The Why Files The Why Files --

Farming in the city
POSTED 2 September 2010

Infectious eggs recalled

The “recall” of 550 million eggs (many of them already eaten) reminds us of the benefits of taking control of your food. We figure the recall will fuel an uptick in interest in backyard hens, which are now legal in some cities.

But avoiding salmonella (which can infect backyard chickens as well as commercial hens) is just one reason to favor urban agriculture. In the past few years, we’ve heard that it can:

  • Reduce “food miles”: Food from the backyard or an empty lot across town will carry less of a diesel scent than veggies trucked in from California or Texas. Thus growing food locally may reduce the global warming impact of agriculture.
  • Promote reality: Too many city people probably think food is made in a supermarket.
  • Teach kids about work, the environment and cooperation.
  • Get city people outside and liberate them from computer screens, phones and TVs.
  • Grow fresher veggies, which should persuade more people to eat their vegetables, perhaps stemming obesity.
  • Promote neighborhood solidarity by creating a gathering place.
  • Earn money by selling at farm stands and farmer’s markets.

There are limits: City eggs and veggies will never replace the majority of our commercial supply. In January, Minnesota is not going to supply much lettuce compared, say, to California or Florida. Heavy metals found in many city soils can contaminate veggies, and finding enough sunny land is a constant hassle.

We figure people have been growing food in the city since the dawn of agriculture, and the modern rendition of urban ag can involve vegetables or animals. It can take place at home, on rented land, or on rural plots owned or rented by city people. The farms can be aimed at subsistence, the market, or both.


The Troy Community Garden in Madison, Wis., embodies many of these purposes. It has five acres devoted to an urban farm with a community supported agriculture operation, a five-acre community garden with 20-foot square plots, and a kids garden that hosts about 1,000 kids annually, says Christie Ralston, associate director of Community GroundWorks, the non-profit that runs the garden.

Three people amid a field of greens; with a pink field in background.

Interns at the five-acre farm at Troy Community Garden work on the harvest. The Why Files

The farm began in 2001 and is Madison’s oldest urban farm. Still, it’s a toddler compared to Fairview Gardens in Santa Barbara, Calif., which began as a community garden in 1895.

Troy also took part in a test project related to obesity. For three hours a day, five days a week, ten overweight high-schoolers have been learning to grow, prepare and eat vegetables as part of the UW-Madison’s GardenFit program. By increasing exercise and promoting vegetable consumption, the goal is to avoid a big summer jump in weight, a trend seen in overweight children. “We’re not necessarily trying to cause a lot of weight loss over the summer,” says Sarah Jacquart, a nutritional sciences graduate student, who runs the program. “We’re trying to prevent that rapid three- or six-pound weight gain that others have seen.”

Light green, slightly-curved squash, 1 meter long, hangs from vine on wire fence

This Asian squash, planted by Hmong gardeners, may have no English name. The Why Files

City gardens face unique challenges, such as obtaining approval for a new farm greenhouse, and serving immigrants who speak little or no English. Ralston says all-garden meetings are translated into Hmong, Lao and Spanish.

‘r chickens us?

Skeptics may doubt that urban agriculture will survive the dimming of its “new ‘n trendy” aura, and they are right that “farms” on vacant lots and railroad corridors will not put California’s fruit and vegetable farmers out of business.

So is urban agriculture today’s fad or a fact of the future? The Why Files shopped the aisles for a solid published assessment of the trend in the United States, but we wound up with an empty cart. “Since there’s no strict definition, it’s hard to say” how fast urban agriculture is growing, says Alfonso Morales, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an expert on urban markets. “I am confident it is growing; there is all sorts of anecdotal evidence. The number of professional organizations around the different facets — urban poultry, urban gardening, urban beekeeping…”

But many of these organizations are less concerned with agriculture than with raising food for personal consumption. Sure, raising chickens in the city is legal in some places, but most people doing it are less interested in egg production than in having “a neat experience for the kids,” says Ron Kean, a poultry expert with the University of Wisconsin who advises backyard poultrophiles.

The “locavore” movement — which esteems local food for many of the reasons mentioned above — seems have boosted the number of small flocks raised on the fringes of the city, Kean notes, but most live in rural areas and sell directly to city people, and thus are not truly urban agriculture.

Dearth of data

Community gardens, which usually rent plots to people in the neighborhood, are a large part of urban agriculture, but urban mini-farms can also be run by a single operator who grows food for sale.

There are many explanations for the dearth of data on urban ag:

  • Definitions: much of the new-found interest in urban agriculture concerns “local food,” but that is often grown in the countryside — even if the farmers live in the city.
  • Size: Urban farms are small and their output is diverse and hard to measure.
  • Age: Many urban farms are young, and any record of success would be short.
  • Motivation: Urban farms often aim beyond food to social and psychological benefits, which are not captured by the yield and profit measures used to evaluate farms.

The “simple” task of approximating the number of “urban agriculturists” is difficult indeed. The United Nations Development Program produced a widely cited estimate that 800 million people practice urban agriculture, and 200 million grow for profit. Urban agriculture, the group said, produced the equivalent of 150 million full-time jobs.
But a 2010 publication1 called these high numbers unreliable, since they emerged from a 1996 “thumbnail sketch” based on the authors experience. The 2010 survey saw wide variation in city-farming participation: from 11 percent of households in Indonesia to almost 70 percent in Vietnam and Nicaragua. More than 30 percent of city households in 11 of the 15 nations surveyed had a significant farm inside or outside the city.

In four nations, at least one urban household in three kept livestock.

Although the study also found that city farmers were eating better than non-farmers, farming may not explain that benefit, since in many cities farmers tend to be less poor than non-farmers.

The energy picture

Pamela Martin, an assistant professor geophysical science at the University of Chicago, agrees that data are short on the urban-ag phenomenon in the United States, largely because researchers are just now focusing on the topic. Local food has the potential to reduce the energy needed to grow and transport food – but does it actually do so?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agriculture produces about one percent of U.S. greenhouse gases, but food processing, distribution and marketing also are major users of fossil fuels.

The energy cost of urban agriculture varies with the farm location, the individual crop, and the methods used for growing, irrigating and transporting them. But do local vegetables save energy? No, said a recent New York Times commentary, which claimed that “The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus.”

Not so, says Martin. “One fact that was based on our research in Chicago was flat-out wrong, a pound of [local] lettuce does not embody the same number of calories” as a pound of lettuce that was shipped 2, 000 miles. At a city farm, “a piece of produce is grown, perhaps stored in a cooler overnight, then taken to market and it heads home. The whole supply chain is more direct than for conventional produce.”

Using a concept called “embedded-energy,” which counts how much energy is used, for example, in irrigation, tractors and fertilizer, Martin compared energy usage in conventional agriculture with local food and urban farming, based on reports from students who recorded what Chicago farmers grew and did.

Rows of chard and kale in left and middle, plant netting to right, skyscrapers in background

To avoid polluted soil, many urban gardens import clean soil. Looks like Chicago's buildings are not stealing the sun from this garden! Courtesy: Linda N.

In first-year data from Chicago farms, local lettuce was much more energy-efficient than California lettuce, which is grown, irrigated, washed in California, and then shipped 2,000 miles, Martin says. “In terms of the environment, farms that grow lettuce in Chicago make a lot of sense. Energy and related greenhouse gases were lower than values for conventional produce, based on previous work that we did, on other studies, and on USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] data.”

What else might urban agriculture do for us?

Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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