Unconventional as they come

A crop breeder and urban farmer share their stories about agriculture

Agriculture comes in many shapes and forms. From conventional to urban farming, each has its place in the industry.


Jeneen Abrams is about as unconventional as can be when it comes to agriculture. A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she holds a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University in agriculture sciences, a master’s degree from Alabama A & M University in plant molecular genetics and earned her doctoral from the University of Tennessee. And she’s African American.

A crop breeder by trade, she specializes in soybean and vegetable crops, and recently joined the staff at Purdue University. She instructs the largest foundational plant science course, Botany 101, at the college and has courses in breeding, genetics and medicinal plants on the slate.

As a plant scientist she recognizes the need for genetic diversity—in both the plants she works with and with the people involved in agriculture.

“(In plant breeding) one of the key things that we’re looking for is genetic diversity. We always start with parents we call genetically dissimilar, meaning that they have totally different characteristics,” Abrams said. “That’s the only way that we make genetic advancements at all.”

Abrams recognizes how in nature, people look for diversity in order to make progress—making sure crops stay active and viable.

“However, as human beings, we are not as open to diversity,” she said. “So what makes us different?”

Human beings are slightly resistant or “even largely resistant” to exposing themselves to diversity.

“One of the key things is though, as the world continues to change, we will find that this lack of exposure, lack of willingness to open ourselves up to people, other ethnicities, other genders, etc., will continue to make our world smaller and smaller.”

At one time, Abrams world was very small too. She grew up in the city, near Philadelphia, with very little exposure to agriculture. However, she was very interested in plants and nature. Around eighth grade, her mother found “the perfect school” for her, Walter B. Saul High School.

“This school was so transformational in exposing me, number one to agriculture,” Abrams said. “And then also I’ll be able to share a little bit about diversity.”

The school had its own full-sized farm and greenhouse, along with a veterinary center and barn with livestock and other small animals.

“The wonderful thing about the school is children come there from all over the city,” Abrams said.

This brings together cultures and demographics. She said many people come into the world with, “what I would call some implicit bias biases. And that’s not unique to any cultural background, it also is a part of all cultural backgrounds.”

When Abrams attended Saul, it was the first time she’d ever been to school where all the students weren’t African American.

“So you can imagine, I have my own opinions about certain things, certain people, different cultural backgrounds,” she said. “Once we got to Saul, there was an emergence of students of all ethnicities, races, shapes, forms, genders.”

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For the first time in her life, Abrams said she learned about the differences in people.

“All this was taking place in one school,” she said. “We work together, we learn together, and we became relational together. But the one thing that was amazing, was not only did it transform my life and began to transform the lives of my family, and even my neighborhood.”

Abrams soon found friends and neighbors began talking with one another and began to change perceptions about things just because they were exposed to cultures they didn’t really understand.

Abrams sees this playing out in her crop-breeding field because people all bring different things to the table.

“I think it means everything,” she said. “While everyone was at the table, also their perspectives, and their views are respected.”

She tries to look at any situation—people, media, industry leaders—and what they are contributing.

“There’s statistics that simply say the moment that you, for instance, bring in more female leadership, there is a financial gain than most companies simply because of that additional perspective,” she said.

At an advantage

One of those companies taking advantage of a female leader is Agritecture. Yari Nagi is the director of operations at Agritecture.

According to the company’s website, Agritecture is about integrating the disciplines of agriculture and architecture so that urban farms can be both practical and well designed all at once. The term was first popularized by Agritecture founder, Henry Gordon-Smith, in fall 2011, when he was researching how cities could use agriculture to address environmental, social and economic challenges, and to develop resilient food systems in the face of climate change. By definition, Agritecture is about applying architectural thinking when designing agriculture for the built environment.

Nagi said it’s very important to keep developing models within cities and people in those cities.

“It’s also just as important, if not more important to have these conversations with farms that have been around for decades. Family farms that have been around for generations as well,” she said. “Because if you keep up the sort of communication, and you continue the sort of collaboration on different ways, we can really figure out how we can be tools for one another.”

Starting out as a blog eight years ago, Agritecture served as a platform for free information about controlled environment agriculture. Soon people reading the blog were reaching out and asking for help starting their own urban farms.

“Fast forward to today, we have 80 plus projects globally,” she said.

Nagi dove into several examples of different kinds of urban farms. Starting off, on the low-tech side there’s soil and ground systems, or community gardens scattered throughout cities.

“But in New York in specific, these kinds of farms have a really interesting benefit without the help of rainwater percolation,” she said. “So the Department of Environmental Protection actually works to help these gardens stay running.”

On the opposite side of the low-tech farms, the high tech side includes things like vertical farms. These farms typically use a method of growing called hydroponics or growing without soil.

“That water has all the nutrients that the plant needs to grow,” Nagi said. “Typically that water is reused and recycled throughout the system.”

In addition to that, every aspect of the environment is controlled. The ideal environment for the plant is taken into consideration—from HVAC, ventilation, seeds, nutrients, lighting, etc.

“For vertical farming is essentially using that method of growing and being able to stack these sort of layers of systems so that you’re trying to grow as much as possible and square footage area,” Nagi said.

Nagi said one of their clients grows out of a warehouse in New Jersey, and provides about 70 jobs, which she calls “significant.”

“Arrow Farms doesn’t necessarily have the same impact of biodiversity as one of these community farms,” Nagi said. “But the impact is an economic one, and that’s something to consider. That’s really what you’re trying to do.”

When thinking like an “agritect,” one has to be cognizant of the differences in the areas.

“You’re trying to develop this toolbox of being able to understand what kind of urban farms most suitable for your area and the needs that we have in that area,” she said. “Because vertical farming isn’t always the answer. Just because you think you might make a lot of money or you can invest in this really cool technology. It might not be what that area needs.”

Nagi and Agritecture hope to bring value to helping communities and organizations decide about the economics of it all. For example, an indoor growing area won’t have access to sunlight, thus utility cost is going to rise.

“So you’re having utilities as your highest operational costs followed by labor,” Nagi said. “And then you have the depreciation costs as well, which is something that’s really important to bring up.”

Depreciation is important to consider because these types of farms typically use some type of technology.

“Even if you’re not that high tech, the use of LED lighting, alone, that lighting has its own life cycle,” Nagi said. “That’s something that has cost. That’s something that needs to be considered.

Consumables also should be considered. Wastage is extremely important when looking at the economics of it.

“What is the percentage of crops that you cannot sell?” Nagi said. “Because of any number of reasons—from this crop didn’t germinate to it doesn’t look as pretty to market.”

Nagi said to continue the economic conversation when it comes to farming.

“I always say think about what it takes to grow this one crop,” she said.

That cost is mitigated when more crops are added to the mix. If there’s a 20,000 square foot greenhouse, growing in the winter it needs heat. And only two crops are being grown in the facility. Expenses tend to rise.

“That changes though, when you start to fill that greenhouse to full capacity, that cost goes down,” Nagi said. “That’s the way you want to think about these things—when you’re thinking about indoor facilities. These aspects start to become much more sensitive as well.”

The increasing use of tracking and digital technologies in agriculture is astounding, and the digitization is happening in urban farming too, Nagi said. One example, a company was working to redesign the Toronto waterfront and part of the neighborhood includes an urban agriculture aspect.

“Ag is at the middle of this whole community in regards to economic development, and connecting people and connecting the culture of that area as well,” Nagi said.

Buildings in the district, like a smart green tower, aren’t necessarily agriculture, but the tower uses energy in “a really interesting way, which generates its own energy through renewable resources.” That kind of capacity can send energy to surrounding buildings to use as well.

“We want to make sure that agriculture is on the map for the development of these kind of projects in the future,” Nagi said.

Agritecture is also working to further understand the relationship between food, water and energy. A nexus of sorts Nagi called it.

“What it means is that the demand for food, water and energy is going to continue growing,” she said. “Food security, water security and energy security are all incredibly interrelated and impact each other as well.”

Finding an integrated system that uses all three resources in an efficient way can help lead a more sustainable development and reduction in poverty.

“We believe that urban agriculture is a really a model and kind of exemplifies this concept in a really good way,” Nagi said.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].