Farming as we know it is failing. Mom-and-pop operations are struggling to survive and Big Ag cares far more about its bottom line than about your health, or the health of the planet. Ecologists, anti-GMO activists, even sticker-shocked soccer moms in the produce aisle agree: It’s time for a revolution. Now, some experts are saying, this revolution may come via vertical farming, in which produce is grown indoors, in stacked layers. After years of technological trial and error, the practice is primed for blastoff.
The basic idea is not new. For centuries, indigenous people in South America pioneered layered farming techniques, and the term “vertical farming” was coined by geologist Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915. But the need for its large-scale implementation has never been greater. Under our current system, U.S. retail food prices are rising faster than inflation rates, and the number of “food insecure” people in the country — those without reliable access to affordable, nutritious options — is greater than it was before the era of agricultural industrialization began in the 1960s. And we’re only looking at more mouths to feed; according to the UN, the world’s population will skyrocket to 9.7 billion by 2050, an increase of more than 2.5 billion people.
Additionally, climate change is threatening the sustainability of our current food production system. Rising temperatures will reduce crop yields, while creating ideal conditions for weeds, pests and fungi to thrive. More frequent floods and droughts are expected, and decreases in the water supply will result in estimated losses of$1,700 an acre in California alone. Because the agricultural industry is responsible forone-third of climate-changing carbon emissions, at least until Tesla reimagines the tractor, we’re trapped in a vicious cycle.
The world’s largest indoor farm, located in Japan, is 25,000 square feet in size, and produces crops that grow twice as fast and use only 1% of the water of conventional farming. This translates to about 10,000 heads of lettuce shipped out per day.
Lindsey Lunsford gathers peppers at TULIP’s community garden. Photo by Wil Sands.]
These Black farmers don’t stop at healthy food. They’re healing trauma, instilling collective values, and changing the way their communities think about the land.
A few years ago, while clearing dried broccoli stalks from the tired soil of our land at Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, I received a cold call from Boston. On the other end was a Black woman, unknown to me, who wanted to share her story of trying to make it as a farmer.
Through tears, she explained the discrimination and obstacles she faced in a training program she’d joined, as well as in gaining access to land and credit. She wondered whether Black farming was destined for extinction. She said she wanted to hear the voice of another African-descendant farmer so that she could believe “it was possible” and sustain hope.
The challenges she encountered are not new. For decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Black farmers, excluding them from farm loans and assistance. Meanwhile, racist violence in the South targeted land-owning Black farmers, whose very existence threatened the sharecropping system. These factors led to the loss of about 14 million acres of Black-owned rural land—an area nearly the size of West Virginia.
In 1982, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights extrapolated the statistics on land loss and predicted the extinction of the Black farmer by the year 2000.
They were wrong. While the situation is still dire, with Black farmers comprising only about 1 percent of the industry, we have not disappeared. After more than a century of decline, the number of Black farmers is on the rise.
These farmers are not just growing food, either. The ones you’ll meet here rely on survival strategies inherited from their ancestors, such as collectivism and commitment to social change. They infuse popular education, activism, and collective ownership into their work.
And about that woman who called me from Boston? Years after we first spoke, I called her back. Turns out, she is still at it.
In one of the most arid regions in the world a series of carefully constructed, spiralling holes form lines across the landscape. Known as puquios, their origin has been a puzzle – one that could only be solved from space.
The holes are from the Nasca region of Peru – an area famous for the Nasca lines, several enormous geometric images carved into the landscape; immaculate archaeological evidence of ceremonial burials; and the rapid decline of this once flourishing society.
What adds to the intrigue in the native ancient people of Nasca is how they were able to survive in an area where droughts can last for years at a time.
The puquios were a “sophisticated hydraulic system constructed to retrieve water from underground aquifers,” says Rosa Lasaponara of the Institute of Methodologies for Environmental Analysis, in Italy. And they transformed this inhospitable region.
The funnel-like shape helped to draw the wind down into the underground canals
Lasaponara and her team studied the puquios using satellite imaging. From this, the team were able to better understand how the puquios were distributed across the Nasca region, and where they ran in relation to nearby settlements – which are easier to date.
“What is clearly evident today is that the puquio system must have been much more developed than it appears today,” says Lasaponara. “Exploiting an inexhaustible water supply throughout the year the puquio system contributed to an intensive agriculture of the valleys in one of the most arid places in the world.”
A series of canals brought the water, trapped underground, to the areas where it was needed; anything left was stored in surface reservoirs. To help keep it moving, chimneys were excavated above the canals in the shape of corkscrewing funnels. These funnels let wind into the canals, which forced the water through the system.
“The puquios were the most ambitious hydraulic project in the Nasca area and made water available for the whole year, not only for agriculture and irrigation but also for domestic needs,” says Lasaponara, who has written about her satellite studies in Ancient Nasca World: New Insights from Science and Archaeology, which is due to be published later this year.
The origin of the puquios has remained a mystery to researchers because it was not possible to use traditional carbon dating techniques on the tunnels. Nor did the Nasca leave any clues as to their origin. Like many other South American cultures they had no writing system.
Some think the famous ‘Nasca lines’ related to the presence of water
Their existence tells us something remarkable about the people who lived in the Nasca region from before 1,000 BC to AD750. “The construction of the puquios involved the use of particularly specialised technology,” says Lasaponara. Not only did the builders of the puquios need a deep understanding of the geology of the area and annual variations in water availability, maintaining the canals was a technical challenge as they spread across tectonic faults.
“What is really impressive is the great efforts, organisation and cooperation required for their construction and regular maintenance,” she says. That meant a regular dependable water supply for centuries, in an area that’s one of the most arid places on Earth.
“Maintenance was likely based on a collaborative and socially organised system, similar to that adopted for the construction of the famous ’Nasca lines‘ which in some cases are clearly related to the presence of water.” The quality of construction was so good, that some of the puquios still function today.
These structures show the native people of the Nasca basin were not only highly organised, but that their society was structured in a hierarchy, says Lasaponara. She says the puquios were vital in “controlling water distribution by those in power over the communities that came under their influence.” Knowing how to bring water to one of the driest places on earth means that you hold the very key to life itself.