Downtown "farm walls" start conversation, grow food

Jessica Brauer is the Marketing Director for the Laramie Main Street Alliance. Today she's sharing a guest article about an exciting new project in her downtown.

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Laramie, Wyoming’s brutal winters and short growing season leave little opportunity for green space, but a collaborative effort launched in the spring between Laramie Main Street Alliance (LMSA) and vertical farming company, Plenty, took on this challenge, using blank downtown walls as a canvas for growing food, creating conversation and activating overlooked spaces.

Plenty approached LMSA in June with hopes to put Laramie on the map as the Farm Wall capital of the United States, and with the support of the community, the project was launched by July. Local property owners provided wall space, and Plenty installed and maintained the walls, while LMSA assisted by finding funding through local business support and grants. One of the greatest benefits of this project is that the Laramie Soup Kitchen receives harvests from the walls to use in serving free meals to the community.

“That’s so cool. How does that work? I want to do that!” hotel owner Zack Kingsley recounts responses from guests and visitors as they encounter the vertical farm towers below his “Welcome to Laramie” sign. Kingsley is one of four locally-owned business owners working with the project, which is designed to bring awareness to this technology and brighten the landscape of Laramie’s historic downtown.

The project left a mark in its first season, creating a destination for visitors and locals, and establishing awareness for the company’s commitment to bring fresh, local, sustainably-grown, quality produce to people and communities. Participating business owners used the walls to build connections, while the district benefited from the eye-catching nature of the lush towers. The unexpected green spaces sparked conversation and created opportunities to connect with customers, while displaying and share vegetables and herbs right off the wall. They sometimes even brought curious walkers off the street and into the stores.

“It is so fun to see people stop and check out the walls. Some take selfies, others take snacks,” LMSA Executive Director Trey Sherwood said.

Vegetables and herbs flank buildings in the horizontal growing structures creating a public space for downtown wanderers to experience from the sidewalk. The trademarked soilless system allows for dense crops and an engaging green space.

Moving into the next growing season, Plenty’s Outreach Operations Coordinator, Travis Hines, hopes to bring more partners to the table, allowing the project to make an impact on the health of Laramie. On the surface, the farm walls are a unique beautification tool, however, strategic connections allow for much more than a destination for downtown wanderers.

For instance, Shantel Anderson, local business owner and participant, was excited about how the experience has involved her children. Watching the plants grow, picking the food with friends and brainstorming ideas to involve local kids for seasons ahead has been a great opportunity for the entire family, she said. In addition to acting as an educational tool for sustainable and healthy food, the walls create a channel for youth to become stakeholders in the community from a young age. This facet of the project is of particular interest to Hines and Anderson as they explore partnerships with local elementary schools and youth-focused non-profits for 2018.

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Laramie’s project offers a creative solution to problems urban and rural communities are facing nationally. Applied to neighborhoods in need, the farming technology has the ability to impact important issues like hunger, public health and weak food systems. In partnership with local non-profits, businesses and economic development agencies, the walls can create destinations and experiences for the community, engage the public, catch the attention of shoppers and cultivate a healthy economy with low investment.

Building connections between agriculture and community, whether through Plenty’s Farm Walls or local farms, is a building block to prosperous towns. Nurturing relationships between the public and their food creates space for conversation on health and wellness, sustainable farming and creative solutions to major problems relating to food access. Developing those connections and relationships while activating typically un-used spaces, supporting the businesses and engaging locals and visitors are additional perks credited entirely to creative, collaborative, scrappy thinking.

“The walls, used as streetscape amenities, tactical urbanism or public art are community engagement assets at any level. They start conversations, solve problems and encourage collaborations,” Sherwood said. “The Farm Walls allow us to dream beyond what currently exists on our streets and help us to see our communities for what they can be at their fullest potential.”

Hines will grow the project nationally using the vertical farms modeled in Laramie. He hopes to connect the technology to communities and neighborhoods while creating awareness and solving problems with sustainable farming. Communities interested in collaboration with Plenty can learn more about the Farm Walls, see progress from the first season in Laramie and reach out by visiting the project website. You can also watch a video about the Farm Wall project here.

(All photos courtesy of LMSA)

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