Last month, Atlanta hosted the third annual Aglanta conference, which brings together industry leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators in the AgTech industry.
“It’s part celebration, part gut-check,” said Ricky Stephens, whose company, Ag Tech X, is New York City’s first agriculture focused co-working space. “Where are we? Where do we need to go? And how does what’s happening in Atlanta fit into the larger urban agriculture movement that’s happening around the world?”
Ag Tech X and Agritecture Consulting, which both share an office in Bushwick, partnered with the government of Atlanta to organize the April conference.
Stephens and his co-founder, Henry Gordon-Smith, who is also the founder of Agritecture Consulting, chose Atlanta because of the city’s impressive local food system. Through a series of private and public partnerships, Atlanta has fostered more than 20 agriculturally focused organizations within the city center, diminished the number of residents living in food deserts, and developed an extensive urban redevelopment plan, transforming a former railway into a beltline that connects 45 neighborhoods to nutritional education and community development at the project’s farm, according to AJC.
Stephens and Gordon-Smith hope to bolster similar growth in New York City.
In 2016, Agritecture Consulting helped Square Roots Farm, a Bed-Stuy based company, recruit applicants for a one-year program that allowed people without prior farming experience to be trained and run their own high-tech farm inside a shipping container, with no guarantee they would make a profit. They received 500 applications for just 10 spots.
Stephens found himself wondering what happened to those not accepted to the program.
“These are 490 people that live in New York City and that are this passionate about urban farming that they would, you know, kind of give up their lives for a year to go do this new thing,” he explained. “If people have that level of interest, what do the pathways look like to get these 490 people actually involved in this movement?”
According to Stephens, AgTechX helps entrepreneurs that are trying to create sustainable AgTech business models, but don’t always have to do with actually growing food. Native, a harvest management technology company, developed a platform that enables wholesalers to purchase local food as soon as it is harvested, by providing real-time tracking. GrowComputer developed an application that allows users to monitor and control the nitty-gritty details of light, temperature and water levels, track data, and increase productivity in the process. Both companies were started with the help of AgtechX.
“Most of the members arrive at a stage where they have an idea, some of them have a prototype of a product or tech software, but they need to run it by people and get feedback,” said Stephens.
But for these ideas to work, there needs to be more government investment and a clearer notion within the private sector that with rising global temperatures, severe reductions in crop variety and growing urban populations, AgTech is the way of the future.
Georgia has caught on and is experiencing tremendous growth. “In the past five years, total venture capital funding in Georgia amounts to $2.7 billion in funding and 374 deals” according to the Aglanta website. And in 2015, Atlanta appointed its first Director of Urban Agriculture, Mario Cambardella.
According to Atlanta’s resilience strategy, urban agriculture has reduced food deserts in the city from 53% in 2010 to 36% in 2017. Cambardella is in charge of the Grows-A-Lot program, an Atlanta government initiative to provide leases, zoning guidance and resources to urban farmers, non-profits and residences. The program provides successful applicants with five year renewable leases, granting them “adoption” to vacant city-owned lots. Currently, the plots account for 25 acres(FC) spread across 10 plots, nine of which are located in a USDA low-income, low-access food desert area.
And big companies are getting involved, too. Last month, Lyft announced a rideshare program called AccessAglanta, which provides 8 rides a month at a flat $2 to $10 rate to families living in food deserts who want to access better grocery stores.
Another example of a profitable community based model is Lyft’s latest program, launched last month in Atlanta. They’re partnering with local organizations in 15 cities to tackle the food desert problem more effectively. In Atlanta, this has resulted in AccessAglanta, a rideshare program providing 8 rides a month at a flat $2 to $10 rate to families living in food deserts.
“Urban agriculture is growing really quickly, but a lot of those farms [involved] are struggling to create larger, more economically viable operations,” said Stephens.
And that’s where AgTech X comes in. Stephens said that the lessons he learned organizing Aglanta illustrated the important balances necessary to envision an event of this scope. While the goals involve expanding food access, the conference – and systemic change – can only happen with the help of sponsors, most of whom are interested in economic development. Both are part of the growth of a sustainable food system, and Atlanta has been successful in bringing them into conversation. The question is, will other cities follow suit?