The Garden of Eatin at 25th and Dickinson in south Philadelphia thrives near a decaying elevated railroad track where drugs are openly exchanged. A group of neighbors grow kale, cotton, black-eyed peas, okra, corn, lima beans, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, and blackberries, as well as roses, calla lillies, and an occasional Christmas tree.
Photo by Michael Ableman
The most productive farms in North America no longer stretch across the great Midwestern expanses or nestle in warm, fertile southern California valleys. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) agriculture census, the most efficient farms, in dollar value per acre of land, flourish in the bustling centers of New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. There, city folk grow vegetables, herbs, fruits, nuts, and flowers and raise fish, poultry, and honeybees—more often than not organically.
Referred to as city farming, urban agriculture, urban farming or metrofarming, growing food “in the cities for the cities” has taken the lead as the most transformative urban renewal movement of the past five years. Just as agriculture once built the United States, it is now reconstructing the hopes of its cities. The list of benefits created by urban farming begins with improving nutrition, boosting local economies, feeding the hungry, creating jobs, decreasing fossil fuel use, improving air quality, and saving water. But this ancient common denominator—food—is also organizing communities in remarkable ways.
Neighbors in Vancouver are forming urban farming coops that collect rain runoff and share compost and tools; Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Boulder, Colorado, harvests more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables each year solely to donate to Community Food Share; Revision House in Boston offers the women it shelters the opportunity to become self-sustaining food growers; and Food from the Hood in Los Angeles teaches street kids how to earn a living farming on vacant lots.
Jump-started a few years ago by Y2K qualms, concerns about chemically treated and genetically altered foods, and the mushrooming clamor for organic produce and ethnic foods, urban farmers are embracing the personal, communal, and financial benefits of “growing their own” and are inventively creating sustainable food production methods that thrive in urban atmospheres. Bucking the “bigger-is-better” industrial farm mentality, dedicated city farmers are earning up to eight times the average U.S. income growing produce for the metropolitan marketplace on as little as an acre of land. Edible landscapes replace water-guzzling lawns; unused green corridors are leased from city hall and cultivated; rooftops become plant nurseries; brick-clinging peas crowd three-inch cracks between houses and sidewalks; and whiskey barrels on driveways imitate traditional Mayan milpas with a cornucopia of corn, squash, and beans.
“We need to rethink our idea of what a farm is and where it resides, what we see in our mind's eye when we think food system, how much land it takes to feed a community or neighborhood, and what is possible in an urban area,” says Michael Ableman, author of On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm (Chronicle Books, 1998) and founder/director of The Center For Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California. “Perhaps we should consider whether we can continue to feed an increasingly urban world from food produced and transported far from that world.”
Going to market
If you’ve stopped reading to peer out the window and eyeball your lawn, patio, windowsill, or the empty lot across the street, you’re in good company. In MetroFarm: The Guide to Growing for Big Profit on a Small Parcel of Land (TS Books, 1994), author Michael Olson interviews business-wise growers who are realizing profits from $10,000 to $1.5 million per year. Indeed, according to the 1997 USDA agriculture census, of the nine farmers listed within densely urban San Francisco County, none earned less than $5,000, with the average annual net profit at $20,000 and the top producer making a cool $90,000.
• Making money at food production, he says, is a matter of having the right product, in the right form, in the right place, at the right time, in the right quality, in the right quantity, at the right price. But how do you know? Olson asserts that the market will always tell you what to grow if you do your research. Talk to restaurateurs, grocery managers, and other farmers to find out what they will welcome and support. His top recommendation? Don’t grow a crop if you don’t have a market for it.
• Ultimately, your success will rely as much on good business practices as on the mythical green thumb. Long- and short-term costs must be balanced by profits. Remember to include your investment in tools, energy costs, water costs, transportation, and marketing as you determine how much you will have to sell your crop for to make a profit. Rani Jacobs, president of Urban Organics and Urban Family Farms in Los Angeles, believes there need be no barriers to urban food production, however. She has witnessed the power of community urban farming that allows the small farmers not only to compete with but even outstrip the large corporate commodity farms in their ability to grow local food for local people.
• Jacobs suggests sharing costs and labor with other growers in the community. Tools—especially expensive ones such as rototillers and small tractors—can be bought and used cooperatively. Neighborhoods can create micro-enterprises in which they save seeds from the best, locally hearty plants to sell or trade the next year, or grow vegetable and flower starts for the spring. Other small, farm-related businesses include creating growing mediums from compost and raising earthworms. The “many hands make light work” philosophy rings especially true for urban farming.
• There is one key point about this simple, fife-and-drum, urban revolution that Olson, Jacobs, and Amanda Cather, farm manager of Naropa University’s Hedgerow Farm in Boulder, Colorado, all share. They each believe that by returning to a bioregional food supply, keeping the money and jobs in the community, and lessening the need for expensive and unhealthy long-distance transport of food, we could change the world for the better. One tomato at a time.