers from the garden at Gugumuck Farms

Baby snails feeding on leftovers from the garden at Gugumuck Farms

There are 8.7 million people in Austria and about 150,170 agriculture operations but there is only one licensed snail farmer. His name is Andreas Gugumuck and he runs Gugumuck farms in Vienna. The farm has been in the Gugumuck family since 1720 and they have been growing field vegetables and raising animals there for several generations. But even though Andreas grew up here, he did not originally intend to run the farm. Instead he studied computer science in university and spent ten years in the IT business. He first had the idea to cultivate snails when he stumbled across an escargot cookbook and he began snail farming on the side while still working in tech. But in 2009 he won the Young Farmers Innovation award for his escargot operation and he decided to quit his job and devote all his time to this project. Now he spends 100 hours a week at the farm but he says it doesn’t feel like work. He is driven by a mission—a mission to popularize snails as a “future food.” In a time when the global population is rapidly increasing and our resources decreasing, snails could provide a sustainable protein source, especially for urban areas. Snails have double the protein of beef and require far less land, water, and feed than chicken or beef (1.7kg of feed to produce 1kg of snail meat compared to 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of chicken and 5 to 20kg of feed to produce 1 kg of beef).

There are two types of snail raised on Gugumuck farms. The Roman snail lives for 8 years but is ready to be harvested after two years. The Mediterranean, on the other hand, is usually ready to be harvested after one season. Since the Roman snails are harvested later they are stronger in taste so they are cooked as escargot with butter and garlic while the Mediterranean snails are incorporated into other dishes. But Andreas refers to them all as Viennese snails because they were born and grown there.  

Gugumuck farms sells four snail products, Vienna escargot, snail caviar, snail liver, and sterile Vienna escargot shells. Most of the snails are raised outdoors except for the snails used for caviar which are raised indoors due to the difficulty of collecting the eggs. The snails are kept in a sand box with a salt border so they stay inside. Outside the snails are raised on sunflowers, their favorite grub, picked from the sunflower fields around the farm. Andreas sends his snails to restaurants in Vienna and around Austria. He doesn’t sterilize or preserve them to maintain the fresh taste and bite but this also means they have to be consumed within ten days. 

In addition to selling to other restaurants, Gugumuck farms also has a vegetarian (apart from the snails) bistro on site. Guests at the Bistro are treated to a set six course menu. Each dish features snails in some capacity, including the dessert dish which features escargot that has been cooked for hours in sugar. The traditional Viennese way to eat escargot is boiled, tossed in garlic butter, dipped in beer batter and fried in pork lard. But Gugumuck farms’ chef Dominik Hayduck definitely likes to experiment. Andreas described a soup they served at the bistro which he calls soil soup, which incorporated well, soil, as well as verjuice, a highly acific juice made by pressing unripe grapes which was widely used in the Middle Ages.

Besides promoting snails as a future food, Gugumuck Farms is also trying to reinstate escargot as a staple of Viennese cuisine. Today most people associate escargot with French cooking. But unbeknownst to most the Viennese have a long tradition of raising and consuming escargot dating back to the middle ages. In fact, until the 19th century Vienna had its own market dedicated to selling snails. Snail farming was common in and around Vienna and many castle and abbeys housed their own snail gardens. The practice of lent also increased demand for snails in the region because they were not considered meat. During the 17th and 18th centuries the demand for snails during lent grew to such an extent that snails from the Swabian alps were shipped down the Danube. But clamor for escargot in Vienna came to a halt 100 years ago with the end of the empire. Andreas says when he started selling snails there was no demand for them. But escargot might be on the verge of a major comeback in Vienna—at least if Andreas can do anything about it.  Starting in October, Gugumuck farms will start to hold seminars where participants will learn everything from construction of the beds to snail breeding strategy.

Although Gugumuck farms highlights its snail production it is still concerned with growing produce sustainably in urban areas. In front of the snail garden boxes there is another kind of snail garden where 90 different plants are grown in the spiral shape of a snail shell. School classes come to visit and kids who have no connection to agriculture have the opportunity to learn about where their food comes from. Andreas’s hope is that these edible parks will start popping up around the city.

Andreas has some serious expansion plans for Gugumuck farms. He wants to add a bar and tables so they can have events on site and so people can stop by casually to try some Viennese escargot. And snails are just the beginning. The snail license held by Gugumuck farms also permits them to raise frogs, and though he has never cooked them before Andreas definitely won’t rule out adding them to the menu.

A Vineyard in Manhattan? It’s About Wine.

Latif Jiji standing under his grape vine canopy on the roof of his Manhattan brownstone

Latif Jiji standing under his grape vine canopy on the roof of his Manhattan brownstone

If winetasting is on your agenda, you are probably considering a trip to Napa or Tuscany. The big apple is likely the last place you’d head for some viniculture immersion. But Latif Jiji, an Iraqi born Professor Emeritus at the Grove School of Engineering at the City College of New York, makes 100 to 150 bottles of wine a year from his vineyard on the Upper East Side. Latif’s vineyard, aptly named Chateau Latif (a play on Chateau Laffitte, a wine estate in France where one of the world’s most expensive wines is produced) is the only one in Manhattan. The vineyard stems from a vine in the backyard of Latif’s brownstone and climbs up the middle of the building, allowing grapes to be harvested from the columns of windows on either side. The vine then reaches the roof where it is trellised over a series of wooden, steel and bamboo beams, forming a canopy of grape leaves. When Latif and his wife Vera first moved into the house she took charge of the garden design. But one summer afternoon in 1977 Latif surreptitiously planted one tiny vine. At first his wife didn’t notice, but one year the Jijis went away for the summer and upon their return they were both stunned to find grapes growing in their backyard. And so began Chateau Latif.


Latif was inspired to grow grapes by his father who made wine for his family is Basra, Iraq, where Latif grew up. But even though Latif was familiar with winemaking he was unsure of how to go about it himself. Being an academic, he initially tried to follow all the rules. When the vine started producing grapes, Latif devoured all the information he could about winemaking. Seeing as it was 1984 and and there was no such thing as a google search, he had to scramble for advise, even writing to Cornell extension to get handbooks. The more he read the more frustrated he became as no two instructions were alike and every book warned of dire consequences if strict procedure was not followed. But then Latif remembered that his father wasn’t careful. For example, Latif kept reading about the importance of ensuring that the barrel was completely closed, but there was no such thing as air locks for wine barrels in Basra in the early 1940’s. The cover of of the Jiji’s wine barrel was usually half open and they still produced great wine. Latif also says everything he read warned that a wrong move would result in vinegar instead of wine. Ironically, try as he might, Latif has never been able to make vinegar.


So the winemaking process at Chateu Latif is much more simplified than the average winery. Initially, when there wasn’t a large harvest, the Jiji’s used a wooden cylinder to crush the grapes. But when the harvest reached 100 or 200 pounds, Latif purchased a crusher destemmer, a clever Italian machine which essentially crushes the grapes and separates them from the stems. Since he doesn’t know how much natural yeast is in the grapes and there might not be enough for them to ferment, Latif then kills the natural yeast with metabisulfite. This step requires care because if too little is added there will still be natural yeast, but if too much is added the wine will develop a bad taste. Latif then adds the right amount of yeast for fermentation to occur. To store the fermenting juice, Latif uses glass jars instead of barrels which are harder to clean. The juice is opaque when it is first bottled and Latif says he used to use additives to separate the sediment from the liquid. But once again he realized the ancient Greeks, Hebrews, Romans, and Arabs didn’t separate the sediment. So Latif just allows the sediment to settle by itself. The juice clears after around 6 or 7 months and is bottled after about 9 or 10 months so the jars are empty in time for the next harvest. Latif describes the flavor of his wine as fruity and on the dry side.


Latif keeps accounts of every year’s harvest. The record amount of grapes harvested is over 700 pounds, but it fluctuates with last year’s harvest coming in at 450 pounds. The first entry records the inaugural harvest which took place in 1984 with only two participants, Latif and Lissa, his daughter. But after ten or fifteen years, as the vine grew, it became clear more help was needed. Now the Jiji’s friends and friends of friends show up for the annual harvest. The group usually consists of about 20 to 25 people and has become a multigenerational event with Latif’s grandkids partaking in the picking. The harvest begins at around 10 o’clock and wraps up at 4 or 5, after which everyone comes together to drink and feast after a hard day’s work.  


Latif sees roofs as an incredibly underutilized resource for growing produce in urban areas. There can be somewhat of a stigma around green roofs as being troublesome and many landlords are hesitant about allowing farmers to dump heaps of earth on their roofs which could result in leaks and infrastructural damage. But with grapes, there is no soil on the roof itself. Rather, a vineyard can transform a roof into a place that is pleasantly shaded in the summer when the vine is in full bloom but allows the sun through in the winter when the leaves have fallen. Growing produce has also helped Latif connect with his family and his past, and he is not alone in being a city dweller who has a family tradition of agriculture. Many people who live in urban areas have grandparents of even parents that grew food that was culturally important to them, and through these innovative urban farming strategies those traditions can be revived. Latif says green roofs are a real missed opportunity that he hopes someday will be taken advantage of in urban areas around the world. Sometimes it takes growing four stories high to deepen your roots.


Science and Strawberries at SMARTS Farm


The corner of 13th Street and Broadway is a busy intersection in downtown San Diego. But if you walk through the gate into SMARTS Farm all the commotion of city life fades away. The gate opens to a yellow brick road which winds around wooden planters containing everything from rainbow chard to papaya. Some of the plants are garden staples such as tomatoes and radishes, but there are also many unusual features. In one box there is a cotton plant, a rarity on such a small piece of land, with a dozen or so white tufts. Another box holds a plant which, when rubbed, smells like buttered popcorn. And right in the middle of the farm are three remarkably communicative chickens. In short, SMARTS farm is a sensory wonderland, a perfect place to provide hands on educational opportunities for students of all ages in San Diego.

Six year ago Poly and Suzy founded Humane Smarts, a nonprofit dedicated to creating solutions based programs for kids living in underserved areas. They found a 10,000 square foot lot filled with broken down Winnegabos which was going to be developed in four or five years. They started an educational farm there which is taken care of day to day by Farmer Jim. The farm is dedicated to garden based learning opportunities for students of all ages and school classes visit the farm to learn about everything from biology to environmental sciences to nutrition. The cotton plants spark conversation on where clothing comes from. In one planter, the Urban Discovery Academy, located one block from the farm, is running an experiment to compare the growth of GMO and non GMO sweet peas (meant to imitate the original Mendel experiment with peas). Crops are watered with Oyas, or traditional Mexican clay water jugs, and provide a great opportunity to teach about water conservation. Since they are not growing in the ground at SMARTS Farm, if the planters are overwatered, the water seeps through really quickly. Oyas can hold about 2 gallons of water which seeps out slowly so the soil is kept moist and more water is retained. 

Even though there is an increasing number of urban agriculture projects in San Diego, there are still many obstacles to starting new urban agriculture operations. SMARTS farm is currently in its fifth year and moved to a new lot a year ago. When Polly and Suzy started the farm on this plot there were no sewers, water, or electricity and the fencing has to be redone. Also, the land is on lease from the city and the lease expires in April 2019 after which the farm will have to be moved again. Urban agriculture can also be a tough sell, and is usually not prioritized by policy makers and investors. Even though the benefits of urban agriculture are clear to the SMARTS Farms team it can be hard to convince others who have not spent time in urban farms and witnessed the education opportunities they afford, that it is a worthwhile venture.

Despite these challenges, SMARTS farms has had an incredible impact on garden based education in San Diego. To this day they have worked with over 55 hundred kids, both from local neighborhoods and areas as far as La Jolla and Saint Marcos. They have 30 planters they rent out to community gardeners and they have noticed promising changes in the surrounding area. Residents who previously felt uncomfortable walking the streets are coming out of their apartments and spending time outside and there has been an increase in community interaction and participation. SMARTS Farms is living proof of the educational and community building potential of urban agriculture. It is projects like SMARTS farms that will encourage more supportive policies and necessary investments in urban agriculture.