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Upping the Ante on Urban Agriculture Research

It’s easy to assume everything is ready to continue smoothly in the growing field of urban agriculture: Urban home and community gardens pop up more and more, and the evidence of sustainability and social benefits continues to grow. More of a good thing is a good thing, right?

Well, hold that thought. As is often the case with the complexities of modern life, there’s a bit more to the picture. Freshly armed with a $500,000 grant over five years from the National Science Foundation, St. Thomas biology faculty Chip Small and Adam Kay, and their students, are primed to contribute some much-needed science: They will be studying what effects recycled nutrients have in the soils of community gardens, which could greatly help shape the future of how urban ecosystems handle food.

“The main focal point of the grant is on the use of nutrients and how to recycle them efficiently. That’s such a general issue for an expanding population,” Kay said. “We know the stats of how 40-some percent of food is wasted in the agriculture system, so thinking about how the human civilization collectively can operate more efficiently, we’re going to need that moving forward.”

Small, who secured the funding as an early career grant, has been studying nutrient recycling in different ecosystems since his Ph.D. research and recently has shifted his lens to urban ecosystems.

“I’ve been asking questions about how efficiently we can recycle nutrients from food waste into new food through composting, coupled with urban agriculture,” Small said. “Something like nearly half the food imported into cities ends up as waste, and we compost maybe 5 percent of that waste. Theoretically that could be scaled up and provide lots of nutrients for urban agriculture.”

Of course, scaling anything up means increasing the amount of everything in play and, when it comes to growing food, that means increasing the amount of phosphorus.

“There’s sort of a nutrient mismatch between compost and what crops need. Compost, food waste, manure tend to have a lot of phosphorus relative to nitrogen,” Small said. “What we’re seeing is a lot of urban gardens that … are leeching out phosphorus. We have laws in Minnesota that you can’t just put phosphorus fertilizer on your yard because we’re concerned about water pollution and phosphorus going into lakes. But, you can put as much compost as you want in your garden and you might have the same effect. Nobody has really looked at that. That’s the research question.”

Finding their niche

Over the past six years Kay and his students have worked to develop a physical infrastructure that will be more crucial than ever for this expanding research: St. Thomas’ on-campus sustainability garden and two community gardens in St. Paul have been – and will continue to be – fertile grounds for experiments.

“There have been many students who have … worked long days, going above and beyond to establish these sites on campus, at community centers, and making everything run professionally, building up goodwill with neighbors, community members, government officials, local organizations,” Kay said. “Putting themselves out to make this work, and now it feels like the gamble paid off.”

Having such a strong base of gardens to experiment with is a rare resource for a university, which definitely helped secure this new funding, Small said. Another aspect was how under-researched urban agriculture has been to this point, meaning Small, Kay and their students are wading into relatively uncharted waters.

“This is kind of outside-the-box stuff we’re doing; it’s a niche that I think is really good for us,” Small said. “Obviously land grant universities are good at doing big-scale agriculture stuff, but urban agriculture is a totally different thing, different scale, different management processes. There’s gotten to be some good social science surrounding this … but there just has not been much of this [kind of] science at all. There are some interesting science questions here.”

Small said they have worked with leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul, including city councils, to better understand what information could be most beneficial for shaping how food is treated within their cities.

“We’ve gotten a pretty good feel for what some of the relevant questions that cities are asking,” he said. “The information we can provide with this research will be very applicable and we’ll make it readily available. … We want to make this as accessible as possible for the whole community.”

Watering St. Thomas’ scholarly model

Another aspect of the grant Small said St. Thomas was suited for was an emphasis on integrating students’ research with teaching. That “works perfectly here,” Small said. “I’ve already got research incorporated into the courses I teach and we can keep building off that.”

“This award not only recognizes the importance of the research itself, but is also a testament to our commitment to the teacher-scholar model,” said Biology Department chair Jayna Ditty. “This award reflects how much we as a community value the integration of education and research, and I am excited to see what Chip, Adam and their students are able to accomplish in the next five years.”

Senior Katherine Connelly – who’s taking Small’s Urban Ecosystem Ecology course and will stay on this summer to help with research – said her experience already has expanded her ideas about agriculture after growing up on a large family farm in Burnsville, Minnesota.

“Cities depend on rural areas for their food, but now we see that cities are constantly expanding and are only going to get bigger. With the increasing size you have more need for food in these areas, so urban agriculture is a way for cities to have more food independence,” she said. “Urban agriculture won’t necessarily be able to feed everyone, but it has a lot of other benefits – economic, community benefits – that we can potentially take more advantage of.”

With more and more students like Connelly having the opportunity to contribute thanks to the NSF’s additional funding, there’s increasing optimism about the contributions they will make toward the community’s common good.

“The thing that’s most gratifying is that it did seem to emerge from the commitment to making the world a better place. It wasn’t just an abstract, scientific pursuit … it was people realizing there were broader social benefits that come out of this,” Kay said. “That’s a real inspiration and something I hope people can see, how there’s ways of having people have their scholarship be connected to our mission and broader goals, and still be viable in your field.

“We use the food we produce for farmers markets, for generating enthusiasm about nutrition on campus and for all the work we do in communities like with Brightside Produce … the work at the community centers where students are ambassadors for the projects, working with small children. All these projects are possible because of the nature of food production in these settings,” Kay added. “This resonates with a lot of people.”