Urban Farming Is Now Flying a Flag at Major U.S. Airports

JetBlue debuts a 24,000-square-foot garden at its New York City terminal.
(Photos: Flickr; Facebook)
Oct 8, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Is airport-to-table dining coming to a terminal near you?

On Thursday, JetBlue unveiled a 24,000-square-foot farm outside its terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, where it will grow purple potatoes and a variety of herbs.

“Besides providing a green space for customers and crew members, it will help us become even more sustainable,” said Brian Holtman, JetBlue’s manager of concession programs. The terminal already composts most of its food scraps, which will now become soil for the farm. A few years ago, JetBlue hosted a farmers market with the help of local organization GrowNYC. Though it was only a month-long program, there’s a possibility that this farm might help bring it back, Holtman said. One thing that is definitely on JetBlue’s to-do list is using the produce in the terminal’s various restaurants.

The discount airline is by no means the first to look at a terminal as a potential farm: Since 2011, the rotunda garden in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has been supplying nearby restaurants with beans, salad greens, herbs, and hot peppers, all grown on 26 aeroponic growing towers. Bees have also found a role in the aviation industry and appear in airport-hosted hives around the world (don’t worry, there are no bees inside the airport).

Between shrinking seats, passengers being nickel-and-dimed for everything from seat selection to bottled water, and increasing delays, people haven’t had much to celebrate at the airport. Airline-sponsored potatoes, hydroponics, and bees are the type of thing to give people the warm fuzzies, and it’s easy to assume that this is all just to get good PR. But there are substantive reasons why an increasing number of airports might find that increasing food sustainability is good for their bottom line too.

Though JetBlue’s JFK farm is off-limits to visitors, it has plans to open it up for tours. Any passenger flying out of O’Hare—which is built on land that was once covered in orchards—has access to the aeroponics garden. In Japan, “nature therapy” has been shown to have beneficial health effects for anyone who simply spends a few hours in a forest. Standing near plants in an indoor rotunda isn’t exactly the redwoods, but it may help ease travel stress and give delayed passengers a better way to pass the time than pigging out in the food court. The airport restaurants that use this produce not only get fresher herbs and greens than anything that might come from a delivery truck, but they also have a way to market themselves to customers wary of paying airport prices.

Starting an airport apiary is more than a gimmick too. Airports in Germany have put their bees to work. Not only do the insects produce about 330 pounds of safe-to-consume honey every year, but they also act as “bio monitors.” Honey samples are tested twice a year for “certain hydrocarbons and heavy metals,” reports The New York Times. While airports still use “traditional monitoring,” Martin Bunkowski, an environmental engineer for the Association of German Airports, told the Times, “it’s a very clear message for the public because it is easy to understand.”

Even though these airport hives are often on the outskirts of the city, they also benefit urban beekeepers. Because a lot of outdoor space, like roofs, is off-limits, the beekeepers are always looking for new places to host their hives. And airports have a lot of space. Sweet Beginnings, a transitional job program for formerly incarcerated individuals, initially had 25 hives at O’Hare airport—today there are 75.

There’s even a place for some of Old MacDonald’s animals at the airport. Since 2013, O’Hare has hosted a herd of landscaping goats, sheep, llamas, and burros loaned from a nearby animal rescue. These animals clear “dense scrub vegetation” that’s difficult for traditional landscaping equipment to take care of, and the animals’ grazing cuts down on maintenance costs and is better for the environment. Though the animals are brought in as a service to the airport, farmers with limited space for their herds might be grateful to have some new grazing areas if other airports decided to take up similar programs.

Other than the apiaries, which have spread quickly as an easy environmentally friendly move for airports, most of these programs are still rare. JetBlue revealed that it took roughly three years of negotiations to get permission to start its farm. (Airports worry about animals interfering with flight paths and don’t allow anything that might attract large animals or birds.) But there’s a real possibility that these programs are worth the effort. Even if an airport isn’t willing to take on the responsibility of staffing a small farm itself, it may consider leasing the land to an aspiring urban farmer.

JFK airport–brand lettuce probably won’t be coming to a Whole Foods near you, but with a little more effort from the airports, there’s no reason why passengers shouldn’t find themselves eating a terminal-local salad during their layover.