ESSENTIAL GUIDE: Farms in Unexpected Places - Atlas Obscura
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ESSENTIAL GUIDE: Farms in Unexpected Places

When most people think of agriculture, they imagine vast acres of farmland planted with row after row of crops. But sometimes farmers, agriculturists,  and orchardists find themselves in places where the traditional model isn’t an option. Rather than admit defeat, these growers buckle down and find ways to coax their bounty from unlikely places.

High above a city or deep below ground, in caves or on a boat, these farms challenge traditional expectations of where food can and can’t be cultivated. They offer some spectacular views and intriguing agricultural methods, and their imaginative approaches may well serve as blueprints for ensuring a sustainable, food-secure future.

FORESTIERE UNDERGROUND GARDENS
Fresno, California

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(via Forestiere Underground Gardens)

When Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere found the 80 acres of land he’d purchased upon arriving in Fresno in 1901 to be unsuitable for farming, he didn’t let that stop him from cultivating an abundance of delectable fruits. Instead, Forestiere turned his attentions underground, spending the next 40 years carving a vast network of living spaces, passageways, and courtyards out of the region’s hardpan shelf.

Though underground, Forestiere built his abode to receive plenty of natural light, allowing him to grow an astonishing variety of fruit, including grapes, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, kumquats, strawberries, pomegranate, and dates, to name only a few. Vertical tunnels to the surface allowed taller trees to reach their full height while the insulation provided below protected Forestiere’s crops from weather extremes and offered relief from the hot Fresno sun while Forestiere tended to his orchard.

A skilled horticulturalist, Forestiere often grafted his trees to bear multiple varieties of fruit on the same tree. The venture was so successful that many of Forestiere’s trees and vines continue to produce fruit today, over 100 years later.

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Grape vines at Forestiere Underground Gardens. (via The Forestiere Underground Gardens)

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Tunnels allow trees at the Forestiere Underground Gardens to reach their full height. (via The Forestiere Underground Gardens)

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(via The Forestiere Underground Gardens)

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Forestiere built enormous planters in which to grow his trees. (via The Forestiere Underground Gardens)

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(via PlayFresno.org)

LA CAVE DES ROCHES
Bourré, France

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(photograph by Charlie of Eat the Earth)

Caves are dark, damp, chilly, and generally unsuitable for growing food. There is one edible, however, that thrives under such conditions. Mushrooms are easily persuaded to make their home in caves and caverns.

Hundreds of years old, the troglodyte caves of France’s Loire Valley once served as limestone mines. Over time they were used for a variety of purposes, including homes, restaurants, and storefronts. Today these activities have ceased, but the mushroom farms at La Cave des Roches take advantage of  the caves’ humid air and constant temperature of 53 degrees Fahrenheit to cultivate their crops. The isolated nature of the caves provides natural insulation from pests.

Different methods are used for different varieties of mushroom. Some, like shitakes, are grown on blocks of compressed sawdust while others make their home in beds of manure. As of 2011, La Cave des Roches cultivated around eight varieties of mushrooms, including one medicinal strain and a full 40 percent of the world’s pied bleu, or “blue foot” mushrooms — a native French variety and a great favorite among chefs.

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The popular pied bleu mushrooms. (photograph by Ken Broadhurst)

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Oyster mushrooms grow from bales of hay. (photograph by Ken Broadhurst)

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Mushrooms grown in beds of horse manure. (photograph by Ken Broadhurst)

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(photograph by Ken Broadhurst)

THE EDEN PROJECT
 Cornwall, England

article-imageThe Eden Project glows at night. (photograph by MarkyBon/Flickr)

The craters of abandoned clay mines outside the English town of St. Blazey aren’t exactly a place where you would expect to find bananas, citrus fruits, olives, and other warm-weather crops. However, the two domes and two distinct micro-climates of the Eden Project, which houses the world’s largest greenhouses, allow the curators to cultivate a wide array of tropical and Mediterranean crops that would otherwise wither in England’s temperate maritime climate.

At nearly four acres, the Rainforest Biome houses “the world’s largest rainforest in captivity,” according to Eden Project’s website. Humid, tropical conditions, complete with swamps and waterfalls, support the growth of both food and fuel crops such as cacao, nuts, rubber trees, soya, and bananas. Next door in the smaller Mediterranean Biome, citrus fruits and olive trees flourish in a dryer, more temperate climate. Both domes feel miles away from the cool, wet conditions of southwestern England. Outside the greenhouse doors an enormous garden known as the Outdoor Biome showcases several thousand plant species better suited to the local weather, including those that provide commodities such as hemp, hops, barley, and lavender.

For now, the crops grown at Eden are primarily for demonstration purposes, though some are used in workshops and by Eden Project’s on-site cafe. The rest goes home with staff members. Though currently not widely available to the public, the crops grown at Eden help redefine what local produce can be.

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Cacao plants in the Rainforest Biome. (via Eden Project)

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Lemons abound in the Mediterranean Biome. (via Eden Project)

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Bananas by the bunch in the Rainforest Biome. (via Eden Project)

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Bulbs in bloom in the Mediterranean Biome. (via Eden Project)

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Outdoor flower gardens. (photograph by Mark Higginson/Flickr)

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Soothing swaths of lavender at Eden Project’s Outdoor Biome. (via Eden Project)

THE SCIENCE BARGE
Yonkers, New York

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The Science Barge docks at Pier 84 in Manhattan. (photograph by Jim Henderson)

According to NY Sun Works, who debuted the project in 2007, the Science Barge is “the only fully functioning demonstration of renewable energy supporting sustainable food production in New York.” Also, it floats.

The Science Barge was originally created to demonstrate green technologies designed for use on rooftop farms. For around five months in 2007, the Science Barge drifted around the boroughs of New York showing off its sustainable methods to around 9,000 visitors.  In 2008, Groundwork Hudson Valley purchased the barge and moved it to its permanent home in Yonkers where it now serves as a hands-on science museum, educating school groups, volunteers, and the general public on sustainable growing practices.

Produce grown on the Science Barge is donated to a local church.

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(photograph by NYBTA)

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(photograph by Tyrone Turner)

BROOKLYN GRANGE FARMS AND APIARY
New York, New York

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View from Brooklyn Grange’s Navy Yard location. (photograph by
João Pires, The World Stroll)

Rooftop gardens and farms have become an increasingly popular means of growing food in densely-populated cities where sources of fresh, local produce are scarce. Brooklyn Grange in New York City is home to the two largest rooftop soil farms in the world. The flagship farm, located atop the Standard Motor Products building in Long Island City, encompasses one acre of space, while the second, larger farm occupies 65,000 square feet atop the 11-story Building no. 3 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard

The combined area of the two farms totals a little over two acres — not much by traditional farming standards, but enough to grow over 40,000 pounds of produce each year which is distributed to city-dwellers below via farmers’ markets, restaurants, and stores, as well as through the farm’s community sponsored agriculture (CSA) program. On the ground, not far from building no. 3, Brooklyn Grange uses the controlled conditions of the Navy Yard’s 300 acres of private space to operate Brooklyn Grange Bees (aka BGB), the city’s largest apiary (bee farm) where the inhabitants of over 30 hives are hard at work creating wax and honey.

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Aerial view of Brooklyn Grange’s LIC location. (photograph by Alex MacLean)

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View from the elevator. (photograph by Kristine Paulus/Flickr)

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The Brooklyn Grange Apiary (BGB) in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. (photograph by Ruth of Backwards Beekeepers)

THE PLANT
Chicago, Illinois

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Artist’s rendering of The Plant’s exterior. (via The Plant)

Some urban farmers aren’t satisfied with just a roof — they have to go and take over the entire building.

Such is the case in Chicago where a multi-storied business complex known simply as The Plant is taking root in a former meatpacking facility. A full one third of the building’s 93,500 square feet will be dedicated to vertical farming enterprises, filling multiple rooms floor to ceiling with agricultural production. The remaining two-thirds of the building will be leased to a variety of food-related businesses. Outside, soil farms are replacing the concrete gravel parking lot.

Farming operations at The Plant utilize aquaponic methods wherein fish and plants are raised concurrently to form a symbiotic relationship — essentially a cross between hydroponics, wherein plants receive water directly, rather than through soil, and fish farming. This method allows The Plant to maximize its use of available space and provide both fresh produce and fish to Chicago’s Back of the Yard, a neighborhood historically considered a food desert because of its lack of access to healthy, affordable food.

Renovations at The Plant are expected to continue until sometime between 2016 and 2017. A handful of businesses have already begun operations and more are expected to open as various construction projects reach completion.

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The Plant: A sustainable business model. Image Copyright Matt Bergstrom.

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Tilapia are the fish of choice at The Plant’s aquaponic farms. (via The Plant)

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Aquaponic greens grown by Greens and Gills, a tenant at The Plant. (via Greens and Gills)

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Farmland replaces the gravel parking lot at The Plant. (via The Plant)

PASONA02
Tokyo, Japan

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Tomatoes grown using hydroponics at Pasona02. Photo via Pruned.

Tokyo’s high-tech Pasona02 offers a modern approach to underground farming. Created by the Pasona Group in 2005 in an effort to engage job-seekers and bolster Japan’s declining agricultural sector, the urban farm occupies six separate rooms and a total of 10,000 square feet in a former bank vault in the heart of Tokyo’s business district. 

In the absence of natural sunlight or weather conditions, Pasona02 relies on state-of-the-art technology to maintain optimal growing conditions. A wide variety of lamps provide customized lighting while air temperature is controlled by computer. The farm also practices hydroponic growing methods, allowing for maximum use of space. In all, Pasona02 raises around 100 crops, including fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, and rice. 

As many have pointed out, the farm’s massive energy consumption deeply undermines Pasona02’s sustainability, and the farm would need adopt greener technologies to make it a truly viable model for the future. Even so, the farm’s unique location beneath the world’s most populous metropolis allows the Pasona Group to inspire a new generation of growers who might otherwise have never considered a career in agriculture.

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Rice paddies at Pasona02. (via Metropolis)

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Customized lighting at Pasona02. (via The Blog Below)

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Hydroponic lettuce at Pasona02. (via Pruned)

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(via The Blog Below)

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In a world where over half the global population resides in cities and where deforestation and unsustainable land use are cause for major environmental concern, rethinking the traditional model of agriculture is essential to ensuring food security and environmental stewardship. These farms demonstrate that crop cultivation doesn’t have to use massive amounts of space or soil; it doesn’t need to be restricted by seasons or climates or even take place outdoors.  As we continue to seek ways to feed a growing population, these farms and others like them will no doubt help inspire a new generation of growers and serve as models for future innovations.