Why Cityfarming? To Earn a Living

By Adam Brock

Dig deep enough into the history of urban agriculture and you’re bound to come around to the story of Havana. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its only real trading partner, Cuba went through the economic equivalent of peak oil, and during the “special period” of the early nineties, was forced to relocalize. Fidel Castro began an aggressive program of local food production, and today, Havana sports government-supported community gardens and backyard vegetable plots that provide half of the city’s produce.

Cuba’s path from famine to self-sufficiency has become legendary among Forest Greens. But try and tell it to a city policymaker, and you’ll be politely shown the door: examples borne of deprivation don’t tend to be considered best practices. Instead, mobilizing urban agriculture on a large scale will take the rhetoric of optimism, and perhaps more importantly, a solid grounding in economic reality. Forget food miles and nutrition studies – farming won’t get urban in a serious way until it can turn a profit.

Fortunately, with cereal prices on the rise and the demand for local and organic food growing, there just might be a business model hiding in there amongst all those celery stalks. One of the most promising incubators for successful cityfarm strategies is Intervale, a 350-acre conglomeration of a dozen or so organic farms and natural areas just outside Burlington, Vermont. The land, owned by the Intervale Center, is leased to first-time farmers, who receive training and start-up funds for the first couple years. While the Intervale Center itself obtains its funding from grants and donors, it has birthed many agricultural endeavors that are on the path to financial self-sufficiency. Intervale Compost Products is the most successful, which processes 20,000 tons of organic waste into $750,000 of revenue.

Burlington was fortunate to have a large area of arable land so near the urban core, but most cities won’t be so lucky. The manic pace of development over the past fifteen years has made vacant land a precious commodity, and many urban centers will have to get creative about squeezing in the space for crops. Enter Philadelphia’s Somerton Tanks Farm, a prototype for the economic viability of small-scale urban ag.

Somerton Tanks developed as a collaboration between Roxanne Christiansen, a marketing specialist and urban agriculture advocate, and an unlikely ally: the Philadelphia Water Department. PWD owns about a hundred acres of vacant land around its storage and treatment facilities, and had been looking for ways to cut down on maintenance costs while preserving the land’s ecological integrity – a perfect fit for Christiansiansen’s vision of a test case for profit-generating urban farm.

In 2001 Christiansen’s non-profit, the Institute for Innovations in Local Farming, began leasing a half-acre plot next to the Somerton water tanks for a dollar a month.
Working with Wally Satzewich, the founder of SPIN Farming, she worked out a design that would cut down on overhead and maximizing production. This meant installing a drip-irrigation system, focusing on high-value crops like exotic salad greens, and figuring out how to grow three crops per year. To run the operation, Christiansen hired two full-time farmers and opted for hand tools over costly mechanical equipment. Four years later, Somerton Tanks was grossing $68,000 a year from CSA and farmer’s market sales – 20% more than even Christiansen had anticipated.

IILF is currently working on a state-funded study that will use Somerton Tanks’ business model to outline the prospects for creating an agriculture industry within Philadelphia’s city limits. But before Somerton Tanks is replicated citywide, zoning codes will need to change, as well as cultural attitudes about growing food in the city. And few landowners are likely to be as generous with their land as Philadelphia Water Department.

To be sure, cityfarming as an industry is just getting off the ground – but with Intervale and Somerton Tanks, the bar has been set. Urban agriculture can turn a profit, but every city will need to devise urban ag models that fit with the cultural attitudes, land availability, political will, and, of course, climate. But the commodification of city-grown food comes with a caveat: it runs the risk of disenfranchising those who need it the most. It’s the issue of cityfarms and food justice that I’ll be exploring in the final installment of the series.


Why Cityfarming? Because It’s Better Than Lawns

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

Why Cityfarming?

By Adam Brock

The following is the first in a four-part series on the current state of urban agriculture. In this and the next three sections of the series, I’ll be showing the ways in which urban agriculture is quickly spreading its roots, and assessing the potential of cityfarming from the perspectives of business, equity and leisure.

Environmentalists have been warning of the fragility of our food systems for years, but the recent spike in food prices has made more mainstream outlets take note, as well. The December 6th cover story of the Economist declared the “end of cheap food”, while a recent Guardian article warned that “the risks of food riots and malnutrition will surge in the next two years as the global supply of grain comes under more pressure than at any time in 50 years.”

There’s no avoiding it: like many other aspects of industrial civilization, our current agricultural system is in a state of crisis. In California and the Midwest, factory farming is eroding thousands of square of miles of topsoil every year, slowly drawing the nutrients from some of the world’s most fertile farmland. What’s to blame? Overproduction and chemical fertilizers, which, being petroleum based, are themselves nearing the end of their shelf life. Add to these concerns the possibility of herbicide-immune pests and land competition from biofuel production, and it becomes pretty clear that, within a generation or so, we’re going to have to completely reconfigure the way we cultivate and transport food.

The first line of defense, of course, is family farms, which are back on the upswing after decades of decline. But the small farms currently in existence won’t provide nearly enough to feed the massive appetites of our large cities, and rising fuel costs might make even a trip of several hundred miles uneconomical. In that case, it might make sense to procure our food from even closer to home – as close, perhaps, as our own backyards and rooftops.

How much food are we really talking about here? Is it possible that we’ll soon be feeding ourselves entirely from the city limits? I did a back-of-the-napkin calculation for a class last year that tried to estimate how much land it would take to grow all of New York’s produce within the five boroughs. The Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, which handles most of NYC’s conventional produce, has a throughput of 2.7 billion pounds per year. Growing that amount using permaculture techniques would require about 100,000 acres, or three times the entire parkland in the city. Possible? Sure. Feasible? Not so much.

That is, unless you take the farming indoors – and go up. The vertical farm, a high-rise building solely dedicated to the intensive cultivation of produce, has made headlines recently as the answer to the food crisis of the 21st century. Its main proponent is Dickson Despommier, a Columbia professor that’s led courses examining the feasibility of vertical farming for the last few years. His students have explored the viability of everything from buildings full of gourmet lettuce to complicated ecosystems of chickens, tilapia and dozens of crops.

As crazy as it sounds, the vertical farm isn’t completely without precedent: greenhouses like the massive Eurofresh complex in Arizona have been utilizing hydroponics to grow high-yielding indoor crops for years. But in its stacked growing rooms, use of cutting edge materials, and of course its location, the vertical farm is indeed something entirely new. Theoretically, a vertical farm has the potential to provide for a neighborhood of 50,000, making our cities agriculturally self-sufficient. But getting one off the ground would take an investment of hundreds of millions, and it’s bound to be decades before they start proliferating.

Food security is a vital and oft-overlooked component of sustainable cities, albeit one that might take decades to acheive. In the meantime, though, there are a host of other reasons why cityfarming makes sense in the short term. In fact, the urban ag revolution has already begun: from backyards to rooftops to vacant city-owned lots, urban farms are popping up all over the place – and in the process, they’re transforming not only food systems, but underprivileged communities, urban economics and even our brain chemistry. If the twentieth century accomplished the urbanization of the countryside, the twenty-first will see the pastoralization of the city, proving once and for all that crops and condos can peacefully coexist.

Growth is Madness hosts Hopfenberg

By Adam Brock

What with finals and all, Nelson and I have had less time to spend at the WGY helm as of late. Don’t worry, we’ll be back in a big way in a week or so; in the meantime we’d like to use this opportunity to direct you to some of the other excellent verdy blogs hanging out on these inter nets.

Today’s blog namedrop is John Feeney’s Growth is Madness, which covers the much-needed beat of explaining the earth’s carrying capacity. The official description:

GIM addresses humanity’s most urgent challenge: the need to confront our continued irrational push for unending growth on a finite earth. The emphasis is on population growth and corporate economic growth as they interact with resource consumption rates and our reliance on fossil energy, pushing us toward global ecological collapse.

GIM’s most recent post is a reader Q+A (good idea!) with Dr. Russell Hopfenberg, who has hypothesized a direct correlation between total food production and population growth. According to Hopfenberg, our population explosion and all its attendant ecological devastation won’t let up until we stop increasing the amount of food we grow.

It’s a touchy topic, to be sure – which is exactly why it’s good to see experts and curious readers engaged in open discussion on Feeney’s blog. For better or worse, we could be finding out pretty soon whether the Hopfenberg Hypothesis is correct: a peak in energy supply will probably mean a peak in food supply, as well. After all, what’s the Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s without all those petroleum-based fertilizers?

Best, then, to read up on it now… so go check it out!