By Adam Brock
Quick: what does a Kohirabi look like? Which greens can you grow through the winter? What do you need to pickle your own veggies? A year ago, questions like these might have been met with blank stares even among the verdy elite. But an interest in personal food production seems to be sprouting up across the urban centers. Urban gardening sites like You Grow Girl, My Urban Farm, and City Dirt have proliferated in the green blogosphere, and last spring in the UK, vegetable seed sales were up 30% while flower seeds declined by the same amount. In other words, gardens are cool again. So cool, in fact, that the corporate cash-in has already begun: hipster apparel chain Urban Outfitters surprised many industry insiders last May with the news that their latest brand wouldn’t be stocking organic jeans or vintage tees, but rather rakes and planters.
Like most verdy activities, backyard gardening has a cornucopia of positive side effects. The stress-relieving potential of nature-starved urbanites getting into the dirt is a given, but it looks like gardening might actually alter our brain chemistry for the better: a UK study released last spring found that Mycobacterium Vaccae, a microorganism commonly found in farm soil and homegrown produce, increases serotonin levels, proving that gardeners are, in fact, more likely to be cheery. And of course, there’s the food itself, which is more tasty and nutritious when it’s grown organically and eaten fresh from the yard.
There seems to be little doubt that that growing our own is healthy for us – but what about the planet? Can this trendy pastime become a viable strategy for food security? History says yes. During World War II, the government’s Victory Gardens campaign urged Americans to grow produce on lawns, windowsills and rooftops to free up food stocks for the war effort. Citizens responded, and the program was a success: at its peak, forty percent of the country’s produce came from these small-scale vegetable gardens.
Today, there’s Victory Gardens 2007+, an initiative to kick-start a movement of home-scale urban agriculture in San Francisco. Developed as a partnership between the city government and the non-profit collective Future Farmers, the program will sell participants discounted supplies for drip irrigation, raised beds and composting, as well as provide a series of workshops on how to plan, build, and maintain their new plots.
So far, Future Farmers have helped plant three demonstration Victory Gardens, with twelve more lined up – although there seems to be far more demand than the staff can handle. “The biggest roadblock has been having enough people to facilitate our needs,” says Amy Franceschini, co-director of the program. “We put this out there, and people are flooding us with emails: ‘I have a garden! I want a start-up kit!’ I suppose it’s a positive roadblock, but it’s been tough to manage.”
San Francisco’s Victory Gardens provide a hopeful template for municipalities across the country, but whether it’s truly scaleable remains to be seen. There’s a sizeable reality gap between a pilot program in one of the country’s greenest cities to 1940s levels of backyard crop production; ways of life have changed drastically in the past six decades, and in an age when many Americans can’t find the time to even cook their own food, it’s hard to picture many willing to grow it. There’s also a steep learning curve to consider – as Brooklynite Manny Howard found out last year, the backyard farm can be a pretty humiliating undertaking for inexperienced city dwellers.
It might be somewhat unrealistic, then, to expect homeowners to become the urban farmers of tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean all those suburban backyards have to go to waste. What if, instead of relying on residents to do the gardening, home-scale food production was framed as a business service? That’s the idea behind the Canadian system of SPIN Farming, which encourages enterprising farmers to rent out other folks’ yards in exchange for a share of the eventual crop. Wally Satzewich, the founder of SPIN, has been making a living for the last decade selling produce that he grows on two dozen backyard plots in Saskatoon, and is working to actively promote his system throughout the lower forty-eight.
Whereas our current food system is built around few sources of production and distribution, it’s becoming clear that 21st-century nutrition will come from a multitude of small sources. Just as centralized power plants will eventually give way to a mix of large- and small-scale renewable energy sources, so too will food systems become much more diverse in their size and location. Backyard gardening, then, is the agricultural equivalent of microgeneration: the diffuse but essential base that eases the load on the heavy hitters. A single rooftop turbine doesn’t look like much, and neither does a patch of turnips. But with the right support and economic conditions, both can be critical bottom-up components of self-sufficient cities.
Meanwhile, the elements are beginning to fall into place to make cityfarming viable beyond the garden level. What would it take to create a full-on agricultural industry in the urban core? It’s to this question that I’ll be turning in the next part of the series.
Image credit: futurefarmers