Urban Farming is Booming, But What Does It Really Yield?

The benefits of city-based agriculture go far beyond nutrition.

Elizabeth Royte
Ensia
April 27, 2015

Midway through spring, the nearly bare planting beds of Carolyn Leadley’s Rising Pheasant Farms, in the Poletown neighborhood of Detroit, barely foreshadow the cornucopian abundance to come. It will be many months before Leadley is selling produce from this one-fifth-acre plot. But the affable young farmer has hardly been idle, even during the snowiest days of winter. Twice daily, she has been trekking from her house to a small greenhouse in her side yard, where she waves her watering wand over roughly 100 trays of sprouts, shoots and microgreens. She sells this miniature bounty, year round, at the city’s eastern market and to restaurateurs delighted to place some hyperlocal greens on their guests’ plates.

Leadley is a key player in Detroit’s vibrant communal and commercial farming community, which in 2014 produced nearly 400,000 pounds (18,000 kg) of produce — enough to feed more than 600 people — in its more than 1,300 community, market, family and school gardens. Other farms in postindustrial cities are also prolific: In 2008, Philadelphia’s 226 community and squatter gardens grew roughly 2 million pounds of mid-summer vegetables and herbs, worth US$4.9 million. Running at full bore, Brooklyn’s Added-Value Farm, which occupies 2.75 acres, funnels 40,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables into the low-income neighborhood of Red Hook. And in Camden, New Jersey — an extremely poor city of 80,000 with only one full-service supermarket — community gardeners at 44 sites harvested almost 31,000 pounds (14,000 kg) of vegetables during an unusually wet and cold summer. That’s enough food during the growing season to feed 508 people three servings a day.

Carolyn Leadley and family at Rising Pheasant Farms

Photo of Rising Pheasant Farms’ Carolyn Leadley and family by Marcin Szczepanski.

That researchers are even bothering to quantify the amount of food produced on tiny city farms — whether community gardens, like those of Camden and Philly, or for-profit operations, like Leadley’s — is testament to the nation’s burgeoning local-foods movement and its data-hungry supporters. Young farmers are, in increasing numbers, planting market gardens in cities, and “local” produce (a term with no formal definition) now fills grocery shelves across the U.S., from Walmart to Whole Foods, and is promoted in more than 150 nations around the world.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nationsreports that 800 million people worldwide grow vegetables or fruits or raise animals in cities, producing what the Worldwatch Institute reports to be an astonishing 15 to 20 percent of the world’s food. In developing nations, city dwellers farm for subsistence, but in the U.S., urban ag is more often driven by capitalism or ideology. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t track numbers of city farmers, but based on demand for its programs that fund education and infrastructure in support of urban-ag projects, and on surveys of urban ag in select cities, it affirms that business is booming. How far — and in what direction — can this trend go? What portion of a city’s food can local farmers grow, at what price, and who will be privileged to eat it? And can such projects make a meaningful contribution to food security in an increasingly crowded world?

Urban Advantages

Like anyone who farms in a city, Leadley waxes eloquent on the freshness of her product. Pea shoots that have traveled 3 miles (4.8 km) to grace a salad are bound to taste better and be more nutritious, she says, than those that have traveled half a continent or farther. “One local restaurant that I sell to used to buy its sprouts from Norway,” Leadley says. Fresher food also lasts longer on shelves and in refrigerators, reducing waste.

Gotham Greens Greenhouse

New York City–based Gotham Greens produces more than 300 tons per year of herbs and greens in two hydroponic facilities. Photo by TIA (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Food that’s grown and consumed in cities has other advantages: During times of abundance, it may cost less than supermarket fare that’s come long distances, and during times of emergency — when transportation and distribution channels break down — it can fill a vegetable void. Following large storms such as Hurricane Sandy and the blizzards of this past winter, says Viraj Puri, cofounder of New York City–based Gotham Greens (which produces more than 300 tons [272 metric tons] of herbs and microgreens per year in two rooftop hydroponic operations and has another farm planned for Chicago), “our produce was the only produce on the shelf at many supermarkets across the city.”

Despite their relatively small size, urban farms grow a surprising amount of food, with yields that often surpass those of their rural cousins. This is possible for a couple reasons. First, city farms don’t experience heavy insect pressure, and they don’t have to deal with hungry deer or groundhogs. Second, city farmers can walk their plots in minutes, rather than hours, addressing problems as they arise and harvesting produce at its peak. They can also plant more densely because they hand cultivate, nourish their soil more frequently and micromanage applications of water and fertilizer.

As social enterprises, community gardens operate in an alternate financial universe: they don’t sustain themselves with sales, nor do they have to pay employees.Though they don’t get as much press as for-profit farms and heavily capitalized rooftop operations, community gardens — which are collectively tended by people using individual or shared plots of public or private land, and have been a feature in U.S. cities for well over a century — are the most common form of urban agriculture in the nation, producing far more food and feeding more people, in aggregate, than their commercial counterparts. As social enterprises, community gardens operate in an alternate financial universe: they don’t sustain themselves with sales, nor do they have to pay employees. Instead, they rely on volunteer or cheap youth labor, they pay little or nothing in rent, and they solicit outside aid from government programs and foundations that support their social and environmental missions. These may include job training, health and nutrition education, and increasing the community’s resilience to climate change by absorbing stormwater, counteracting the urban heat island effect and converting food waste into compost.

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