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Innovation: Old Crops, New Soil

Jeff DeGraff
Jeff DeGraff
Jeff DeGraff

Did you know that some of the largest chapters of agricultural groups like the Future Farmers of America are in urban centers? This may surprise you: some of the biggest breakthroughs in farming aren’t happening on farms—they’re happening in big cities. The popularity of urban farming—or “vertical farming”—brings new challenges to an old industry.

What many people don’t realize is that small-scale urban farming is at the forefront of innovation in the biotech industry. The set of skills and knowledge required to make plants grow in unlikely and difficult city environments—from abandoned buildings in Detroit to navy yards in Brooklyn—has inspired a high level of creativity and growth: new types of seeds, hybrid organic fertilizers and even sophisticated algorithms for crop rotation.

Who has the deep domain expertise when it comes to this burgeoning field? This may also surprise you: today’s inner-city kids—many of whom have joined local FFA and 4H chapters—are a generation of practical scientists and will likely become future leaders in agricultural and biotech industries.

Looking at the urban farming phenomenon can teach us about how and where innovation happens:

Innovation happens in the most mature industries. The sectors that seem most traditional are often the ripest sources of creativity and growth. Think about all of the innovation we’ve seen in recent years with things like beer and coffee. You can’t get more traditional than farming, and yet the avant-garde changes happening in agriculture are astonishing. New innovations in old industries are something to watch for.

Innovation happens in materials. We often just look at the end product and not the raw materials we use to put that product together. Breakthrough innovations almost always depend on innovations in the raw materials used to make a product. Remember that it’s game-changing discoveries in metallurgy and glass manufacturing that makes the newest aircraft and smart phones possible.

Innovation happens when you get your hands dirty. To make those groundbreaking discoveries and to reach those lighting ideas, you need to run tons of on-site experiments. Get out there and try as much as you can with the resources that you have. Don’t make neatness your goal. Dig some holes, bend until your back aches and shovel some manure. Innovation grows in muddy trenches.

The agricultural enterprise is an apt metaphor for innovation itself. There’s a season for innovation—the right time to act, when the external factors like the market are working for you. And when you do scatter the seeds of your ideas, you need to nurture them in order to ensure the best returns for your crops. This way, the next time the season for innovation comes around, you’ll be even better prepared to take action. Think like an urban farmer and take your idea to the most unlikely—even difficult or hostile—place—and see what happens. Your yield just may surprise you.