Growing crops on a landfill: a UT student studies potential in Austin

Austin

Twenty-two-year-old UT Austin student Joy Youwakim knows you might be skeptical about her produce grown on top of a landfill, but she believes once you learn more about it, you might want to try some. 

“I definitely understand the hesitation, but I’m hoping it’ll catch on as time goes on,” she said.

Youwakim’s work farming has taught her that many people don’t know where their food comes from, but when it comes down to it, as long as the crops are safe to eat “dirt is dirt.”

Her project began as an idea set into motion on a completed landfill owned by the city of Austin on Farm to Market 812 in Del Valle, just outside of southeast Austin. The landfill is regulated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the city of Austin.

Youwakim explained that per EPA rules, there is a layer of soil on top of every layer of trash in the landfill. That is topped off with clay or fiberglass, on top of that is sand, and on top of that is the topsoil. In total there is about a foot of distance between her crops and the waste, Youwakim said. 

To not disturb this barrier, she and her team only grew crops with short roots including lettuce, cantaloupe, bell peppers, radishes, green onions, cucumbers and calendula flowers. All of their crops were grown organically with no fertilizers or pesticides. 

They began growing in September of 2017 and they harvested in November. Then their results were sent to the Food Safety Services Lab in San Antonio, Youwakim said their produce showed only trace amounts of heavy metals and no listeria or salmonella. 

“So we see it as a really plausible option for feeding people,” she said. 

They farmed on 200-square feet and harvested 20 pounds of food, which according to Youwakim’s calculations, could scale up to harvesting enough food for 30,000 people if they use the entire surface of the land on the landfill they’re working on.

In fact, Youwakim said their crops did better than they were expecting, which they believe may have been because of the warmth of the landfill. 

It took Youwakim nearly two years to start the process and get permitting approval from the city and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The city is reviewing the results of their farming now, Youwakim is optimistic that in years to come, they may work out a way for the city to use this landfill and others to boost food security in Austin. 

Youwakim has also been selected as a finalist for the General Mills Feeding Better Futures program, which guarantees her at least $10,000 to further her research. Until May 15 you can vote for her as she has the chance to receive $50,000 for this project. 

“I think it’s awesome, is the best way to say it,” said Bill Wolesensky, the UT Austin faculty supervisor on Youwakim’s project. While Wolesensky teaches in the math department, he has a passion for sustainable agriculture and has worked as a farmer for over 30 years. 

Wolesensky thinks Youwakim’s idea can be used to boost community bonding and access to produce across the country. 

“This can be done, it can be duplicated, it can be expanded, and I think there’s a lot of potential for this to help communities,” Wolesensky said.

Youwakim is hoping these projects grow equity along with vegetables. 

“Especially in Austin where we’re urbanizing so fast and growing so fast and we have this booming population, this is the perfect place to implement something like this and make sure we’re not leaving communities behind,” she said. 

“Many parts of east Austin and eastern Travis County have limited options for accessing fresh produce, and these are many of the same areas where we see a higher prevalence of chronic diseases, such as diabetes,” said Sarah Axe, Food Access coordinator for Austin Public Health. “Public transportation options are limited increasing the need for a vehicle and driving long distances to access food.”

Axe added that the city of Austin’s Fresh for Less programs work to bring healthy corner stores, farm stands and mobile markets to places like east Austin and Travis County. She noted that many of the vegetables in the program are sourced from local farms. 

Youwakim hopes that the crops she works with can be used for programs like that to help provide food assistance to people who live near the landfills. She noted that people who live near landfills often feel the economic impacts of having their property devalued by the trash deposit nearby. 

“It’s 2018 and people are still hungry,” said Youwakim, visibly frustrated. “And it’s not because we’re not growing enough food, its because we don’t provide the same resources to everyone.”

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