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

Ensia | January 20, 2016

Sky garden, London. CREDIT: Pierre Rougierc.

This article has been republished with kind permission from Ensia. It was written by Elizabeth Royte.

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 (one-tenth-hectare) 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 (181,000 kilograms) of produce—enough to feed more than 600 people—in its more than 1,300 community, market, family, and school gardens. Other farms in post-industrial 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 $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 kilograms) 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.

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 United States, from Walmart to Whole Foods, and is promoted in more than 150 nations around the world.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports 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 United States, 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 three miles (4.8 kilometers) 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.

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, co-founder of New York City—based Gotham Greens (which produces more than 300 tons [270 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.

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.

Funders don't necessarily expect community gardens to become self-sustaining. These farms may increase their revenue streams by selling at farmers markets or to restaurants, or they may collect fees from restaurants or other food-waste generators for accepting scraps that will be converted into compost, says Ruth Goldman, a program officer at the Merck Family Fund, which funds urban agriculture projects. "But margins on vegetable farming are very slim, and because these farms are doing community education and training teen leaders, they're not likely to operate in the black."

Several years ago, Elizabeth Bee Ayer, who until recently ran a training program for city farmers, took a hard look at the beets growing in her Youth Farm, in the Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. She counted the hand movements involved in harvesting the roots and the minutes it took to wash and prepare them for sale. "Tiny things can make or break a farm," Ayer notes. "Our beets cost $2.50 for a bunch of four, and people in the neighborhood loved them. But we were losing 12 cents on every beet." Ultimately, Ayer decided not to raise the price: "No one would have bought them," she says. Instead, she doubled down on callaloo, a Caribbean herb that cost less to produce but sold enough to subsidize the beets. "People love it, it grows like a weed, it's low maintenance, and requires very little labor." In the end, she says, "We are a non-profit, and we didn't want to make a profit."

Sustainable and Resilient

Few would begrudge Ayer her loss leader, but such practices can undercut for-profit city farmers who are already struggling to compete with regional farmers at crowded urban markets and with cheap supermarket produce shipped from California and Mexico. Leadley, of Rising Pheasant Farms, realized long ago that she wouldn't survive selling only the vegetables from her outdoor garden, which is why she invested in a plastic-draped greenhouse and heating system. Her tiny shoots, sprouts, amaranth, and kohlrabi leaves grow year-round; they grow quickly—in the summer, Leadley can make a crop in seven days—and they sell for well over a dollar an ounce.

Nodding toward her backyard plot, Leadley says, "I grow those vegetables because they look good on the farm stand. They attract more customers to our table, and I really love growing outdoors." But it's the microgreens that keep Leadley from joining the ranks of the vast majority of U.S. farmers and taking a second job.

Mchezaji Axum, an agronomist with the University of the District of Columbia, the first exclusively urban land-grant university in the nation, helps urban farmers increase their yields whether they are selling into wealthy markets, like Leadley, or poorer markets, like Ayer. He promotes the use of plant varieties adapted to city conditions (short corn that produces four instead of two ears, for example). He also recommends biointensive methods, such as planting densely, intercropping, applying compost, rotating crops, and employing season-extension methods (growing cold-tolerant vegetables like kale, spinach, or carrots in winter hoop houses, for example, or starting plants in cold frames—boxes with transparent tops that let in sunlight but protect plants from extreme cold and rain).

"You learn to improve your soil health, and you learn how to space your plants to get more sunshine," Axum says. Surveying DC's scores of communal gardens, Axum has been surprised by how little food they actually grow. "People aren't using their space well. More than 90 percent aren't producing intensively. Some people just want to grow and be left alone."

"Using biointensive methods may not be part of your cultural tradition," says Laura J. Lawson, a professor of landscape architecture at Rutgers State University and the author of City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, says. "It depends who you learned gardening from." Lawson recalls the story of a well-meaning visitor to a Philadelphia garden who suggested that the farmers had planted their corn in a spot that wasn't photosynthetically ideal. The women told their visitor, "We always plant it there; that way we can pee behind it."

External Link: CONTINUE READING: Urban Farming is Booming, But What Does it Really Yield?

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