Hooray for Urban Farming

3/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Guy Steucek Massachusetts Correspondent

We can surmise that the origin of agriculture 10,000 years ago took place in a community setting. On a relative time scale, it was very recent that agriculture moved to rural areas.

Perhaps because of industrial production and processing of food, people now demand fresh, local food. Consumers want to know their farmer. Urban agriculture is again in vogue.

With farmers being the popular 1 percent, they have taken on a folk hero status. In the 1980s, the urban cowboy made his début with the movie of the same title. Would we expect urban farmers to be far behind?

The first annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference hosted by Roxbury Community College in Boston was a full-day event providing a window into the nature of urban agriculture today and prospects for the future.

Urban agriculture has as much to do with nourishing communities as producing food.

Every city has vacant land; some plots with buildings others without. Boston has 800 acres of vacant land, some of which could be farmed. Philadelphia has 40,000 vacant lots.

Although New York City does not keep track of the number of vacant lots, it is estimated that it represents an area of 596 acres.

While this acreage is small potatoes when considering agricultural production, it is significant when one considers the proximity to enormous markets. Moreover, the trend of rooftop growing adds considerably more acreage.

Early immigrants from Europe inherited agricultural cropland from the Native Americans that perished from smallpox and the like. Shortly thereafter, Herculean effort went into clearing the deciduous forests for agricultural expansion.

Today, the urban farmers face as great a challenge with the remediation of urban plots. Removal of debris and toxins, followed by importation of growing materials is a huge labor.

Taste buds are voting for urban agriculture. The fundamental reason folks support urban agriculture is because it leaves a good taste in their mouths.

Without flavor and freshness, products of urban agriculture would take a short trip to the landfill. It appears that all urban farmers and their constituencies know this.

Buttressing flavor and freshness, a segment of the urban market is conscious of the cost of importing food from half way around the Earth in terms of carbon footprint.

Also, the public is becoming more circumspect of processed food as recent books proclaim that the giants in the food industry have engineered food to be addictive. Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is creating quite a stir, much to the benefit of local farmers, especially in urban communities.

The goal of the urban farmer is to gross $2 per square foot. Some with less than an acre come close to this benchmark but still are considered to be among the working poor with a dependence on public health care, etc.

Urban farming is a wholesome way to introduce city youth to entrepreneurship, which would be a new twist to family farmers who are constantly ducking the vicissitudes of nature.

Some urban farms are for profit and others are not-for-profit. Educational programs are associated with a number of the urban farms and contribute significantly to the bottom line.

Because food awareness, or the lack thereof, is a major problem for agriculture today, this component of urban farming is pure gold for agriculture in general.

Cities have plenty of statutes, regulations and attorneys. Consequently, the urban farmer has more to contend with aside from producing a crop.

The urban farmer has a great number of neighbors to befriend. However, cities like Boston are in the process of reworking zoning ordinance, etc. to be farmer friendly. The sight of well managed-crops in place of urban blight will be a welcomed by cities with green aspirations.

Urban farming helps communities develop in a variety of ways. Farmers working in a once vacant lot connect with the local residents, and the “farm” serves as a gathering spot. Harvest festivals represent another way for neighbors to connect.

Governmental agencies and charitable foundations know this and are quick to bond with this nourishing component of the city. We just have to be sure that the focus is on developing urban farming and be careful not to grow the bureaucracy.

While agencies of public health and agriculture have often been at loggerheads, a shared interest in how urban farming will benefit the urban communities is an opportunity to join efforts for the common good. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the foundation for good health.

Will urban farmers affect nearby conventional growers? Yes, but not through competition. I see such interactions as being cooperative through the development of the market for local food.

Bravo to urban farming!

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