Why Cityfarming? Because It’s Fair

By Adam Brock

The last decade has seen sustainability principles begin to redefine the way we do business – as the success of Somerton Tanks proves, even growing food in the city can be profitable. But while the green business revolution is far from over, the frontlines of environmentalism have begun shifting towards the next and final frontier in a triple-bottom-line society: equity.

The concept of environmental justice has been around for a couple decades, of course, but the last year or so has seen it move to the center of the sustainability discourse. Much of the credit probably goes to the charismatic director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Van Jones. With his mantra of “connecting the people who most need work with the work that most needs doing,” Jones landed a starring role in Tom Freidman’s column a couple months back and led a successful campaign to get a “Green Jobs For All” act included in the energy bill currently being debated in the house.

That legislation focuses on creating a new energy economy, training thousands of inner-city residents to weatherize homes, install solar panels, and the like. But what about food? As the locavore movement continues to pick up momentum and rising agricultural prices make food security a serious issue, this same enthusiasm could easily be applied to create a new generation of farmers in the city’s core.

No doubt, the inner city could use a farm or two. Gentrification may have transformed much of the urban landscape into a sea of Starbucks and lofts, but many neighborhoods remain ignored by creative-class types and municipal services alike. In these areas, decades-long patterns of disinvestment have led to the creation of “food deserts”: where the only sustenance around comes from overpriced corner stores and unhealthy fast-food chains. Forced to eat poorly in areas with bad air quality and little in the way of health care, low-income city dwellers are suffering dearly: according to a report from the New England Journal of Medicine, African American men are less likely to reach the age of 65 than men in Bangladesh.

It’s no surprise, then, that in food deserts across the country, cityfarming programs have begun sprouting from once-vacant lots – call them food oases. Programs like Detroit’s Black Community Food Security Network, the Cityslicker Farms in West Oakland, and Added Value in Brooklyn’s Red Hook are as diverse as the neighborhoods they’re in. Nearly all, though, share a strong emphasis on youth involvement and a commitment to feeding the hungry, whatever the cost.

One of the most successful food oases has been a Boston-area program simply called the Food Project. Founded in 1991, TFP puts 100 paid teenagers and thousands of volunteers to work on five small-scale urban plots and a 31-acre farm in rural Massachusetts. Cumulatively, the Food Project farms grow 250,000 pounds of produce per year, which is split evenly between donations to local shelters and sales from CSAs and farmers’ markets. The Food Project’s initial goals were successful enough that they’re now spreading the word across the country: in 2003 The Food Project launched BLAST, an initiative to develop a nationwide youth-led movement around sustainable food (of which the Real Food campaign is a part)

While, running an inner-city urban farm is perhaps one of the most noble pursuits of the regeneration, it’s also one of the most challenging. There’s yet to be a food oasis that earns a profit: even the Food Project only gets a tenth of its budget from sales. But the science of urban agriculture is still young, and much remains to be explored in terms of maximizing yield, growing unconventional crops, and creative methods of outreach and revenue generation.

How might the first moneymaking food oasis go down? Let’s posit an intrepid group of urban farmers on the edge of gentrification – in Bed-Stuy, perhaps, or Chicago’s Southeast Side– that manage to secure $100,000 in start-up capital and a half-acre of free land. The farm is managed by a three-person paid staff, with the rest of the labor coming from community gardeners, interns, and school programs. At first, the soil on the site is of poor quality and contaminated with heavy metals, so the initial crops are grown in raised beds and self-watering containers while a program of compost and bioremediation works to restore fertility to the soil below. The growing space is split 50/50 between nutritional staples destined for the nearby local food banks, and high-value crops like berries and lettuce for CSAs and farmer’s markets.

After three years, the container gardens are thriving, but the grants have run out and the project is barely making enough revenue to sustain itself. To further its income, the program works out a deal with a nearby commercial kitchen to make value-added products like salsa and jam to sell at the farmers’ market. Fast forward another few years, and the farm is earning a hefty profit from the salsa as well as from a successful gourmet mushroom business. Some of these profits enable the construction of a small greenhouse for lucrative aquaculture and winter tomatoes…

…and so on. Sounds unrealistic? Perhaps it is, at this point, anyway. But dismissing it as too idealistic can only guarantee failure. If, on the other hand, we aim to feed the poor, restore nature to the city and turn a profit all at once – well, it just might happen despite ourselves.

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9 thoughts on “Why Cityfarming? Because It’s Fair

  1. frankschulteladbeck says:

    First, thank you for this series; a well written and well argued idea. I have long been upset with how we deal with the issue of providing quality food to our populace (not just from local farms). When it is cheaper to buy can goods which have sugars and preservatives added to the vegetables than fresh vegetables, we have to take another look at our farm bill. The other aspect of cities offer tax breaks for grocery chains to build stores in the inner city areas, and the firms use the offer to create warehouses which do not sell to local residents, who then have difficulties in obtaining their weekly groceries. Since the poor do not vote, the government officials concentrate their efforts on appealing to those who do.

    I would like to mention one organization in my community that has worked towards encouraging urban farms and farmer’s markets, Urban Harvest. They have done a pretty good job, so I though that I should give them a plug.

  2. Roxanne Christensen says:

    For cities to establish local foods systems robust enough to hold their own against established large- scale mass production agriculture, they are going to need to court farmers, and lots of them. And to attract more people to the farming profession, it needs to be re-cast as one that is entrepreneurially-driven, rather than a downwardly mobile profession of last resort. That is a main aim of SPIN-Farming. It is a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system that makes the profession accessible to many more people by removing the 2 barriers to entry – capital and land. You don’t need to own much, or any land, to practice SPIN. Minimal infrastructure, reliance on hand labor to accomplish most farming tasks, utilization of existing water sources to meet irrigation needs, and situating close to markets all keep investment and overhead costs low. Start-up investment ranges from $5,350 for a 5,000 square foot hobby farm to to $15,700 for a full acre full-time farm, with gross revenue ranging from $16,900 for the hobby farm to $60,000 for the acre model. By re-casting farming as a small business, SPIN is helping to not only re-imagine the current food production system, but it is providing a tool for re-building it. You can see the operations of some of these backyard and front lawn farmers at the SPIN-Farming web site – http://www.spinfarming.com.

  3. Scavenger says:

    I’m getting sick of the environmentalists banning this, banning that telling me to do this, do that.
    The endless handwringing, fearmongering,browbeating of goverments and industry.
    There needs to be some balance here since environmental orgaizations can say and do anything and get away with making the rest of us miserable and pay for your silly green gospel.

  4. frankschulteladbeck says:

    To Scavenger:
    I really do not see those issues coming up in this post. This is simply a discussion of improving the food supply while helping the environment. I did mention my hope that governments (local and federal) should take a reasonable look at their policies, in order for wiser decisions to be made. I think can goods are fine, but I would want everyone to have the opportunity to eat fresh. Moreover, should not those without their own transportation have access to purchasing food in their own neighborhoods? I consider neither of those wishes to be silly. I also wonder where in this series of posts and comments anyone has forbidden you or others from enjoying your life as you wish to. This has been about urban farming. I am sorry, but I do not see the points here that would make you comment as such.

  5. madmonq says:

    Creative-class types? If you mean the first wave of spoiled, sullen hipster-with-rich-parents types haven’t started squatting there yet, ok then.

    to the scavenger: It’ll cost less on the front end to change our wasteful ways then have to deal with it later. That means starting in your own back yard.

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