Spinach and the City

The Future of Urban Farming
Written by Claire Suttles

The concept of Urban Farming has taken off in cities around North America, pushing people to rethink food production possibilities. Proponents view the phenomenon as a movement rather than a passing trend, pointing to several key advantages…
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Growing food in densely populated areas cuts out the need for long distance transportation, which may reduce the cost and the carbon footprint and provides access to fresh, local produce. Low-income urban neighbourhoods – often dubbed “food deserts” for the lack of major grocery chains available – may stand to benefit the most. Urban farming also increases greenery and shading within a landscape of concrete and asphalt, creating a more pleasant environment and countering the urban heat island effect.

While it may seem novel to see rooftop gardens sprouting up across Manhattan and Toronto, or chicken coops in Boston’s upscale Beacon Hill neighbourhood, the concept is nothing new. Traditionally, city dwellers have shared tight quarters with farm animals and kitchen gardens, and in many cities around the developing world, so called ‘urban farming’ is simply an unquestioned way of life. Even the developed world is only a few generations removed from urban agriculture. For instance, cows grazed the Boston Common until 1830, and in 1895 Boston was still producing more crops and livestock products than any other Massachusetts town except Dartmouth, according to the Boston Globe. During WWII, the concept of gardening in densely populated areas experienced a brief resurgence as victory gardens sprang up in places as crowded as New York and London.

For all of its advantages, there are good reasons why urban farming fell out of favour in the developed world and was eventually outlawed in most municipalities. Sanitation is the most obvious challenge. Crowding people and animals together can be a public health disaster waiting to happen and removing farm animals from our living rooms and their waste from our streets has been a key reason behind increased life expectancies.

Of course, today’s urban farmers are armed with modern knowledge regarding communicable illness and no one expects to see free range hogs roaming Central Park anytime soon. But noise, waste, and unsavoury odours can still be an issue in close quarters, as anyone who has visited a petting zoo can attest. Major cities are testing the waters carefully, loosening zoning ordinances to allow animals that can realistically fit into an urban environment. For example, many municipalities now allow a limited number of chickens per property – but absolutely no roosters, in order to spare neighbours the incessant crowing.

As cities become more open to the concept of animal husbandry, new challenges are surfacing as urbanites realize that farming goes beyond ogling cute baby animals or presenting a quiche with home grown eggs at a potluck dinner. Hipsters eager to enjoy fresh, local eggs often balk at the idea of culling their flock when hens outlive their usefulness. As a result, some urban animal shelters have become overrun with unwanted chickens. Many urban neighbours also resist the idea of their next-door patio being used as a temporary slaughterhouse and protests against backyard butchering have sprung up around the country. In one high profile case, a planned culling at an urban farm in Berkeley created a community-wide uproar from animal rights activists and had to be cancelled to avoid a scene. (The chickens were still killed a few days later in a more private setting and the resulting chicken soup was given to low-income locals, Modern Farmer reports).

Another drawback is that urban dirt may contain dangerous levels of contaminants such as lead and arsenic. And of course, land in densely populated areas is much more expensive than rural land. Furthermore, adding greenery to urban landscapes can push surrounding rents even higher, as urban farming is associated with gentrification. As a result, urban farms may actually negatively impact neighbouring low-income populations economically, even though these populations stand to benefit the most from the availability of fresh produce.

Some experts go so far as to insist that the negatives of commercial urban farming actually outweigh the benefits. Most glaringly obvious is the fact that conventional agriculture is an extremely low-value use of in-demand square footage. Moreover, using in-demand urban space for farming may actually waste as much energy as it saves. Inhabitat.com recently reported on the stance that Harvard University economics professor Edward L. Glaeser, PhD has taken on the concept. Dr. Glaeser believes that large-scale urban farming would reduce metropolitan density levels and increase commutes, leading to more environmental harm than good. In fact, if just 7.9 percent of the United States’ 1 billion acres of crop and pastureland were replaced with urban farms, metropolitan densities would be slashed in half, inhabitat.com reports.

Lower density living is associated with higher energy use due to a sharp increase in the use of gasoline. As a result, moving even this relatively small amount of farmland into cities would create an extra 1.77 tons of carbon dioxide per household per year, while the decrease in food miles would only reduce carbon dioxide emissions by .4 tons per household per year, according to inhabitat.com. The bottom line, Dr. Glaeser points out, is that if people must be moved out to move agriculture in, than the environmental benefits simply are not there. Of course, this does not mean that the concept of urban farming cannot work. It simply means that cities cannot sacrifice density for farmland if the goal is to reduce our carbon footprint.

What about the economic benefits? So far, the typical urban farm remains largely unprofitable, dependent on grant funding and volunteer labour. But this should not discount the potential of commercial urban farming entirely, grist.org insists. In Urban Farms Don’t Make Money – So What? Tom Philpott points out that, with massive factory farms in the Midwest still dependent on billions of dollars in corn and soy subsidies, self-sufficiency might be an unreasonable and irrelevant benchmark.

But somebody is going to have to back unprofitable commercial urban farms, and creating a farming system that will be indefinitely dependent on subsidies or other funding certainly isn’t ideal. Small scale urban farming at the individual level may prove more realistic and environmentally friendly, particularly when fertilized with compost from the landowner’s own kitchen. Backyard farming (or windowsill farming, or balcony farming etc.) does not reduce urban density or require funding, yet it can still deliver needed nutrition to food deserts, albeit on a smaller scale.

Some industry insiders argue that urban farming can actually be profitable if kept to a relatively small scale and approached from a new angle. The creators of SPIN-farming (Small Plot Intensive farming) have focused on the economics of urban farming, not just the health and environmental benefits. The micro-farmers at spinfarming.com state that abandoning the traditional farming model of high acreage, high energy, and high capital costs will literally pay off. Production based, low capital intensive, and sub-acre in scale, SPIN-farming does not require expensive machinery or irrigation equipment; when limiting production to small plots, a gardening hose and basic tools are adequate, making startup costs quite low. Obviously, this small-scale method is not a replacement for traditional farming methods, but SPIN-farming advocates claim that the method is effective for individuals or small groups looking to turn a tidy profit at local markets.

While the profitability of urban farming may be in question, the demand for its products is certainly there – and it continues to increase every year. Direct to consumer local food sales via farm stands, community supported agriculture (CSA), and farmers markets skyrocketed from around $600 million in 1997 to a whopping $1.2 billion in 2007, seedstock.com reports. And growth is expected to continue to increase through 2015 and beyond. This positive prediction was generated from Seedstock’s annual conference at UCLA, where over 250 policy makers, investors, farmers, and entrepreneurs come together every year to discuss local food systems and what is driving them.

Five top trends were identified at the most recent conference and are reported in detail at seedstock.com. Perhaps most notably, the demand for locally sourced food is expected to continue its steady rise, with locally sourced meat and seafood enjoying a particularly sharp increase in popularity. Also noteworthy is the fact that local food business incubators are taking off, encouraging the development of food production start-ups, which in turn create wholesale local food buyers beyond grocery stores and restaurants. Controlled environment farms are also gaining traction. Hydroponic and aquaponic farming helps make urban farming more feasible by making the most of scarce land, while rooftops, shipping containers, and abandoned buildings provide unorthodox spaces for entrepreneurial farms to take root. Another key trend is the continued increase in government support. The USDA is setting aside millions of dollars to help increase distribution centres that cater to smaller farms, while many local governments are helping to drive commercial-scale urban farming through incentives such as tax breaks for landowners who lend their property for urban farming.

With strong government support and enthusiastic demand from local food consumers, urban farming is likely to continue taking root, regardless of the profitability per se. Whether commercial urban farms eventually prosper is yet to be seen, but many people involved in the movement claim that you can’t put a price tag on bringing fresh produce to areas that need it. “It isn’t about the money,” insists Emily Brassell, who dabbles in urban farming in Durham, North Carolina. While some practitioners are certainly looking to earn an income, Ms. Brassell’s statement may well capture the heart of the movement, which sees the practice as a way of life that goes far beyond a business proposition.

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