Growing up in Edmonton, Victor Benitez had little experience with farming.
But the city kid still loved to grow food. And he loved the idea of helping people. That led the recent physics graduate to develop an urban farming system he thinks can change how people access fresh, local produce.
The initial results are good: this summer, Benitez grew 400 pounds of vegetables beside a north-side community rink. The bounty was donated to local residents and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.
There are no fancy planters or huge fields in Benitez's community garden. He started off with 80 black bags, maybe 60 centimetres high, filled with dirt and seed.
But each bag is attached to an automated irrigation system, outfitted with sensors and controlled via WiFi. The set-up allows monitors to track soil moisture, humidity, temperature, light and movement. The watering system adjusts accordingly
"It's hands-free gardening," said Benitez. "It turns a garden into an automated operation, so that everything waters itself and you have backup processes in place, so plants don't over-water themselves. It's just to make it as hands-off as possible."
The 26-year-old social entrepreneur insists the technology is not new or novel. But the way he is applying it is.
"Let's take urban farming seriously, let's apply the same industrial mentality for urban farming as for conventional farming," he said.
The seed of an idea
Benitez started developing the system while working on his undergraduate degree. With some initial funding from the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and the Eastwood Community League, he was able to establish a garden next to the community rink.
Next year, he hopes to put the garden inside the rink.
"There is a problem with empty rink spaces. But with this, there are literally bags on the ground and running hoses out to them," said Eastwood Community League president Tish Prouse.
"It doesn't require any different usage. You are not conflicting with any space. You are not having large amounts of people running around gardening with special tools."
The bags can go anywhere. In a backyard, in a brownfield, in an unused parking lot. The system relies on water from a regular garden hose.
Benitez thinks a large-scale garden could help supply food banks with fresh, local produce.
He is now crowd funding to increase the number of bags in the urban garden. He wants to raise $10,000 to have 3,000 gardening bags and the ability to grow 15,000 pounds of produce. The money would also help him to further develop his prototype.
"I want to sell these kits to individuals and use that for community gardens all over Edmonton. And North America one day — hopefully."
Children from Eastwood have stopped by to check out Benitez's unique garden. He said seeing how potatoes or carrots grow surprised many of them.
"To see a potato come out of literally dirt, they were honestly amazed."
But for Benitez, the urban garden idea goes beyond carrots, beets, potatoes, kale, and greens.
"(Gardens) make your community more livable. When you see plants growing, when you see actual food coming out of where you live, it just makes you feel like this is a healthy place," he said.
"Even though this isn't a magic bullet, it helps alleviate a lot of problems. It's making living more affordable. You can save a lot of CO2."