Are you a Military Veteran interested in Urban Farming? Attend a day long workshop for aspiring farmers! The workshop will kick off at Brooklyn Grange where you will get your hands in the soil working alongside the crew. Followed by a guided tour of the Union Square Greenmarket. The day will be tied up by sharing lunch at Project Farmhouse, hearing from an established veteran farmer, and learning about resources and programs available for veterans interested in farming.
The event will be held in Brooklyn at Brooklyn Grange on Wednesday August 9 9:30am to 1:30pm, Free! Lunch provided. Send questions or RSVP to email@example.com by August 1 .
By Claire Collie
For over fourteen years, Massachusetts Avenue Project’s (MAP) Growing Green program on Buffalo’s west side has employed young people, teaching them how to grow food and make positive changes in our local food system. The organization began as a single lot community garden, and has grown to an urban farm spanning 13 lots, with a high tunnel and greenhouse. By next growing season, MAP’s Farmhouse & Community Good Training Center will be complete, housing a commercial kitchen, dry and cold storage, classroom, and office space. This new space will open up opportunities to educate more people on food production and ways we can improve our food system.
Produce grown on our urban farm is sold on our mobile market, a small, refrigerated box truck covered in veggie people. Our mobile market travels to neighborhoods in Buffalo that are food deserts – areas where fresh, affordable food is not available. Young people are involved at all steps – from crop production on the farm, to processing and prepping food for market, to the market itself and interacting with customers. Teenagers get to experience as many stages in our local food system as possible, so they become aware of the hard work it takes to produce food crops, the knowledge it takes to feed us, and their ability to make positive change.
We work with a diverse group of young people. Some come from cultures in which maintaining a large kitchen garden in the backyard is common. For others, working on MAP’s urban farm is their first exposure to seeing what food actually looks like before it’s chopped, ground, baked or cooked. So, a major goal is to simply show young people what food looks like when it is growing.
Growing Green participants have their own growing space where they have free reign to choose what to grow, plan where to plant based on a 4-year crop rotation system, maintain the space, and harvest produce. During the winter we discuss what we can grow, and why mangos, oranges and bananas will never be possible to grow in our cold, Buffalo climate. Each year we grow about 50 varieties of crops in this space. The produce grown is used to make weekly lunches for MAP’s community during summer months.
One of the first activities I do with young people new to our program is labeling the crops growing in the youth space. Each teenager is given 6-8 signs labeled ‘tomato’ or ‘carrot.’ Their job is to place the sign in front of the correct plant. Teens are encouraged to taste or smell leaves to help figure out what plant they are looking at. Strawberries, tomatoes and eggplant are quickly identified if they are bearing fruit. Salad greens can be a bit confusing since they are mainly green leaves. But it’s the root crops that are usually unknown and misidentified; Carrots labeled cilantro, radishes marked as lettuce. This may not be surprising, since we rarely see root crops in the market with their stems or leaves. Once all the plant labels have been set in front of a plant, we see if it’s been correctly identified.
The next step is introducing the amount of labor and knowledge it takes to grow our food. We use hand labor and sustainable farming methods to manage our 1.5 acres of land. This means the teenagers who work with us spend a lot of time preparing fields with a broad fork, hand hoes and rakes. They call this the human tractor. Our compost piles are turned over by hand (this task is often cited as a ‘least favorite’). However, when completed, both of these rudimentary tasks offer the satisfaction of a completed job – with sore muscles to prove it.
With time, the teens discover which crops are successful and which don’t work so well in our small growing space. For example, the most requested item to grow is watermelon. In 2015 we dedicated a significant portion of the youth growing space to grow sugar baby watermelons. Throughout the summer we watched with anticipation as fruits grew larger, only to find them smashed on the sidewalk in September. In 2016, we tried again – this time dedicating less space to the vines and growing them up a sturdy trellis. There were no vandals this time, but the fruits were small and not that sweet. After two seasons of disappointment the teenagers were ready to give up on watermelon and focus on crops that would be more successful in our area, and less susceptible to damage.
This year we’re growing lots of salad greens, radishes, carrots, green beans, and 4 kinds of tomatoes. The more exotic plants we’re trying this season are both vines in the cucurbit family: luffa – a gourd used as a sponge in the shower, and bitter melon – a long gourd-like fruit eaten by many Burmese and Thai people in our neighborhood.
As an educator, I try to provide the teens tools, materials and knowledge about a task, and then step back and let them learn by doing it. Experimentation with a new tool or getting the feel for the motions of a new task is important for personal development. It also leads to new, creative ideas. For example, last week we were transplanting leeks, a young lady had researched the steps and plant spacing to do this task. I left her and a coworker to start planting. A few minutes later I saw them struggling with step one – dibbling 6 inch deep holes – because the ground was hard and dry to make clean holes to drop leek seedlings into. I watched as they tried digging holes with trowels and pounding their dibbling sticks in with the back of a shovel. Neither of these worked. They left and came back with two watering cans and proceeded to heavily water rows of soil. They figured out not only to soften the soil so they could make deep holes, but also how to keep the rows straight when planting.
I like to allow time for observation and exploration at work. Watching the natural world around us, and seeing interactions between soil and plants, plants and insects, and our manipulations of the environment is key to becoming a farmer. Last summer, during the drought, I had two young women who helped me water everyday. The youth growing space is watered by hand, which means every plant gets individual attention. The girls noticed that the valuable water often flowed away from plant stems and roots, and then would evaporate quickly. So, they started building wells around each plant stem to keep water where it was needed: In turn they mentored other teens why it was important and what they had learned by doing this task.
At every opportunity I try to have teenagers who are more experienced with a task teach those who are newer to growing crops and working outdoors. Passing the role of leader on gives the young people a greater sense of responsibility in the work they are doing. Hopefully, it also instills a deeper understanding into the task. Knowing how to do a task is one thing, but teaching someone else how to do it and why we do it is a path towards mastery.
As I write, we are preparing to welcome a new crop of teenagers to work with us during the summer. Summer is an exciting time of growth for both crops we plant on our farm, and for the young people we work with. This year will be particularly exciting and transformative for our organization as the Farmhouse & Community Good Training Center is constructed on our farm. I look forward to the opportunities this space will give us to work and educate more young people in our community about the power of food and those who grow it.
Claire Collie is the Farm Education Coordinator at the Massachusetts Avenue Project. She can be reached at Claire@mass-ave.org.
For more information about the Massachusetts Avenue Project visit mass-ave.org. To read about working at MAP from Growing Green youth visit here.
By Sean Cummings
The Binghamton Urban Farm is a small market garden located on the east side of Binghamton’s downtown, managed by Volunteers Improving Neighborhood Environments (VINES) a small not-for-profit in the City of Binghamton. Our goal at the urban farm has always been to create access to fresh affordable food where there once was none. I am happy to say that with each new season, the urban farm has been able to grow and distribute more food than the last. The main fruit and vegetable garden is about five thousand square feet and produces food for the Downtown Binghamton Farmers Market and Binghamton Farm Share, a food box subscription program. There is a high tunnel for seedlings and, when we have the energy, an extended season. This spring, we will plant a small ecological orchard with plums, pears, berries and lots of perennial herbs. Each season, we work with youth from the City of Binghamton to teach them gardening skills and educate them about the food system.
Binghamton, like many other cities across the country, struggles to find a way to address the issue of food insecurity in some of its less well-off neighborhoods. There are different definitions of food insecurity. In Binghamton what seems to be the major issue is that too many people do not have easy enough access to the kinds of foods that support a healthy lifestyle. There are too many barriers both physical and economic to accessing healthy foods, and people resort to eating the processed foods available at gas stations and convenient stores. These foods are cheap and easily accessible. But these foods also play a major role in the rise of chronic diet related diseases and are produced in an unsustainable way.
Growing more food directly in cities helps, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. Urban food insecurity is the result of the intersection of cultural, physical and economic factors. Thinking about these complexities reminds me of an interesting conversation I had with a friend when work first began to launch the Binghamton Urban Farm. I was describing our plan to him. We would find some vacant lots in the city, lease them, bring in soil and compost, grow food and make it available to the community. My friend’s response to this plan was very straightforward. “That sounds weird,” he said. “Why not find land outside the city where you can grow lots of food, where there is already soil and just bring the food into the city?” Initially, his response made the idea of an urban farm seem convoluted. Why convert city lots into sites of food production when there is plenty of room to grow food outside of our urban areas? My friend’s response was a reasonable one especially given that the four city parcels that have become the urban farm at the time were occupied by four burned out houses, piles of trash and overgrown weeds. However my friend’s response overlooked one of the main goals of urban agriculture: reconnecting urban people to the practice of growing food in hopes of one day changing the broader food culture.
Changing the broader food culture starts and ends with changing our relationship to food; what we know about where it comes from, how it is grown, and the way we eat and obtain it. Urban agriculture is one point of leverage to begin fostering this broader change, while dealing with the very real issue of urban food insecurity. The way urban agriculture deals with both the broader cultural issue and the particular issue of food insecurity is by reclaiming urban spaces so that food can be grown directly in urban communities. It is also important to engage community members, as best as possible, in the practice of growing food. Making land and food available goes a long way to solving the accessibility problem. Food is grown in neighborhoods. It comes straight out of the ground and into the hands of people. This is as direct as access gets, and it reconnects people in urban communities to food and agriculture in such a way that will eventually lead to broader social change. We need to begin to look at our urban communities as not just a place where food gets consumed, but also as a place where food gets produced. In order to create these changes we need to overcome two major obstacles: urban soils need to be reclaimed from the harmful effects of urban development, and urban communities need to relearn and reinvent specific agricultural practices.
When you work in urban agriculture you often work with people, especially young people, who have never realized that food comes from soil. Although the process by which nutrients in the soil is converted by plants and other organisms into nutrients for people is extremely complex at the biological, chemical and physical level it can nevertheless be understood very simply. The realization can be had merely by experiencing the journey from seed to table, or even more simply by seeing a broccoli plant standing in a garden in early summer. “Is that broccoli?” I remember one young person asking with a tone of surprise on their first visit to the Binghamton Urban Farm. As if to say, “What is it doing here sticking out of the ground like that?”
There was a time (it seems that there had to be) when people were not in the position to have this kind of realization, not even young people. That food came from soil was common knowledge. It was knowledge ingrained in us since childhood. It was cultural knowledge. That so many of us now, especially in urban areas, are in the position to have this realization when we are first exposed to agriculture is telling of our culture’s relationship to food. There is a disconnect between the most basic resource that sustains us all and the way we tend to think about urban development.
The disconnect is a physical one. There just is not much soil left uncovered or undisturbed in urban areas. If there is a bit of topsoil, it tends to be shallow, infertile or utilized as an ornamental lawn. This makes growing food in urban areas very challenging, but not impossible. For those members of urban communities that have been marginalized by the industrial food system having a soil resource in their neighborhood could make all the difference. There is, however, also a knowledge disconnect. It is not enough to simply make gardening space available. People also have to relearn how to utilize such spaces in productive and healthful ways. Education about the food system, including but not limited to how to grow food, is perhaps the most important role urban agriculture plays in bringing about a more fair and just food system. The hope is that as the relationship between soil, food and health becomes clearer, community members will demand sovereignty over their food choices, and demand the kind of food system that can legitimately offer people such sovereignty.
The most pressing challenge of urban food insecurity is finding a way to make healthy fresh foods affordable and available in an immediate way. Projects like the Binghamton Urban Farm seek to do this by growing food directly in urban neighborhoods. Although this is the most immediate challenge, in the sense that it affects people’s lives on a daily basis, the ultimate challenge is to pursue a food system model that is built on participation and collective ownership rather than disconnection and consumerism. But to move in this direction we have to be more wiling to put our hands in the soil and reconnect with our food. We have to live where food is grown.
Sean Cummings is the Binghamton Urban Farm Manager. For more information on VINES, he can be reached at (607) 232-3582, or visit vinesgardens.org.
By Pat Brhel
Many people dream of the simple life – growing their own food, maybe even making a living as a farmer – but bills need to be paid and it’s a long commute from the peaceable kingdom to the cubicle. Can you make a living while still living in or near a city? The answer is…maybe.
Some of it will depend on whether you have any land at all and a lot of it will depend on what crop you choose to grow….and, no, I wouldn’t recommend planting the illegal stuff. Short-term gains often result in the former farmer being a current ‘guest of the state’. A dairy farm in Manhattan isn’t going to work, however some crops do bring more profit per square foot. Bees, mushrooms, herbs and berries all take relatively little space and potentially earn large profits as do either earth or hydroponically grown lettuce and other quick-growing, high value per square foot items.
Avi Miner of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ithaca, NY, illuminated some of the challenges inherent in urban farming, as he was unsure if a true urban farm movement is happening there. He said, “The problem with Ithaca is that it’s surrounded by agricultural land, and in the city land prices are so high that the land is too valuable for agriculture. If someone was interested in an urban farm they’d do better in a city where property values aren’t as high and where there are more people that really need the food, such as Buffalo, Rochester or Detroit.”
A check on the Internet and a few phone calls confirms that where property values and incomes have dropped, community gardens, farms, and the necessary classes to educate potential farmers have grown. Miner may be correct that Ithaca doesn’t have an in-the-city urban farm movement, but it does have several farm operations within the city limits. For example, Blue Oyster Cultivation, a mushroom farm, is located within just a few miles of downtown. Ed Harwood, a Cornell professor, farmer, and co-founder of AeroFarms, which uses innovative technology to sustainably grow greens year round, resides in the Ithaca community as well. Harwood, a dedicated advocate for urban farming solutions, developed the AGL-21 growing system, a 30 X 60 inch box that produces baby lettuce plants in 18 days using aeroponics technology, LED lights and a water/fertilizer mixture pumped through plastic tubes that might allow a city dweller to farm in his basement.
Other cities are becoming hubs for urban farming development also. Sean Cummings at the University of Binghamton, just south of Ithaca, has been running an urban farm for several years on a half acre of ground, selling about a ton of vegetables and fruits each year at the Binghamton Farmer’s Market. The Binghamton Urban Farm is run by Volunteer Improving Neighborhood Environments (VINES), a volunteer organization that works to educate local youth and provide fresh, healthy vegetables to low income residents. In addition, VINES provides jobs for teenagers through the City of Binghamton Green Jobs Grant, which comes from Community Development Block Grant Funds. They also benefit from a partnership with Broome County Gang Prevention. In addition to learning how to grow vegetables, youth learn basic money management skills and leave the program with a résumé that will help them land future jobs. VINES also started Fair Share, a CSA that is designed to be affordable to low income residents, thus increasing nutrition and food security.
Cummings said, “During a six week summer program made possible by grants, youth 15 through 18 learn how to grow vegetables, including how to tell a vegetable from a weed, and progress to classes in cooking and food preservation. There are also seven community gardens throughout the area that allow residents to rent a plot and grow their own food. While it’s not certified as an organic farm, we use organic farming principals, compost and compost tea as fertilizers, and natural insect control.”
When asked if there was any opposition to the urban farm he replied, “Fortunately we have a very good relationship with the city and the administration and no one has objected to our farm. We didn’t even have to get a variance. Of course it helps that we took a vacant lot and turned it into something that grows vegetables.”
City farmers have the same problems that rural farmers have – weather and insects for instance – but they can also encounter problems only occasionally experienced by farmers in less populated areas, such as occasional theft of produce or vandalism, some of which can be alleviated by fencing or planting a ‘trap crop’, peas for instance, on the perimeter of the property. Those who garden using organic principals also worry about chemicals used by neighboring landowners drifting onto their property. One potential problem that is not unique to the city gardener, many of whom use borrowed property for their farms, is the worry that their garden space will eventually increase in value so much so that it will be sold for a building lot. Just as some farmers near small towns and cities complain about the farmland wasted on five acre housing tracts, it’s tough to work the soil and finally get it in top shape for production only to have it become too valuable and taxes too high for crops.
Urban farming is something that can be started on a small scale, one raised bed or hydroponic kit at a time tended after work, or, if you have a healthy bank account, by jumping in full time, purchasing a tiller and taking advantage of that spare half acre next to your house or down the block. Those who have done it advise that you do some research first, not only on gardening, but on potential customers. Talk to area businesses such as restaurants and local small stores or to people in your neighborhood or those who patronize your closest farmer’s market. You might be unpleasantly surprised at the quantities a restaurant will require to consider you a reliable source of salad greens but you might be pleased to find that you can start a neighborhood CSA and it could be that flowers, small fruits or herbs will prove more profitable in your area. Finally, grow what you’re most interested in eating, or come up with a way to create a ‘value added product’ such as dried herbs or jelly just in case you don’t sell all your produce, the food won’t be wasted.
Pat Brhel is a community volunteer and freelance writer who lives in Caroline, N.Y. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-539-9928.
The Story of New York City’s Newest Farmers
By Daisy Bow
When anyone thinks about New York City, fixtures like concrete sidewalks, skyscrapers, large office buildings, heavy traffic, storefronts, and subway stations come easily to mind. Green spaces are generally relegated to designated city parks, and most flowers are pre-cut, bundled into ready-to-go bouquets.
However the metropolitan topography is changing.
Urban farms are popping up across the city on rooftops, in church basketball courts, and backyards. They are finding homes in otherwise abandoned spaces reclaimed by ambitious, enterprising, and entrepreneurial souls. These urban farmers are eager to take advantage of what they see as a common-sense solution to feeding local, seasonal produce without the carbon footprint to a hungry city. They are also looking to the future. In neighborhoods where you can live next door to someone for 20 years and never know their name, these urban farmers are committed to building community while at the same time expanding production and earning profit.
“There is just so much space across the city,” said Ben Flanner, head grower for Brooklyn Grange. “I just heard the number: there are hundreds of thousands of buildings that are all empty on the top of the roof. The sun is just beating down on all these roofs, so it makes sense to do something productive with it and grow as much food as we can.”
Located in Long Island City, Queens, Brooklyn Grange is one of the newer additions to New York City’s growing urban farms movement. It is also the largest. At 40,000 square feet — a little less than an acre — the Grange is the first commercial farm in the city that has enough scale to support a full-time staff.
“We’re kind of unique in that, almost stubbornly, we want to make it a real farm,” Flanner said.
Flanner belongs to a new breed of urban farmer: motivated, autodidactic, curious, adventurous, and city-smart. These are traits shared by other urban farmers, essential characteristics that equip them to navigate a terrain both less complicated and more challenging than a traditional commercial farm. As a rooftop farm six stories above ground, Brooklyn Grange’s growers must think outside of the box in order to work around factors unique to their environment.
“You can’t drive a stake three feet into the ground,” Flanner said, “I only have about ten inches of lightweight soil so I have to use techniques that are a lot more creative and more labor intensive. It’s windy up there too, so you need even more staking.”
Creativity is the key to growing in the city, something that Jordan Hall and Bennett Wilson of Tenth Acre Farms know well. Hall, Wilson, and Wilson’s brother Adam are the three owners of New York City’s newest commercial venture. Beginning as a project in Hall’s backyard in 2009, the farm expanded last year, taking over a little-used ground space in the back of St. Cecilia’s Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Wilson and Hall got the idea to expand the farm last spring: “We were digging in new stuff, turning over the soil in the backyard last April. We thought if we had sold everything, we would almost have made back what we had put into it.”
The agricultural space that they carved out of the middle of hipster Brooklyn is impressive, sophisticated, clean and elegant. Using the skills and knowledge gained from experience in set-building and scenic design, they came up with the idea of “raised bed gardening” instead of planting into the ground.
“You just can’t bet on most of the soil in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. You don’t know what contaminants are in there. We knew we had to get new soil. Instead of digging in, we figured it was going to be much easier to build a structure where it can be raised off the ground,” said Hall.
According to both Hall and Bennett Wilson, raised beds offer many advantages: they increase your growing season and keep pests away. There is no damage to any root structure because a foot never touches the soil. Harvesting is easier because you don’t have to bend down.
“It benefits the plants in so many ways that it is worth that initial input. And it’s somewhat cosmetically pleasing on a lot of levels. Where there is going to be shared property, we thought this was the right way to go,” Hall said.
For Hall and Wilson, one of the biggest challenges to any urban farm is space. Not just limitations on how much space to give the plants, but also space to compost in order to fully realize the goal of farming using organic practices.
“You can’t react like you can in traditional gardening,” Wilson said, “You really need to make sure that your soil tests are good and that you keep up with it. We put fish emulsion, seaweed extract, bat guano tea, and things like that on the soil all year just to keep ahead of it.”
Both farms are composting as much as possible, avoiding pesticides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers. Tenth Acre Farms openly accepts compostable donations from the community. Flanner collects scraps from farmers’ markets, coffee chaff from a local roaster, and pure wood shavings from a nearby woodworker. For Flanner, maintaining healthy soil is the key to staying successful. However, the difficulty of this task is compounded by logistical aspects unique to urban locations. In the case of Brookyn Grange, delivery of new soil, compost, and compostable materials are limited by what the growers can bring up to the roof.
“It’s like the bucket brigade the last two flights of steps. We can’t get 20 or 30 yards unless we paid for a crane again,”
However, urban farming does have distinct advantages. For one, urban farms are literally in the market’s backyard. Their proximity to New York City’s restaurants, farmers’ markets, and CSA’s ensure that the consumer is never more than five miles away from the farm. Wilson points out other positive points: by eliminating the middle man, an urban farm of 2000 feet like Tenth Acre Farms can actually net as much profit as an 8000 square foot farm elsewhere.
“We don’t have to pay a shipping company, a packaging company, or a wholesaler. We have the costs of big machinery,” he said.
Another challenge to any farm, not just urban farms, is distribution. How do you connect with the consumer? How do you find channels to move harvested produce and build the infrastructure needed to deliver perishable goods? How do you educate restaurants and customers to know what is seasonally available?
“Those are challenges to any farmer,” Flanner said, “There are 8 million people here and not enough of them are eating good vegetables or spending their dollars on it, but for those who are, we’re really close.”
Brooklyn Grange and Tenth Acre Farms both have established markets that they run and maintain throughout the season. In addition to these, both will have Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations this season. They will be Tenth Acre’s first, and Brooklyn Grange’s second. In addition, Brooklyn Grange supplies several restaurants in the city. Last year, Tenth Acre Farms began developing relationships with local establishments — restaurants, cafés, and bodegas — to move more of their harvest.
According to Flanner, Brooklyn Grange produced 12 and 14 thousand pounds of produce last year, even with a shortened growing season. They sold almost all of it. For Tenth Acre, the farm’s inaugural production exceeded all expectations — about 7 or 8 thousand pounds. Still, Wilson projects that the farm has not yet reached its full potential. Wilson spoke of experimenting with mirrors in order to direct sun to shadier areas of the farm, as well as building cold-frames to extend their productivity. This spring, he will work on the farm full-time (Hall and Wilson both currently work for College Humor, a comedy website).
“I think after this year, we’ll blow people away. Now that I can devote more time, I can go out there every day and work the place. It’s not like I have to pick everything, deliver it, and then get back to my job,” he said.
Currently, all acknowledge that there is a certain novelty to what they are doing.
“I think there is a little bit of misunderstanding, or a curiosity about urban farming,” Flanner said, “Real commercial farmers kind of sit and say, What are these kids doing?!”
Flanner does make the point that even given phenomenal growth, urban farming is not a replacement for local farming upstate and elsewhere. Citing statistics, he notes that if urban farmers were to cultivate every available space in New York, the appetite of city’s 8,000,000 residents would exceed any supply.
“A big challenge is that only 2% of New York City’s vegetables are grown in state. We still get massive shipments in from around the world,” he said, “But what we’re trying to do is create momentum. That is the overarching goal: to increase that 2% number. We’re trying to change people’s culture and the way they are purchasing their food.”
For both farms, there is still room to grow. Brooklyn Grange has a ten-year lease on their rooftop, and Flanner is looking to the future with an eye to experimenting, learning, improving, getting smarter, and diversifying. Tenth Acre is looking to conquer not only ground spaces, but rooftop ones as well.
“There are plenty of one-acre lots owned by the city that are just sitting there being garbage dumps right now,” Wilson said, “I don’t care where it is: you can put me on the water, you can put me next to a bunch of cranes, I’m going to bring in dirt anyway and we’re going to clean the place up. We can make anything work in this city.”
Daisy Bow is a doctoral student studying food in contemporary French literature at New York University in New York, NY. She may be reached at email@example.com.
By Derek Denckla
Recently, urban agriculture seems to have achieved a milestone– being lampooned. The blog Daily Candy featured “DIY Halloween Costumes” in which suggestion No. 4 was “Urban Farmer,” recommending a three ingredient recipe:
“1. Same [outfit] as Paul Bunyan but replace the ax with a shovel; 2. Carry a tote bag filled with fresh veggies. and 3. Talk about the importance of eating local. Extra Credit: Talk about the time you ate with Michael Pollan.”
Overexposure or Underappreciated?
The reading public may be overexposed to urban agriculture, associating urban farming more with fad or fashion rather than the future of food.
In my opinion, copious media attention should be lavished on farmers. To me, the recent surge in public interest in urban farmers (and farming in general) is long overdue. It strikes me as much more odd that farm work has been virtually hidden from public view. Farming has been systematically evicted from cities as smelly, dirty and dangerous to public health. The disconnection between eater and grower has led to childrens’ confusion about the origin of sustenance.
Re-connection of producer and consumer is one of the chief benefits provided by resurgence of urban agriculture. Urban farmers may not be able to grow all the food that urbanites need to survive. Yet, urban farms give city dwellers an opportunity to appreciate the process of growing food at close range, getting to know the farmer as a neighbor.
Portraying urban farming as a “hip” profession may not be such a bad trend if it attracts more young people to buy farm-fresh produce or consider farming as a viable vocation. Fifty-seven is the average age of an American farmer.
Archetype or Stereotype?
The costumed characteristics might signify that “Urban Farmer” has achieved the widespread recognition as an archetype, like Paul Bunyan. However, I worry that the Urban Farmer “costume” raises a risk that recent media attention makes urban farmers into a misleading stereotype — falsely projecting an image of ubiquity, resiliency and uniformity.
Ubiquity? We might be given to assume that urban farmers are everywhere — part of fabric of every major City. Urban farmers may be growing in numbers but they are still few and far between. For instance, only about 20 working farms exist in NYC, a city of 8 million+. A lot of food may be grown on windowsills, in backyards, and within community gardens. However, there exist only a handful of city dwellers who could legitimately write “Farmer” on a tax return.
To be fair, it is not merely the reportage on urban agriculture that could be accused of overstating the scope of urban agriculture. The term “farm” has come to be used artfully to redefine any place where food is growing in the city –no matter how small. I am sympathetic to the appropriation of the terminology of “farm” and “farmer” to transform social consciousness around the possibilities for modest but meaningful contributions to changing the food system. And, interestingly, even the USDA uses a small threshold when defining a farmer as someone who “sells at least one thousand dollars of agricultural commodities.” However, the stretching of common-sense definitions of “farm” and “farmer” may invite a bit of justifiable satirical send-up.
Resilience? Traditionally, a person, profession or idea becomes an object of ridicule when it is perceived as powerful enough to take a licking and keep on ticking. Maybe the “Urban Farmer” is now seen as a substantial social figure — strong enough to withstand mockery and flattery alike — like a politician, celebrity or sports star? In reality, the urban farmer is actually at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole. So, taking urban farmers “down a notch” would leave them lower than the bottom.
The soundbite stereotype may also gloss over significant personal risks taken by urban farmers: hard physical labor, uncertain income and seasonal unemployment. Farming is, by its very nature, a fragile enterprise subject to weather, temperature, insects, fungi, and other environmental factors. And then, there’s the challenging economics of making a living from the land.
Uniformity? Other than Will Allen of Growing Power, few faces of color appear in press coverage on urban farmers. And, it’s no secret that flannel is the personal covering of choice for mostly-white post-collegiate folks. Not surprisingly, Bunyon’s white too.
Now, I am not playing the race card here: I think that there is room for all colors of urban farmers, producing food for all types of reasons in every neighborhood at every income level. Yet, the “flannel” goggles worn by the press seem to focus repeated reporting on one type of farmer while ignoring another. When media ignorance breaks down along skin color or class of clientele, then it recaps an imbalance of power that is not so cool.
Quantity over Quality? Form over Substance?
The sheer volume of recent cultural output on urban farming is daunting and hard to follow, ironically, dwarfing the produce from the actual urban farms.
The diversity of discourse is a sign of strong sincere interest– thinkers and writers can help create a new cultural context for urban farming that fosters product demand and mutual understanding. On the flip side, it seems a tad perverse that some interpreters of urban farming may be deriving more income from telling “the story of urban farming” than most farmers will ever make from urban farms.
I can well understand some public confusion about how to evaluate competing contributions, discerning the wheat from the chaff.
Whose personal account of urban homesteading should you trust? Should you read the gonzo journalism of My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm by Manny Howard or peruse the personal memoir Farm City: The Education of An Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter?
Who is the legitimate thought-leader of the urban farming movement? Should you follow the simple homey steps of UrbanFarming.org sponsored explicitly by Trisket or the empowering earth savvy of GrowingPower.org supported in part by GE Foundation?
Whose vision should define the future of urban agriculture? Should you yearn for the dazzling towers of technopolis described in Vertical Farming by Dickson Despommier or organize the grassroots land reclamation outlined in Public Produce by Darrin Nordahl?
This explosive growth and wide span of opinion indicate the genuine excitement and growing importance of urban agriculture right now. However, it also makes it increasingly difficult to understand who is doing really good work and who is merely working it (for a buck).
Passing Fancy or Lasting Movement?
Urban agriculture is not new — it is as old as the hanging gardens of Babylon or the floating farms of Tenochtitlan. And, urban farming is not new to US Cities — Victory Gardens sprouted here during World War II and Community Gardens have grown food through small individual allotment plots since the 1970s.
Regardless, a majority of urban agriculture experiments gaining public attention are less than a few years old in Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. What will happen when the urban farmer story evolves from the hook of “newness” to a more mature theme of “sustainability?”
There are some strong signs that urban agriculture is not disappearing with the next news cycle. In every city, myriad meetup groups have sprouted — from Permaculture to Beekeeping. Many universities have revived their urban extension programs or enhanced existing programs with Food Studies. There are hundreds of urban agriculture weblogs and even an Urban Farm Magazine (by the publishers of Hobby Farms). In Fall 2010, Just Food, a New York City based non-profit, announced the opening of its Farm School NYC, specifically to train a new generation of urban farmers – the first of its kind in the US.
In conclusion, I am greatly encouraged that urban agriculture may be growing forceful advocates and knowledgeable farmers who may help shape the evolution of the movement, resisting identification as a mere costume of clichés.
Derek Denckla wears a lot of hats. He edits a blog, TheGreenest.Net, focused on urban agriculture and runs FarmCity.US, an action research project exploring ways to invest in sustainable growth of urban agriculture. He advises urban farms and community-based organizations about business development through his consultancy, PropellerGroup.Net. Also, Denckla has been active in developing green buildings in Brooklyn and producing public exhibitions using interdisciplinary arts to communicate complex social and environmental issues.