Urban Farmer Backlash: Too Much of a Good Thing?
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.