by Lindsey Carver and Tonya Taylor, Capital Area Food Network
Hydroponic producer Tami Purdue will tell you that her favorite microgreen crop to grow is arugula, but she has also helped cultivate the urban farm community in Wake County, North Carolina. Three years ago, Purdue left a career in law office administration and purchased a CropBox, a retrofitted shipping container.
CropBox, as described by the manufacturer, is a turnkey agricultural system that is able to grow the equivalent of an acre of field grown crops or 2,200 square feet of greenhouse space within a 320 square foot footprint. This innovative system boasts that it uses 90 percent less water than conventional and greenhouse cultivation and 80 percent less fertilizer than conventional cultivation. It also promises to produce approximately 1,347 tons per acre while only using 27,000 gallons of water annually. Compare that to the 270,000 gallons per acre used in a conventional agriculture system and the 321,200 gallons in an evaporative cooled greenhouse. Those are no small drops in a bucket!
It is important to note that Tami’s CropBox was among the first prototypes in the country for this new approach to farming. Since her purchase, Purdue has grown microgreens, or immature vegetables and herbs, and educated the local community about their health benefits. Microgreens are harvested at the formation of their first true leaves and contain between four and 40 times the nutrient density of full grown produce. After a taste test, we can also confirm that they are bursting with flavor!
Purdue draws her inspiration from the initial crops of tomatoes, arugula, and peppers she grew when she moved to her home 15 years ago. At the time, she did not know about the resources available to help with her struggling plants. Purdue and her plants’ fate turned around when she started connecting with local organizations promoting food security, leading her to sign up for a workshop with Will Allen, founder and CEO of an urban farming organization in Wisconsin called Growing Power. On the final day of the workshop, Purdue found her calling during the microgreens session.
Within two months of farming for a living, the physical issues Purdue felt from years of sitting at a desk vanished. Purdue said that she started to feel “powerful, connected, like [she] was doing the right thing.” While her CropBox may be a nontraditional growing environment, she feels the same peace growing and harvesting often described by farmers working outdoors.
Currently, Sweet Peas Urban Gardens sells about a third of their microgreens at four local farmers markets, about a third of their products directly to restaurants, and the remaining third of their harvest through Community Supported Agriculture-type programs. While their top sellers by weight are sunflower shoots and their namesake, sweet pea shoots, manager Spencer Ware likes to create new blends based on availability and flavor. Their latest iteration is a fiesta mix that includes purple radish, garlic, mustard, and cilantro.
While business and interest surrounding the CropBox and Sweet Peas Urban Gardens has grown over the last few years, so has the farm’s production capacity thanks to help from the next generation. Purdue employs a manager, videography and photography intern, and volunteers from the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program (WWOOF). WWOOFers, as they are called, comprise a worldwide movement of linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange, thereby helping to build a sustainable, global community.
Sweet Peas’ current ventures include growing mushrooms in containers on the floor of the CropBox, shiitake logs outside the shipping container, a wildflower prairie garden, a hugelkultur production area, and honey bee hives. Sidebar: In case you finished the sentence and are still wondering what “hugelkultur”is, it is a composting process employing raised beds constructed from decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials. The process helps to improve soil fertility, water retention, and soil warming, thus benefiting plants grown on or near such mounds as defined by The Permaculture Research Institute and in Permaculture Magazine’s article “The Many Benefits of Hugelkultur.”
When asked what challenges seem most pressing for new farmers, Purdue expressed that land access and knowing what resources are available were key. She believes in the power of experienced and emerging farmers connecting and creatively using resources to help each other.
After a visit to Purdue’s urban farm, there is no doubt that she has faith in the potential for urban farming to save our food system, emphasizing that “This is not just a fad. This is real.”