Orange County, California, named for abundant orange groves long since paved over to make way for residential and commercial development (and Disneyland), is striving to reconnect with with its agricultural roots. New farmers and entrepreneurs are emerging to take advantage of growing demand for local and hyper-local produce and help communities overcome food access challenges.
However, as a result of high land prices that make it prohibitively expensive to purchase acreage necessary to operate a traditional field farming endeavor, these pioneering farmers utilize innovative growing systems that enable production of high volumes of produce on a small footprint. Aquaponics, hydroponics and solar energy are just some of the cutting-edge tools that these urban farmers are employing to grow and supply fresh, local food to area residents and retailers in the county.
Below is a sampling of four innovative urban farms growing food locally to benefit the community and economy of Orange County.
Future Foods Farms–Brea
Chef and farmer Adam Navidi has transformed 25 acres in Brea into Future Foods Farms, a forward-thinking urban farming dynamo. The farm uses aquaponics to raise tilapia and grow a wide array of produce including lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, vegetables, peppers and flowers.
Chef Navidi’s aquaponically grown produce can be found at his Yorba Linda restaurant, Oceans & Earth, as well as at numerous farmers’ markets across Orange County. It’s also distributed through the Future Foods Farms CSA and served at events that Navidi caters.
Not content to keep his farming innovations to himself, Navidi is passionate about teaching others about the value of innovative urban agriculture. Through its menu and website, Oceans & Earth patrons learn about the food they eat. Additionally, Future Foods Farms offers internships to students from California State University, Fullerton.
Control Air Community Farm–Anaheim
On a small patch of land nestled in between a busy street, an elementary school, and a row of houses sits a quiet farm that is making big waves in Orange County sustainability. It’s the Control Air Community Farm in Anaheim, a project of Renewable Farms. It is an aquaponics farm, a farming system that combines elements of aquaculture and hydroponics and it just might be the future of sustainable agriculture.
Inside the farm one finds rows of arugula, basil, and other crops in raised plant beds connected to tanks of tilapia. The farm, which was built on asphalt, consists of 10 4,000-gallon tanks and 50 80-square-foot plant beds. It also uses minimal water to operate, and produces over 2,000 pounds of food for underserved residents.
Aaron has big plans for the future of the Control Air Community Farm. He hopes that it becomes more than just a farm, but also a gathering spot for the neighborhood. He welcomes visitors and kids from the neighborhood to come over to just hang out. Families often stop by to have a picnic, too. He even hopes to build a half-pipe so kids can come over and have somewhere to skate.
At Urban Produce in Irvine, hydroponic vertical growing systems supply nourishment to crops inside a controlled-environment greenhouse. The company’s patented growing system stacks produce vertically, in a closed automated environment. Produce in the system rotates in the greenhouse providing it with uniform light and air distribution. As a result of this automation, plants receive a precisely calibrated amount of nutrients and water that boosts efficiency and reduces costs.
Urban Produce’s hydroponic system requires 90 percent less water than a conventional farm. Much of the water required for the system comes from a dehumidifier system that draws water from the air to nourish the plants. In this repetitive closed-loop system, the plants release water back into the air, which is again recaptured by the dehumidifier system.
Urban Produce is a USDA certified organic grower that produces wheatgrass and a variety of microgreens including broccoli, kale, amaranth, wasabi, bok choy, radish and sunflower seeds. The company sells primarily to local customers, and as a result its produce remains fresher longer and shipping costs are greatly reduced.
Alegría Fresh, which currently operates out of the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, utilizes hydroponics to grow everything from herbs and leafy greens to peppers, zucchini and tomatoes. The high-tech farm includes 130 vertical hydroponic growing towers, each one containing about 40 plants. The towers use coconut fiber (coir) as a growing medium, which prevents contamination from harmful bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria. A benefit to this type of farming is minimal water requirements—a tower drinks less than three quarters of a gallon daily. And since the vertical growing system is powered by the sun, its overall energy costs are negligible.
Alegría Fresh’s Soxx Farm, a collaboration between Alegría Fresh, Orange County Produce and Filtrexx Corporation, is equally innovative. The farm employs GardenSoxx, an innovative natural, nutrient-dense food production system that can be used over cement or other man-made surfaces. The Alegría Soxx farm consists of 13 rows of 5 Soxx each, for a total of 7,200 linear feet of growing space within an 8,500 sq. ft. area (approx. 1/5 acre). According to Alegría, production yields are nearly double that of conventional farming, and water usage is 70% less. Thirteen different specialty crops including four cultivators of beets, onions, red and green romaine, radicchio, treviso, red and green cabbage and kale are being grown to demonstrate the versatility of the system.