Urban Agriculture: Down, But Not out, on the Farm

July 21, 2010

Across North America, the growing trend of urban farming can yield a crop of homegrown food stories with strong environmental angles.

In the midst of summer, most urban farms are bustling with activity. What's happening on urban farms near you? This is an opportunity to provide not just news and feature coverage, but also interactive, crowd-sourced resources that can build traffic and engagement over time. It's also an opportunity to spread the environment beat to the food or lifestyle section.

What Is Urban Agriculture?

Urban agriculture is the practice of growing food (and sometimes livestock) on relatively small plots in an urban or suburban location. Usually these are community gardens where people share in the labor, produce, and sometimes profits; others are commercial businesses or nonprofit organizations. In many cities, this urban farming has been attracting people for environmental, food access, quality of life, health, social justice, economic, and food security reasons.

Urban farms produce everything from gourmet herbs on the high-priced Manhattan rooftops, to eggs and potatoes in formerly vacant Detroit lots, to foraged citrus fruit from Bay Area trees. Although many urban farms sell produce at local farmers markets, others directly sell or distribute food in their communities — through local grocery stores, community organizations, schools, and restaurants.

Here's a roundup of recent and upcoming urban agriculture issues, as well as some background and resources, to whet your appetite:

Urban Agriculture Issues To Watch

ECONOMICS. There's a definite business angle to urban farms, so ask about — and follow — the money.

A June 2010 feature in Earth Island Journal reports: "Although popularity and trendiness can be big boons to business, urban farms haven't yet found a way to thrive in the market economy. Most rely heavily on volunteer labor and grant funding. That's a problem because they are unlikely to fulfill their aspirations and make a meaningful dent in the problem of food insecurity if they are forever running on the treadmill of foundation funding."

In response, Grist's Tom Philpott argues (with lots of data) that very few small farms of any type (including the small rural family farm) thrive in a market economy — so why should urban farms be expected to?

At Slate.com, Dan Mitchell argues that urban farms should be eligible for agriculture subsidies, just like commercial rural farms.

SIZE. Not all urban farms are small. Hantz Farms — which claims to become the "world's largest urban farm," with up to 280 acres going into production Spring 2011 — has just been founded in Detroit by local millionaire John Hantz.

A key part of this strategy is urban revitalization by reclaiming vacant lots. A July 15 project profile in Epoch Times said "Even if Hantz Farms fails, just by taking over the land and mowing its grass, Hantz will be doing the city a service — relieving it of approximately $3.5 million in maintenance fees. If he pays his taxes on the land, which he said he will, he will also be giving the city money over and above that".

Food Policy Councils: Many metro areas now have food policy councils that strategize for long-term food supply issues. Often these councils are very aware of and involved in urban farming issues, and they can be good sources of information and context. In December 2009, the Community Food Security Coalition published an analysis of the opportunities and challenges that food policy councils face.

LIVESTOCK OK? Urban farms are generally welcomed in urban neighborhoods — but what about the cows and chickens? On July 21, the Seattle City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed urban-agriculture legislation that would allow up to eight chickens to be raised in a yard. (Current limit is 3).


Where Are All the Urban Farms?

There is no one master map or directory of urban farms in the US. Some maps are available for specific cities or regions, but often these are incomplete or outdated.

Part of the difficulty is that these projects are usually small, and sometimes on private property. The spectrum runs from small backyard or rooftop vegetable gardens to large community supported agriculture (CSA) operations. Some urban farms are distributed across several locations.

As you start to investigate this topic, you can build a database of local urban or suburban food production resources: name, location, size, types/amount of food produced in most recent year, number of participants, how to get involved or buy food, and contact info. Displaying this information via an interactive map (like a Google Map), or publishing a local farm guide, could attract both audience and advertisers. Crowd-sourcing this information might generate even more buzz — and quickly build a useful and diverse database.

  • Oakland Local, a community news and info hub for Oakland, CA, recently published this food map, which highlights both community gardens and the location of grocery stores where fresh produce is sold.


Is the Soil Safe?

In winter 2009, EPA Region 4 produced a guide to soil contamination issues for urban farms. Contact: Allison Houlihan Turner, Center for Environmental Policy and Management, University of Louisville, KY, 502-852-8042.

This Feb. 2010 Urban Farm Online article offers several examples of how EPA's brownfield remediation programs can assist urban farmers.

Many urban farms focus on raised beds to avoid contact with contaminated local soils.

A detailed examination of brownfields remediation and urban agriculture in Portland, OR recently ran in The Well Run Dry blog


Other Urban Agriculture Resources

The USDA offers very little in terms of programs, services, or funding for urban farmers (aside from its People's Garden Initiative. But check with county agriculture extension offices to see what they have to offer urban farmers, or check the NRCS Community Garden Guides.

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