Urban Farming for Cynics

IMAGE: The cover of Urban Farms shows Greensgrow Farm, Philadelphia. Photograph by Matthew Benson.

On page sixty of Sarah Rich’s new book, Urban Farms, she quotes Mary Seton Corboy, founder of Greensgrow in North Philadelphia, saying, “Urban agriculture is part of the solution but a darn small one.”

This comment seems almost subversive, nestled as it is between full-page spreads of urban farm porn — hazy, light-drenched photographs of hand-painted signs, single-speed bikes, jewel-like salad leaves, and sunflowers and lavender silhouetted against a barbed wire fence. Its refreshing honesty (or cynicism, depending on your perspective) is reflective of the book as a whole: although it seems at first simply to be an attractive coffee table accessory, complete with cute sidebars on pickling and stencil-effect lettering, the text is actually much more nuanced and interesting than its appearance implies.

IMAGE: Our School at Blair Grocery. Photograph by Matthew Benson for Urban Farms.

At this point, I should add that Sarah is my friend, we co-founded and work together on the Foodprint Project, and I actually contributed an essay to the book, so this post cannot claim to be an unbiased review. Still, in an era when members of the media, community activists of all stripes, architects and city planners, and even political figures have all hailed urban agriculture as a miracle solution for everything from the foreclosure crisis to the obesity epidemic, it is tempting to be cynical, and genuinely impressive to produce a book that deflates the hyperbole while making a compelling argument for what urban farming actually can do.

The bulk of the book consists of site visits to sixteen farms in nine American cities, chosen as representative examples of some of the different kinds of urban agriculture projects that have taken root across the country. Through interviews with the farm founders and managers, recurring threads emerge — an awareness that true sustainability is also economic combined with anecdotal evidence of intangible social benefits, as well as the sheer energy, determination, and optimism required to grow food in the city.

IMAGE: Our School at Blair Grocery. Photograph by Matthew Benson for Urban Farms.

But these more predictable themes are enlivened by the curious details and personalities that Rich has managed to capture. After all, urban farming is precisely not a monocultural, one-size-fits-all project: its varied formats emerge from and reflect, as well as intervene in their particular contexts. For example, the entrepreneurial Ben Flanner, co-founder of Brooklyn Grange in New York, told Rich that, while New York rooftops are already engineered to bear the weight of snow, the real estate and financial mechanisms for growing food on top of a building do not yet exist:

“As an endeavor like this is in completely uncharted territory,” Flanner explains, “there was no precedent set for the value of the roof, length of a lease, and so on. We had lots of interested parties, but it was difficult to close the deal.”

From the bottom-line oriented Brooklyn Grange, Rich also takes us to Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, where science teacher Paul Weertz inadvertently founded a livestock-focused urban farm as a way to provide the pregnant and nursing teenage girls he teaches with formaldehyde-free animals to dissect.

IMAGE: Chicago City Farm. Photograph by Matthew Benson for Urban Farms.

Meanwhile, Chicago City Farm started out as a different kind of experiment: its founder, Ken Dunn, began theorising a connection between wasted resources (such as vacant lots) and urban blight while studying for a PhD in philosophy, and founded the farm in 2000, in order to test his ideas in practice. It is designed to be fully mobile, Rich notes, in keeping with “Dunn’s view of urban agriculture as a treatment for ailing land and communities.”

The way he sees it, if a developer can successfully sell the land and build new housing and businesses, that’s a sign of economic recovery. […] “I’d like to see all vacant spaces being used as farms,” Dunn says. “But you don’t want to permanently have farms because then if there’s a need for more housing, the alternative is to go outside the city and build suburbs. We don’t want to take up areas of the city where infrastructure already exists and force development into virgin areas.”

The book also features five guest essays, each focused on a particular aspect of the urban agriculture movement: school gardens, public health, entrepreneurship, self-sufficiency, and so on. These add a welcome layer of analysis and insight, with Allison Arieff issuing a satisfying rebuttal to Caitlin Flanagan’s deliberately provocative (and stupid) attack on school gardens in The Atlantic, and Makalé Faber Cullen repeating Alfonso Morales’ smart advice to cities to set up a “one-stop-shop for urban farms, like they have for small business development, so that city farmers can deal with zoning, home business regulations, and nuisance laws all in one place.”

IMAGE: Novella Carpenter’s Ghost Town Farm. Photograph by Matthew Benson for Urban Farms.

Rich’s introductory essay gets at the difference between gardening and agriculture in the city. When the scale of production is so similar, she argues, it’s the seriousness of the enterprise that makes the difference: it is “the need for sustenance — nutritional and financial — that makes a farm a farm.”

That need, which can also, I’d argue, be social and cultural, is what motivates many of the farmers Rich visits — but to conclude that urban agriculture simply exists to serve a need is to miss out on the most powerful argument this book makes, which is that the farming in a city changes the nature of both farming and the city in interesting, opportunity-filled ways.

IMAGE: Chicago City Farm. Photograph by Matthew Benson for Urban Farms.

For example, in Alissa Walker’s essay on urban homesteading, she asks an illuminating question:

So if life in the city is better with a backyard beer factory, a basement incubating mushrooms, a few chickens, and maybe a goat, then the question remains: Why not just move to the country?

Her answer is that “it’s this dense environment that makes their operations work,” allowing farmers to hold down second jobs, build distribution networks, or fulfil their educational mission.

In my essay, “The Art of Growing Food,” I also try to answer the question of why farm in a city by making the case that urban agriculture’s real power is conceptual. Using examples as disparate as Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield—A Confrontation installation, Natalie Jeremijenko’s AgBags, Joseph Grima’s Landgrab City, and Nicholas de Monchaux’s Local Code: Real Estates proposal, I argue that:

Reinserting farming into the urban imagination brings with it the disruptive potential required to renegotiate spatial, political, and interpersonal relationships; to redistribute responsibility, priorities, and resources. It also offers the opportunity to re-situate human activity within a larger ecology and an alternative temporality.

As Rich claims in her introductory essay, urban farming really is “a uniquely powerful tool for change” — one that can “simultaneously reshape the places where we live and the way we eat” — and, most importantly and as her book goes on to show, the way we think about both.

In other words, if we can move past the debate over whether urban farming can feed the world, perhaps it’s time to actually believe the hype.

[I should note that Urban Farms is on sale for a ridiculously affordable $2.79 on Amazon right now, although if you would prefer that your purchase supports your local independent bookseller instead, that’s always a very good thing.]

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2 Comments

  1. Posted October 3, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    What the current frenzy over urban farming is missing, and which this book may be too, is the distinction between commercial and non-commercial farming initiatives. Much of what is dubbed urban farming is a movement driven by advocates who take pleasure in food growing as part of a lifestyle, or activists who hold strong opinions about the negative effects of our industrial food system. Ironically, a point that has gotten lost amid all our zeal to reconnect with the source of our food is that farming is an occupation. It not only takes passion. It requires talent, training, knowledge and business savvy. It is no different than any other highly skilled profession. For urban farming to have staying power, some of the energy and enthusiasm surrounding local food needs to be converted into successful farming businesses. This will require training a large and diverse number of residents in appropriately scaled farming methods and microenterprise development and getting them up and operational quickly. SPIN-Farming , whose first US testbed was the Somerton Tanks Farm project in Philadelphia from 2003 to 2006, is a replicable and economically viable sub-acre farming system that is now being practiced by thousands of entrepreneurial, first generation farmers throughout the US and Canada. These entrepreneurial farmers aren’t cynical and don’t see themselves as victims. They are innovators, and they are the ones who are building a successful future for urban farming.

  2. Chris
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Shame it’s not that price on the UK amazon!

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