March 14, 2011

What’s Cookin’ in Your Soil Kitchen?

Ann Carroll

Ann Carroll

Doctoral Fellow

Center for a Livable Future



What’s Cooking in your ‘Soil Kitchen’?

There is probably lots cooking but you might not like all that’s on the menu. So if you are an urban agriculturalist in the mid-Atlantic (NYC-Philadelphia-Baltimore-DC) area scratching your head about all this talk of soil contamination, grab a soil sample and head to an upcoming art event.

‘Soil Kitchen’, a temporary art installation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is planned for April 1-6, 2011.  FutureFarmers, an art group from San Francisco, was commissioned by the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy to organize ‘Soil Kitchen’ with support from the William Penn Foundation. Local experts as well as staff of the US Environmental Protection Agency are also providing technical support as this event was scheduled to coincide with the free national Brownfield conference, April 3-5, 2011.

‘Soil Kitchen’ will address a range of issues from teaching about soil, composting, how to collect soil samples and connecting with local food systems to how to construct a wind turbine with found material. Workshops also have been scheduled to introduce low tech and low cost ways to remediate urban soils using permaculture methods as well as tour local gardens.

‘Soil Kitchen’ participants that bring soil samples will be able to get free tests of soil.  Lead, arsenic and cadmium were the metals proposed for free tests (additional elements can create testing interferences).  In cooperation with the organizers, the EPA has arranged to have their mobile lab and staff with two x-ray fluorescence analyzers (XRF) to test soils and provide real time results of soil samples during the conference.

While not the only contaminants of concern in urban (and rural) growing areas, metals, particularly lead, receive a great deal of focus. In Philadelphia, as well as many of our older cities and towns with an industrial past and legacy sites, these concerns may be well founded. Eckel et al reported seven of the eight sites in Philadelphia and Baltimore sampled exceeded the EPA soil screening level of 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead for residential reuse while three exceeded the industrial reuse standard of 1000 ppm lead.

Do urban agriculturalists consider or know of these legacy sites?

Many community gardeners plan and plant raised bed gardens to avoid contamination concerns.  However, larger scale urban agricultural efforts may have difficulties with raised agricultural operations at scale and may need to pursue in-ground growing. A recent Planning Advisory Service report by the American Planning Association on Urban Agriculture, as part of their food system planning efforts, noted many innovative urban agriculture models in the US and Canada. The authors noted there is much still to do in factoring in the potential for environmental contamination or industrial legacy sites as part of planning urban agricultural activities.

Where are these legacy sites? EPA’s Cleanups in My Community identifies contaminated sites under federal regulation while a map on the EPA’s Brownfields site links the maps and inventories of individual states and tribes to help identify contaminated legacy sites under their control.

‘Soil Kitchen’ kitchen attendees may want to tour former legacy sites that are now urban agriculture success stories in Philadelphia. Soil Kitchen participants can tour the Northern Liberties gardens, cleaned with assistance of the EPA. Another Philadelphia site worth visiting is Greensgrow Farm.

Greensgrow was started in 1997 by chef, Mary Seton Corboy, and Tom Sereduk on the site of a former galvanizing plant. After an EPA waste removal and subsequent capping, Greensgrow’s hydroponic farm started on fives feet of gravel over the cap. Today, the one-acre Greensgrow Farm is a commercial success with a CSA, hydroponic farm, biofuel production, hosts two beehives and new projects all the time. Greensgrow has catalyzed revitalization of adjacent properties in their New Kensington neighborhood, while providing new markets for area farmers and new food connections in underserved urban neighborhoods.

While there isn’t a one simple concoction that remediates all sites and all contaminants, compost can accelerate bioremediation of a range of contaminants from hydrocarbons to explosives, as researchers found in this 1998 EPA publication.  Metals, as elements, won’t biodegrade but research has found, particularly for lead, controlling pH and adding compost and organic materials can bind and reduce the bioavailability of lead to plants as well as reducing exposures from soils as decades of research by Dr. Rufus Chaney of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service has found.

Given that adding compost is a necessary step for building a healthy soil structure for plant growth and improving water-holding capacity, it’s nice to see compost might provide environmental remediation benefits too. We need to recycle more than 14% of our food wastes in the US waste stream to make the needed compost.

You may compost but how is your town doing? Biocycle has posted a 2009 national survey or consult Biocycle’s ‘Find a Composter Page’,

So get that spoon or trowel out to collect that sample – near the dripline or over by the fence, mark the spot and head over to the ‘soil kitchen’ and see what ingredients are on your menu. While you’re there, learn from Philadelphia pioneers. And if you want to learn more about helping your community convert that vacant lot, abandoned gas station, deserted strip mall or contaminated property into an urban (or rural) oasis, join colleagues from around the country at Brownfields 2011.

(With apologies to Jim Morrison and Doors, ‘Soul Kitchen’)

–Ann Carroll

One Comment

  1. Posted by Jason Kim

    Reducing our dependency on fossil fuels results in greater economic opportunities for us. To change this, the IEA suggests realigning fossil fuel subsidies to support clean energy, providing more incentives for private sector investment and market mechanisms like this!

    Jason Kim

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