The Department of Public Worms – Growing Food from Concrete

The Edible Campus Project and AeroFarms – two ventures poles apart size-wise, commercially and technologically, but together offering imaginative templates for feeding the future.

They’re just the kind of enterprises the world is going to need, because by 2050 a hefty 6 billion people will be living in cities. To provide the 60% more food that will be required by that time to feed the human population, bringing food production into cities could be vital.

And these two ventures are already doing just that.

First stop California the Golden State, famous for its oranges. Its dream climate/soil combination supplies not just oranges but almost all America’s mouthwatering fruits and nuts: melons and lemons, almonds, avocados and apricots, nectarines, peaches, pistachios and plums, strawberries and figs, kiwis and walnuts.

It isn’t only fresh fruit though that flourishes in the Californian sunshine. It seems that fresh ideas do too. Like turning barren concrete into beautiful organic produce to supply a students’ food bank. Just how do you turn concrete into food? The Sustainability Program at the University of California in Santa Barbara has the answer. A three-foot square of concrete can play host to an orange tree – in a tub.

(OK, growing plants in tubs is hardly a novel idea. Most of us already do that on our patios and decks, right? But it gets better, promise.)

Expected yield from the orange tree –  an incredible 400 pounds of fruit a year. From two such humble little squares of concrete sporting a potted orange tree apiece, the Edible Campus Project was born.


The project started small but with big ideas – its goal is to donate 25,000 pounds of fresh produce to the Students Food Bank annually. Is this really needed? It seems yes – a survey showed that one in six students on the campus regularly skip meals because of lack of funds.

In a beautifully sustainable closed loop cycle, the Worm Wranglers – the students getting their fingers dirty, known collectively by the quaint title of the Department of Public Worms – ride carbon-zero bicycles around campus picking up food waste to feed to their thousands of red wriggler worms. The worms obligingly turn the waste into rich compost, and a worm manure which makes a  ‘worm tea’ fertiliser. The compost and fertiliser feed the fruit trees. The trees produce the fruit, and the fruit goes to the food bank. The food waste goes to the worms, and the worms …. well, you know the rest.

From those two small orange trees ambitious plans have sprouted to turn the campus green, with food growing on balconies, plazas – any little bit of concrete that can hold a tub.


The beauty of such a scheme is, it’s not just softening a concrete jungle with a touch of nature for those who live and work there. It’s not just connecting people with the food on their plates. It’s not just having a zero carbon footprint. It’s not just sustainable, organic and healthy. It’s VEGAN!!! The zingy fresh produce of the Department of Public Worms is a very long way indeed from the superstore chillers full of seal-wrapped flesh that came from a factory farm who knows where.

And who better to enthuse about growing food than students, the world citizens of the future. The Worm Wranglers are taking their enthusiasm and new expertise one stage further down the age range. This summer, they will be devising farm- and garden-based learning programs for kids at the campus Children’s Centre. So maybe in the ripening of years we’ll see new Departments of Worms springing up all over.

Leaving sunny California now for New Jersey, we’re visiting a visionary ‘growing food from concrete’ project that could hardly be more different. For a start there are no red wrigglers here. A cavernous building, in its colourful former life a paintball arena, fluorescent murals still visible on the walls, has become a vertical farm producing quantities of perfect, pest- and pesticide-free organic salad leaves. Watch the short video to see CEO David Rosenberg explain how AeroFarms up-ends, literally, conventional crop growing.

It sounds simple, but keeping the farm profitable means staying ahead of the game with constant innovation. David reckons that from their startup in 2004, they are now on what he calls ‘version 2.5’. “This is a very complex business, and the details matter. We’re marrying agriculture with infrastructure, and the thing that ties it all together is data analytics.”

Their high tech system is managed by a programmable logic controller that collects 30,000 data points for each harvest of leaves. Touch screens and smartphone apps monitor and control the indoor ‘climate’, which allows operatives to make any adjustment a crop might need, from anywhere, with just one touch.

It’s an indication of how finely tuned this kind of setup needs to be that many other entrepreneurs venturing into this field, including the mighty Google, have failed to make a go of it. Even so, Google’s head of research Astro Teller acknowledges the key role vertical farming must play, now and in the future:

“One in nine people in the world suffers from undernourishment. So this is a moon shot that needs to happen. Vertical farming uses 10 times less water and 100 times less land than conventional farming. And because you can grow the food close to where it’s consumed, you don’t have to transport it large distances.”

Aerofarms is on the very crest of the wave, preparing to open its 9th and largest vertical farm in the world, and expanding overseas. And still looking to the future, it too is getting kids involved.

1st lady michelle obama aerofarms philips academy charter house school rooftop garden

These are students of Philips Academy Charter School in Newark showing First Lady Michelle Obama their rooftop garden and their AeroFarms growing lab. They are getting hands-in-the-dirt experience growing their own fresh healthy food – which also happens to be vegan, but sssh, don’t tell anyone.

So what’s not to like about these two schemes ‘growing food from concrete’?

  • Both are providing healthy, tasty, much-needed organic food
  • Both are utilising space that would otherwise be unproductive
  • Both are operating within the built environment, so requiring no extra land to be taken into food production. This has to be good for the planet
  • Both have low to zero transport costs in terms of money and carbon footprint
  • Both have low resources (water, energy) consumption
  • And did I mention their produce is vegan?


You could say low tech Department of Worms is the heart while high tech AeroFarms is the head, when it comes to growing food. Which is as it should be, because both hearts and heads will be needed to solve the problems of feeding a growing human population without further despoiling our beautiful planet Earth.

Now we just need to claim back and re-wild some of that one third of all Earth’s land that is given over to the inhumane and wasteful production of meat!

PS If you are interested in a sustainable future for food, AeroFarms are looking for staff:

“We need passionate, creative people who share our mission to transform agriculture. If you are ready to change the world with your ideas and inventions, we want you on our team.” AeroFarms

Why Go Vegan?

How to Go Vegan

59 Organisations Fighting Food Loss and Waste 



Growing Up: Vertical Farms Evolve to End Hunger Take Part

There’s Now Food Where Once There Was Concrete on This Campus Take Part


urban farm indoor hydroponics lettuce salad high-tech

Interesting article from Take Part – Urban Ag May Get a Chunk of Farm Bill Cash

Why I’m empowering 1,000s of millennials to become #realfood entrepreneurs through Vertical Farming – the Medium

Related post: Half for Us Half for the Animals






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