Watching plants grow isn’t the most interesting pastime for most high school kids. Neither is doing chores, nor going to school. Yet there are now more and more schools including an urban agriculture component to their curriculum, and hopefully increasing the number of youths in the agricultural field, experts say.
Urban agriculture is defined by Purdue University Extension educators simply as growing or producing food in urban spaces. Urban agriculture comes in many forms, but the most popular are urban farms, community gardens, and hydroponics or aquaponics programs.
Urban agriculture programs can help local communities in both an economic way and a social way. They allow for people to have more immediate connection to their food, as well as help stimulate a local economy. Urban agriculture programs such as community gardens can target young people in nontraditional agriculture backgrounds, experts note.
Urban ag in Indiana In Indiana there are about 20 urban farms and over 100 community or urban gardens, according to the latest statistics available. Many urban agriculture programs help stimulate the local economy, as well as try to improve the community by hiring people who are re-entering the workforce.
Urban agriculture is often used as a contrast for production agriculture. Specialists believe that in reality, these systems are complementary and essential in creating an ag industry that will allow for people of nontraditional backgrounds to experience the challenges and joys of being in agriculture.
Don Villwock, an Edwardsport farmer on special assignment from Purdue University College of Agriculture Dean Jay Akridge, is exploring how to set up a program that would connect nonfarm kids with farmers so they can get exposure to agriculture. Many of Purdue’s ag students today come from nonfarm backgrounds, including big cities. Villwock hopes to have a pilot program up and running this summer.
Urban agriculture and programs like the one Villwock is putting together can help keep the ag industry strong, as they will allow for many young people to have a greater understanding of agricultural systems, challenges and operating practices. This understanding will allow for better conversations around controversial topics in agriculture. Urban agriculture that features youth programs and engagement will provide a multidimensional level of understanding to its participants by teaching them how to think critically as well as work on their problem-solving skills, experts believe.
Why urban ag matters “Urban agriculture creates opportunities for the students to try things out,” says China Finkton. “The kids are putting together their own worldview, and right now, agriculture is shaping it. Some of them are starting to realize that they can go into agriculture and create something.” This happens when students connect their lessons to real-world problems and solutions, Finkton says.
Finkton is a senior in animal science at Purdue, and is coordinator for the Jr. Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences chapter at Thea Bowman High School in Gary. The purpose of Jr. MANRRS is to encourage high school students to participate in agricultural sciences and pursue a degree in one of those fields.
At Thea Bowman, Finkton has a front-row seat to watch high school students grow and become more comfortable in their knowledge of agriculture. The students have begun to put together research projects that they will present to the MANRRS chapter at Purdue.
Thea Bowman High School has an urban garden that the students are responsible for. The garden includes chickens and goats.
“The students have a maturity to them, which some people do not have at that age,” Finkton says.” It’s the weight of knowing something is depending on you and having to adapt to take care of an animal.” Finkton believes that the students learn personal responsibility when they work in these programs.
“We talk a lot about the year 2050 and how to feed all of those new people, but urban agriculture is really a solution,” Finkton says. “It will help increase the land area. We need more programs like this. Working with kids is one of the best ways to get the ball rolling, as it will bring new ideas and people into the agriculture field.”
Urban ag issues Funding and urban contaminants are two large issues that stop urban agriculture programs from coming to fruition. The cost that comes with starting up a farm or garden is expensive. Many urban farmers also are tasked with the cost of having to rehabilitate the soil to get rid of contaminants, or place a tarp over the contaminated soil and place piles of new soil on top of it in order to start growing safe produce.
“Right now, some of these programs target rich people,” says Steve Hallett, a professor in Purdue’s Horticulture Department. “They are economically biased, so they are not in the places they need to be. These programs can help fight food deserts that impact low-income populations.” Food deserts are areas that do not have access to fresh and healthy produce.
Hallett is also the faculty adviser for the Student Farm on Purdue’s campus. He points out many of the joys, as well as the issues, that some urban agriculture programs are currently facing when talking to students.
The future “When the community invests in them, community gardens help the community,” Hallett says. “Urban gardening might not save the world, but there is no reason not to try it.”
Agriculture programs that target young people could increase the health and longevity of a community. Urban agriculture will allow many young people to invest in their community and make it habitual, while also educating themselves and the people around them about agriculture and its systems, Hallett observes.
Urban agriculture programs with young people are a field that is about more than growing your own herbs and tomatoes. It’s about putting in hard work for the present while also investing in the future. These programs help ensure that in the future, agriculture will carry the same core values it always has: health, quality time with family and community enrichment, specialists conclude.
Urban farming is big news. You may not have heard too much about it but according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), urban agriculture is something that is practised by 800 million people worldwide, over one-tenth of the global population. So what exactly is it and how is it changing how we produce and distribute food?
What is urban farming?
Urban farming, or urban agriculture, can be described as the growing of plants and raising of animals in and around towns, cities and urban environments. Until recently, farming has been a largely rural activity. But the development of technology, together with a pressing need to find more sustainable ways of production and consumption, has led to the adaptation of farming techniques in more built up environments.
There are several different types of urban farms of varying scales that exist in different parts of the world, including commercial city farms, community gardens, community orchards, indoor vertical farms, hydroponic greenhouses, rooftop gardens, urban aquaponic farms (or fish farms), urban beehives and small-scale homestead farms. They produce a range of goods for local consumption or retail, such as grains, vegetables, fruit, meat, poultry, fish, herbs, honey and dairy products.
Urban farms can be small, medium or large-scale commercial enterprises, cooperatives run by community groups or residents, or even individual set ups. The farms have proliferated in both developed and developing countries in recent years, serving slightly different purposes in general in each. Farms in wealthier industrialised nations have largely been in response to the challenge to find more sustainable methods of agricultural production, along with moves towards more localized economies. In poorer countries, they have come about through multi-stakeholder efforts to combat food insecurity and hunger levels.
Why has urban farming become popular?
Urban farming has grown in popularity over the last 10–15 years. In the developing world, it has largely been driven by the rapid urbanization of developing regions. The urban population across the developing world has grown by around 500 million in the last decade and it is predicted that, by 2025, more than half of the developing world will live in urban areas. The main drivers of urban growth in these countries are high birth rates and an influx of rural people trying to escape poverty. Unlike countries where urbanization has been driven by industrialization, in low income areas it is often accompanied by high levels of poverty, unemployment and food insecurity. Urban farming has been seen as a way to combat all three of these problems.
In richer nations, the growth of urban agriculture has been in tandem with a return to localism, the growth of localized businesses, social entrepreneurialism and ethically-minded start ups. Social good and environmental sustainability are high on the agenda with new businesses, with one study finding that 90% of today’s CEOs and 88% of business students believe that sustainability is an important part of commercial success. Finding new and improved agricultural methods is an important area of sustainability. Studies have found that agriculture uses 38% of the world’s land area and is responsible for over 70% of global freshwater consumption. With more people concentrated in urban areas, farms can be more productive without using up the same level of resources. Warmer urban conditions are also conducive to the growing of crops.
Not all urban farming practices, however, are for a commercial profit. There are many such as community gardens and community orchards that are run by charities, community groups or resident cooperatives and exist for more social purposes such as sharing food, providing for poorer sections of the community, or bringing parts of the community together.
What are the impacts of urban farming?
Impact on businesses and the economy
Urban farming can have many positive effects on the local economy. As well as presenting green-fingered entrepreneurs with opportunities to start new local businesses, it also creates job opportunities for local people. Furthermore, farms can often provide local shops, supermarkets and restaurants with cheaper and fresher produce which has knock-on positive effects. One study has estimated that urban farms have the potential to provide around 10% of global vegetable crops, which could translate into big savings for local economies worldwide. Start up costs, however, are still high. Those involved in urban farming typically work longer than average hours, lose more food than rural farmers due to urban pests, and struggle to find skilled and experienced staff.
Impact on the environment
Urban farming has been championed as a way of improving agricultural environmental sustainability, but in truth it can have both positive and negative effects and it comes down to the way that farms operate and are regulated. Farms can provide a more efficient way of meeting local demand. If operated sustainably, they can reduce both the agricultural energy footprint (through eliminating the need to store and transport imported products) and the water footprint (through sustainable irrigation and water recycling). They can also transform wasteland into productive green space and stop it from becoming polluted. Vertical farms, which are set up inside multi-storey buildings and warehouses, also have the benefit of saving on space.
But studies have shown that urban farms can also increase energy and water use. Indoor farms, such as vertical farms, use energy-intensive artificial lighting and climate control systems. Many farms use the municipal water supply rather than a recycled water system for irrigation. There are also distinct health and safety risks with urban farming. Urban land can be contaminated with pollutants, while wastewater if not treated properly can contain human pathogens. This can compromise food safety if strict regulations are not in place.
Impact on communities
There are a number of positive social impacts associated with urban farming, such as:
improving food security and reducing poverty among the poorest by providing cheaper and more easily available food;
health benefits of providing affordable nutritious fruit, vegetables and organically produced meat;
greater social inclusion by providing local job opportunities and, in the case of community projects, bringing communities together;
educational opportunities for children, e.g. school trips to city farms and community gardens where pupils can learn more about where food comes from
However, urban farming has attracted some criticism in places such as Europe for becoming monopolized by the middle-classes and excluding lower income groups.
Who are the main players in urban farming?
Urban farming in Europe is not a new phenomenon. In fact, several countries encouraged the production of food in urban environments during both the First and Second World Wars in the 20th century. Today, start up urban agriculture enterprises are cropping up across the continent. At governmental level, individual governments have had limited involvement but the EU-funded Urban Agriculture Europe, a network of over 120 researchers, have been looking into ways in which urban farming can play a key role in future EU agricultural policy. Berlin-based start up InFarm has become the European urban farming leader with over 100 indoor and outdoor city farms in Germany, France and Switzerland. Among the largest urban farms in Europe are Space&Matter in the Netherlands, the Jones Food Company vertical farm in the UK, and the BIGH rooftop farm in Belgium.
There has been a growth in urban farming across the American continent in recent decades. In the US, policies and initiatives vary between states but projects ranging from vertical hydroponic enterprises to community gardens flourish across the country. A 2012 study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) identified over 300 urban farms in the US. This includes one of the world’s largest urban farms located across nearly two acres in Chicago. In Canada, there has been more state-level involvement. Toronto in particular has been proactive, setting up a Food Policy Council which has drawn up a GrowTO Urban Agriculture Action Plan. In south and central America, where poverty and food insecurity are big issues in several countries, the UNFAO has been involved in kick-starting urban micro-gardens projects in countries including Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Several Asian countries have invested significant amounts in urban farming technologies as a way of dealing with population growth and combating food insecurity. China, which has industrialized at a rapid pace in recent decades, has become a world leader in indoor vertical farming thanks to state investment. Similarly, Thailand has a community-supported agriculture initiative, led by the Thailand Environment Institute, that has helped create rooftop farms and indoor vertical farms across Bangkok. In India, another country that has urbanized at a pace, urban farming is now being seen as a sustainable food production method. Methods such as rooftop farming have taken off in cities such as Kerala.
The African continent has also seen wide-scale urbanization in recent years. Urban farming methods in the poorest countries have largely centred around setting up micro-gardening and community gardening projects, overseen by UNFAO, equipping urban locals with skills and resources to produce sustainable and feed the local community. Methods such as vertical farming are starting to take hold in some African countries. Johannesburg has hosted two Urban Agri Africa Summits to date, looking into possibilities of developing urban farming technologies across the continent.
Urban farming is unlikely to replace traditional agriculture any time soon but it will have a vital role to play in addressing challenges such as environmental sustainability and food insecurity in the coming years. As the world continues to urbanize and new technologies emerge, we can expect to see increasing governmental and inter-governmental involvement as urban farming becomes more mainstream. The key stakeholders will need to make sure that business models stay alert to environmental, social and economic challenges so that the farming of the future is a sustainable benefit for all.
Urban agriculture can offer many benefits, especially in terms of improved food security. However, as with any system, there are potential downsides which can reduce or even eliminate the potential benefits. Such issues are especially prevalent in developing lands and in areas affected by poverty where effective infrastructure, e.g. regulation, sanitation or education, has not yet been established or is in disarray.
The potential for disease transmission if proper food and environmental safety precautions are not in place
Exposure to pesticides and herbicides
Contamination from animal waste
Urban soils may be contaminated and unsuitable for food production
Soil, water, and air pollution from chemicals or animal waste
Abuse of urban flora for grazing
Erosion or flooding from riverside agriculture
Too much time may be spent managing crops, leading to a neglect of familial obligations
The potential for child labor
Further erosion of rural communities
Taxation is difficult
Urban agriculture sites may occupy spaces that can command higher rents when used in other capacities
Uses expensive or limited potable water
Requires extra monitoring for food and environmental safety
May not be aesthetically pleasing
Improper land-use may result in accidents
Nonetheless, many of the above-mentioned issues can be addressed via education, infrastructure development, and intelligent foresight in an effort to create sustainable, inclusive urban agriculture systems that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits to local communities.
The “Big City” allure that the lured the farmer’s children off the farm is definitely changing. One only has to look at Detroit and other similar rust belt cites with their abandoned homes and overgrown lots to know the future will be different. With middle and low income wages stagnating or even declining, the 99%ers are calling attention to the income disparity that has overtaken America. They understand that the ticket to the “American Dream” that was punched by hard work and willingness to follow the rules has been reduced to confetti for many.
While the system sorts things out, it is now necessary, more than ever, for individuals, families, and small community-based groups to help themselves. One of these sure-fired methods is the backyard garden. Also gaining popularity is the community garden. For many, gone are the days of a trip to Grandmother’s farm for a visit where upon leaving she loaded you up with fresh fruits and veggies, but some are beginning to reproduce the “rural setting” in the urban setting.
History Of Urban Farming
While urban farming is not a new concept, it is making a modern comeback. In 1893, Detroit mayor Haze S. Pingree asked his constituents to use any available space to plant gardens. The goal was income production as well as providing food and independence for Detroit citizens during that decade’s depression. Then in WWI, President Wilson expanded that vision to include all of the USA and by 1919, 500 million pounds of produce were harvested from over 5 millions garden plots. During the Great Depression, subsistence gardens produced over 2.8 million dollars worth of food. World War II revived the concept under the name Victory Gardens and 5.5 million Americans participated and grew over 9 million pounds of fruits and vegetables in one year which actually amounted to 44% of all produce grown in the US at that time.
This is a concept that has proved itself time and time again, and it seems that we are entering another phase where urban farming will be not only beneficial, but perhaps necessary as many find themselves either out of work, or working at jobs that are paying much less than previously.
Social Benefits Of Urban Farming
The benefits of urban farming well surpass the nutrition aspect, though of course that is a major part of it. Urban garden plots can also provide increased income, employment, food for the household, decreased grocery expenditures, and also a “common ground” for neighbors. It also puts to use vacant plots of land that have been useless for years and now regain productive use.
Community gardens have existed in many cities for years and apart from bringing people together can also reduce the investment aspect of gardening as tools can be purchased for the group and shared. Also, each person can focus on one or two specialties allowing them not only to exchange with their neighbors, but to sell their surplus. Not only that, but it can provide constructive and fulfilling activity for children, teens, and the elderly as well.
One section of the population that has been practicing “urban” farming for years is the prison population. Many prisons have their own gardens where they grow vegetables for their own kitchens. This is a way of not only cutting down costs but also giving work for “idle hands”. There are many benefits to working with one’s hands in the soil as it is a very calming, nurturing, and healing activity.
Buying food that is locally grown from your farmer’s market or local grocer is a great way to minimize your environmental impact, but growing your own food takes it to the next level.
The easiest way to imagine how growing your own food reduces your carbon footprint and benefits the planet is to think of food production and distribution in terms of an empty jar. The fuller the jar is, the greater the environmental impact, and the more components involved in producing your food and bringing your food to your plate.Advertisementhttps://fcfbf5ee37422060514937b6370d7970.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Fossil Fuels and Fresh Produce
When you take into account the typical energy cost of transporting food to your local grocer, it is estimated that an average distance of 1,500 miles is traveled before the food is consumed. This large-scale, long-distance transportation of food relies heavily on the energy from burning fossil fuels. In fact, it is estimated that we currently put nearly 10 kilo calories of fossil fuel energy into our food system for every one kilo-calorie of energy we get as food. Why is this bad?
Of the many public health and environmental risks associated with burning fossil fuels, the most serious, in terms of its potentially irreversible consequences, is a phenomenon we have all become familiar with – climate change. As Noble Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai states, “Climate change is life or death. It is the new global battlefield. It is being presented as if it is the problem of the developed world. But it’s the developed world that has precipitated global warming.”
Despite fossil fuels containing large amounts of energy, they are rarely found in a pure, untouched state. More often than not, fossil fuels are refined and purified into a usable form, leaving excess waste material that requires disposal. The disposal and handling of this toxic waste take a large toll on the health of the environment, the health of wildlife, and the health of surrounding communities.
The Question of Pesticides and Fertilizer
Another factor to take into account is the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on conventionally grown crops. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the use of many pesticides that were not yet extensively researched and were later linked to cancer and other diseases. Now the EPA considers 60 percent of all herbicides, 90 percent of all fungicides, and 30 percent of all insecticides carcinogenic. In fact, the latest EPA information on U.S. pesticide usage, from 2007, reports that over one billion tons of pesticides are used in the U.S. every year. This is 22 percent of the estimated 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides used worldwide. Agricultural use accounted for 80 percent of pesticide use in the U.S. If you are growing your own food, you can decide what goes on, or what doesn’t go on, your produce.Advertisement
And Then There Were Monocultures
Then there’s the concern of monocropping, or growing only one type of crop in a large area of land. This common farming practice used in the United States, and in other countries, relies on government support for commodity crop production (including wheat, corn, and soy) through the use of government subsidies. These farming practices reduce biodiversity, rely heavily on pesticides and commercial fertilizers, involve heavily mechanized farming practices, incorporate genetically engineered seeds, and result in a loss of soil nutrients. Growing your own food allows you to avoid all of the negative repercussions that come along with monocultures, while protecting your health and the environment’s health.
Other Benefits of Growing Your Own Food
As you avoid some of the negative sides to shopping for food – including a heavy dependence on fossil fuels, carcinogenic pesticides and fertilizers, and monocultures – growing your own food can give you something you may not have considered: exercise. Planting, weeding, watering, and caring for your plants will provide you with a workout that is meaningful.Advertisementhttps://fcfbf5ee37422060514937b6370d7970.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
If you have children, encourage them to join in, too. It can also be argued that growing your own food yields better-tasting food with a higher nutritional value. We’ve all had that friend with the organic garden and after trying one of their vegetables had the “Wow! That tastes so delicious and fresh!” reaction.
Additionally, growing your own food diversifies your palate and exposes your diet to healthier foods – especially if you choose to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. To learn more about the benefits of what we like to call “eating the rainbow,” check this out.Advertisement
The last and maybe most important reason for some is growing your own food can shrink your grocery bill. If you cannot afford to buy organic food, you won’t have to put your money towards industries that rely on practices that pollute and harm the environment’s health (and human health). If you buy non-hybrid, heirloom species, you can save the seeds from the best producers, dry them, and use them for the next growing season. Learning to can, dry, or preserve your summer or fall harvest will allow you to feed yourself even when the growing season is over. If you live in a part of the world that becomes cold and snowy during the winter, check out this post on inexpensive ways to grow food in the winter!
Bringing it back to the empty jar analogy, the heaviest jar, or the jar with the largest carbon footprint, is the jar filled with the components needed for conventional methods of consuming food. By growing your own food, even if you just start with a few crops, you are contributing to a healthier you and a healthier planet.
City and suburban agriculture takes the form of backyard, roof-top and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space.
Urban agriculture is an important source of environmental and production efficiency benefits. The use of best management practices (BMPs) and integrated farming systems protect soil fertility and stability, prevent excessive runoff, provide habitats for a widened diversity of flora and fauna, reduce the emissions of CO2, increase carbon sequestration, and reduce the incidence and severity of natural disasters such as floods and landslides. Decorative or scenic agriculture landscapes, waterways, and buildings provide numerous benefits including recreational activities, scenic views, and open space qualities. These positive benefits often merit assistance to producers such as technical and financial and other public support.
In March, as the United States began to lock down, shoppers met an unfamiliar and disturbing sight: empty shelves where bags of flour, jugs of milk, and packages of chicken breasts used to be. These shortages, combined with the “Groundhog Day”-like experience of being home day in, day out, for months on end, inspired a wave of gardening novices to try growing vegetables at home — and we at Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, wanted to join in. To our dismay, we discovered that some of the plants we’d hoped to grow had long since sold out, like bags of flour before them, in what has been hailed as the great COVID-19 Victory Garden comeback.
This sudden, shared urge to grow food in the middle of America’s cities intrigued us — enough to make an episode on urban agriculture, featured above. As the creators of a food podcast, we’re well aware of the harms caused by the intensive, industrial system of agriculture that feeds America, from the food miles racked up by the average spinach leaf to the underpaid farm workers who harvest it. Could the solution to these problems lie in diversifying where food is grown? Advocates claim that urban agriculture, which has been expanding in many ways in recent years, yields healthier diets, environmental benefits, and a host of more intangible outcomes, from beautification to food sovereignty. We couldn’t help but wonder: Might this spontaneous efflorescence of COVID Victory Gardens be part of a genuine shift, as America’s city-dwellers begin to feed themselves?Supported By
And, more importantly, is urban agriculture really the panacea our food system needs?
History provides some clues. The World War II Victory Gardens to which today’s COVID gardens have been compared were far from the first American urban garden movement. In the 1890s, faced with hunger and rioting following a stock market panic, Detroit’s mayor Hazen S. Pingree offered vacant lots to the city’s poor to grow food — a popular scheme that became known as the Potato Patch Plan. A few decades later, the Liberty Gardens effort of World War I urged newly urbanized Americans to grow vegetables to support the war.
But neither of these initiatives compared to Victory Gardens, the largest and most popular home gardening effort in the country’s history. Encouraged to pick up shovels and hoes by ubiquitous advertising campaigns, horticultural classes at city halls, and the patriotic urge to save commercial canned food for the troops, more than two-thirds of Americans planted seeds in windowsill pots, backyard patches, city parks, corporate factory campuses, and alongside railways.
The results were impressive: an estimated 43 percent of all the produce that Americans consumed in 1943 came from Victory Gardens. Not self-sufficiency, certainly, but enough to make a huge difference in the country’s food supply. Yet, as soon as the war ended, “whoosh!” said Anastasia Day, a historian of the movement. “They disappeared almost overnight.” Out of the hundreds of thousands of Victory Gardens that sprang up during the war years, only two remain, the oldest of which still occupies seven acres on Boston’s Fenway.
This makes more sense, Day told us, if you look at how those gardening efforts were framed. Contemporary discussions about urban farms position them as an alternative foodway, one that offers a stronger connection to nature, the possibility of regional self-sufficiency, and eco-friendly, organic produce. By contrast, Day told us that Victory Gardens were promoted as temporary replacement food factories for the war effort, in language that mimicked the country’s obsession with science and industry. And so, once the immediate need passed, home gardeners were happy to hand off the business of growing food to companies that could farm more efficiently. Many Victory Gardeners traded their urban veggie patches for the post-war era’s suburban lawns and white picket fences.
Urban gardening and farming largely fell out of favor over the next decades, and as it did, Americans missed out on its many benefits, said Leah Penniman, farm manager and co-director at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, N.Y., and author of “Farming While Black.” Those benefits include, but extend well beyond, the joy of biting into a sun-warmed tomato. “It’s also the opportunity to get exercise, to be outside and feel connected to the earth, to have a meaningful activity, to engage with your loved ones,” she said.
Penniman told us that many African Americans who moved to northern cities during the Great Migration did try to grow food, and some succeeded, despite a lack of access to land and credit, as well as other obstacles created by systemic racism. Plenty of others, however, shied away from gardening. “For many people, there’s this visceral reaction to land, because land got mixed up with the oppression that took place on the land,” she said. “But to have a garden on your own terms, to grow food for your community that you find delicious — this is the process of healing from that trauma.”
According to Raychel Santo, a Johns Hopkins researcher and co-author of a recent analysis of urban agriculture, the evidence for such socio-cultural benefits from urban agriculture is overwhelming. Based on the more than 200 studies she reviewed, these benefits included getting to know neighbors, meeting people from different backgrounds, and being involved in something productive. “But they’re hard to quantify in numbers,” Santo told us.
The result is that, while anyone who has volunteered at a community garden or coaxed baby seedlings out of the ground understands the power of growing food, urban gardens are often seen as fuzzy, feel-good projects, rather than being taken seriously as an alternative mode of food production. Still, at least one health benefit can be quantified: Santo told us that studies have shown that city-dwellers who participate in some form of urban farming eat more vegetables. History offers support for this finding: During World War II, Americans consumed more produce then they have eaten before or since — at least in part because of the success of Victory Gardens. Given that only one in 10 Americans currently eats enough vegetables to meet federal regulations — and thus reduce their risk for many leading causes of illness and death, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes — the potential health benefits of expanding urban agriculture are significant.
Good for you, but good for the planet?
The environmental benefits of growing food in cities seem like they should be easier to pin down. Certainly, Santo said, like most urban green spaces, farms and vegetable gardens boost biodiversity, improve rainwater drainage, filter air pollution, and reduce the urban heat island effect. They also offer another tangible good, albeit one that can be challenging to implement: the opportunity to turn food scraps into compost and thus close the loop on some of the city’s waste.
Logic dictates that eating locally grown produce would also reduce emissions from food miles — but evidence for that has thus far been spotty. One widely cited analysis, published in 2008 by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, found that transportation accounted for only 11 percent of food’s carbon footprint. The authors used this finding to conclude that eating less meat and dairy was substantially more climate friendly than eating local — but their analysis failed to take into account the greenhouse gas emissions associated with refrigerated warehouses and food spoilage. “There’s a lot of debate in this area,” Santo said. “I would say the literature is not very clear.”
Neil Mattson, professor of horticulture at Cornell University, is halfway through a three-year project that aims to tease out these nuances, at least when it comes to growing leafy greens in northern US cities year-round versus shipping them from California. Lettuce is usually a seasonal harvest in community gardens, but, in recent years, there’s been increasing interest — and investment — in more high-tech urban farms. Some of these facilities are greenhouses, but others, often called “vertical farms,” resemble automated food factories, with rows of baby greens growing under glowing LEDs and in perfectly calibrated climactic conditions inside skyscrapers and tunnels from London to Tokyo.
This is where the promise of urban farming meets its most significant challenge: replicating the sun. When it comes to more traditional greenhouses, Mattson’s research shows that the energy needed to provide optimal heat and humidity levels is similar to the transportation energy of trucking lettuce across the country, making their carbon footprint at least comparable. (He is still working on a full life-cycle analysis that includes everything from the embodied cost of the glass and steel used in greenhouse construction to the emissions from transport refrigeration units.)
But those fully controlled vertical farms so beloved by techies, architects, and VC-funded entrepreneurs? Mattson has found providing sufficient electric light for photosynthesis and controlling the humidity sucks up twice the energy of growing lettuce in California and shipping it across the country. Until we get significantly more energy from renewable resources or invent dramatically more efficient lighting, even the most advanced vertical farms aren’t necessarily more sustainable than California’s Imperial Valley.
That said, both vertical farms and heated greenhouses do use significantly less water than California farms — 10 times less water, according to Mattson — and, as the West becomes more arid, water will likely become a limiting factor. In the future, Mattson says, climate-controlled urban farms of all sorts may well look like increasingly attractive options. They might be priced out of real estate in downtown Boston or New York, but traveling just an hour or two out of the city can connect growers to much cheaper places for indoor agriculture.
Mattson pointed out that our current food system is extremely centralized, meaning that the majority of produce is grown in a relatively small area. If drought, floods, or an E. coli outbreak hit, supermarket shelves are left empty across the nation. “Producing some proportion of our food in cities could make for a more robust system,” he said.
Critics argue that we only get about 10 percent of our calories from vegetables and fruits, and so cities can neither feed themselves nor transform the country’s farming systems. Even the most passionate urban agriculture advocates, such as Keep Growing Detroit’s Tepfirah Rushdan, don’t imagine that cities will grow and process all their own grains. But could cities at least grow the vegetables they need? Here the data look promising. Rushdan told us that Keep Growing Detroit’s goal is food sovereignty, meaning that more than half the produce consumed in the city is grown there. Though that’s not yet reality — the organization says the results of their last produce weigh-in shows the city growing around 5 to 10 percent of what’s eaten — a Michigan State University study demonstrates that the city could theoretically supply nearly two-thirds of the demand. Similarly, researchers in New England have mapped out how the region could produce up to half of its vegetables in urban and suburban plots by 2060.
Elsewhere, researchers have calculated that empty land in Cleveland could provide half the city’s fresh vegetables, and if commercial rooftops and a small amount of residential land were added, up to 100 percent — plus 94 percent of the city’s eggs and chickens. This spring, a study showed that Sheffield, England, has sufficient vacant land to grow enough fruits and vegetables to feed all its residents. Of course, urban farming will look different in different cities: In Boston, it might include city farms along the lines of the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm in Mattapan, as well as high-tech greenhouses on the outskirts of the city, such as Little Leaf Farms a half-hour away. There’ll be rooftop beehives, like those on top of the Lenox Hotel, and community plots in the South End. New York City’s expensive real estate might push much urban farming to the periphery; Detroit, where 17 percent of the city is considered vacant, is perfectly situated to expand internally.
Finally, though we agree with critics that putting your hands in the dirt won’t solve all the problems of the industrial agricultural system, we believe it could help, by connecting people to their food. “We do have to do both,” Rushdan told us. “We have to make time to focus on local production, and then we have to make time to address the larger systematic issues.”
The urban gardeners we spoke with hope that COVID-19 gardens won’t just be a temporary fad, but will, as Penniman put it, trigger “an awakening as to the type of structural changes that we need to make to have an equitable, just, and sustainable food system.”
After all, as Anastasia Day pointed out, World War II’s Victory Gardens may have vanished practically overnight, but the children who grew up tending them turned into adults who celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970.
Whatever you may think of snow (and snow removal!), remember the old saying, “A good winter with snow makes all the plants grow.” If you are a gardener who lives in a winter wonderland, consider the benefits of snow!
I had almost forgotten how pretty the snow can be, hanging in the trees, blanketing the ground, covering up all the outdoor projects left undone. The neighbors will never know you didn’t clean up those old squash vines. Under a covering of snow all gardens become equal.
SNOW INSULATES THE SOIL AND PLANTS
Snow is mostly air surrounded by a little frozen water, and despite how cold it feels to the skin, it is an excellent insulator of the soil.
I fear for the perennials when the temperatures drop suddenly before we have enough snow cover to protect the roots. Without snow, very cold temperatures can freeze the soil deeper and deeper. In wintry climates, this could lead to damage of root systems of trees and shrubs. Snow prevents extreme cold temperatures from harming plants.
SNOW PROTECTS AGAINST TEMPERATURE FLUCTUATIONS
Snow protects against against wide temperature fluctuations in the soil. Under that cozy comforter of white, the roots of perennials, bulbs, ground covers, and strawberry plants are protected from the freeze-thaw cycle that can heave tender roots right out of the ground. Without snow, milder temperatures and the sun could warm the soil surface, leading to damage from soil heaving, which can break roots and dry out plant parts.
SNOW DELIVERS MOISTURE AND NITROGEN
Snow also helps conserve soil moisture over the winter. Plus, did you know that nitrogen attaches to snowflakes as the snow falls through the atmosphere?
That’s why The Old Farmer’s Almanac calls snow a “poor man’s fertilizer.” Nature provides a gentle fertilizer boost to plants!
SNOW IS WINTER MULCH
If you didn’t get around to mulching your garden this past fall, a nice blanket of snow can serve the same purpose! Never remove snow from your yard—it’s Mother Nature at work. Snown cover is valuable winter protection for your expensive trees and shrubs.
If you don’t have a consistent snow cover, of course, do make sure you mulch. In most cases, 2 to 4 inches of mulch, such as straw, pine needles, hay or bark chips, give adequate protection. You can mulch right on top of the snow. It’s better to wait until after temperatures are consistently below freezing to apply the mulch. Applying too early can smother the plant and encourage disease development.
SNOW ADDS BEAUTY
Of course, we can all enjoy the beauty of the tree barks and evergreens contrasting against the white backdrop. Everything looks more visible, from ornamental grasses to that bright red cardinal outside your kitchen window.
DEALING WITH HEAVY SNOW
Of course, heavy snow can really weigh down branches, especially multi-stemmed shrubs. Otherwise, the weight of the snow can bend branches to the ground, cutting off circulation of food manufactured by the leaves to the roots.
If possible, in the fall, bundle stems together using burlap or canvas.
In the winter, take a broom and carefully brush heavy snows from branches as soon as possible but don’t try to remove ice. More damage to the bark probably will occur than if the ice is allowed to melt on its own.
With young trees, you may also wish to wrap the trunks with a commercial tree wrap to help prevent bark from splitting from temperature extremes.
It be be worthwhile to gently remove the snow from young trees so their tender bark is not gnawed away by rodents. Just be very very careful with a shovel not to cause even the smallest mechanical injury.
Even though snow removal is a back breaking chore, we need the moisture that each snow crystal provides for our gardens. Next time you are out shoveling, remember the benefits of snow and think of butterflies and apple blossoms!
Learn how growing your own food can improve your physical and mental health, as well as the health of the environment.
Growing your own produce is a simple solution to numerous health, environmental, and economic problems. Whether you are growing a single tomato plant or have a large backyard garden, it is beneficial to your health, as well as the environments.
Five reasons to grow your own food include:
1. More Nutritious
When growing your own food, your dietis more diverse and healthy, packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Food in its rawest, freshest form is not only the tastiest way to enjoy it, but also the most nutritional. The majority of produce sold in grocery stores go through a long process of being harvested, shipped and distributed to stores. Once distributed, the produce can end up staying in storage or on the shelf for an extended period of time before being purchased, losing nutritional value.
2. Stay Active
Gardening is a fun way to get outside for some fresh air and physical activity. The physical activity required in gardening has proven to promote physical health. Involvement in gardening helps to improve cardiac health and immune system response, decrease heart rate and stress, improve fine and gross motor skills, flexibility and body strength. Getting regular exercisecan relieve stress, anxiety and depression, while boosting energy.
3. Get Vitamin D
Gardening is a great way to absorb vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D is crucial in order to maintain healthy bones and teeth, and it can also protect against certain diseases.
4. Save Money
You can save a lot of moneyby growing your own vegetables and fruits. By spending a few dollars on seeds, plants, and supplies in the spring, you will produce vegetables that will yield pounds of produce in summer.
5. Better for the Environment
Long-distance transportation of produce relies heavily on fossil fuels. Growing your own food would help reduce the reliance on this transportation that is harming the environment. Also, by growing your own food, you are not using chemicals or pesticides that can harm environment.