Urban farming

Urban farming on the increase

Carolyn Leadley grows produce on a one-fifth-acre plot in the Poletown neighborhood of Detroit. In a small greenhouse in her yard, she grows sprouts, shoots and microgreens, which she sells to the city’s eastern market and to restaurant owners who are pleased to be able to offer local greens year round. Leadley is one of Detroit’s growing number of urban farmers, who raised nearly 400,000 pounds of produce in 2014.

Urban farms are an expanding endeavor in cities across the country. In Brooklyn, New York, the Added-Value Farm grows 40,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables per season for the low-income community of Red Hook on a mere 2.7 acres. In Camden, New Jersey, 44 community gardens produced nearly 31,000 pounds of food in one summer. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 800 million city dwellers around the world are growing vegetables and fruits or raising animals, thus producing 15 to 20 percent of the planet’s food.

The United Nations estimates that nine billion people will be living on earth by 2050. Urban agriculture technology writer Ned Madden says increasing population, climate change, environmental degradation, and scarcity of land and water are negatively affecting sustainability of current food production methods. These realities speak to the need to look to urban agriculture as one solution to the growing food insecurity of our planet.

What are urban farms?

The University of Missouri Extension Service defines urban farming (also called urban agriculture) as “the growing, processing and distribution of food crops and animal products [by and for the local community] within an urban environment.” It encompasses many kinds of farming, including backyard gardening, community gardens, rooftop gardens, beekeeping, and urban production of food crops for sale in local markets. Animal husbandry, including raising pigs and chickens, is a part of urban farming.

Urban farming also includes various types of indoor farming — sometimes called controlled environment agriculture (CEA), which allows the grower to manipulate the growing environment in regard to temperature, humidity, CO₂, and nutrients. Some CEA technologies include greenhouse growing, hydroponics and aquaculture (fish farming). CEAs produce high-yield local food year round. Their controlled growing conditions mean that no chemical fertilizers and pesticides are needed. Also, CEA reduces water use and insures water quality.

Benefits of urban farming

Urban farmers are quick to point out that their food is fresher and more nutritious than food that has traveled across the nation or from halfway around the world. Fresher food also has a longer shelf life than transported food, thus minimizing waste. Urban-grown food also has other benefits. When there’s an abundance of a particular kind of produce, the locally grown item may cost less than an item that has traveled long distances. In times of emergency, when there are problems with transportation and distribution, urban farming fills in the empty spaces. In the aftermath of major storms and flooding, urban-grown food may be all that’s available.

There are many other benefits of urban farming. The farms are often planted on vacant lots that have fallen into disuse and thus add value and beauty to neighborhoods. They make healthy, fresh food available to city residents, and they can be a source of recreation and social life for the gardeners. Urban farms often expand greenery for cities, thus reducing runoff, increasing shade, and lowering temperatures. They help city dwellers learn more about nature and the sources of their food. Rooftop and patio gardens can be places to relax and rest. In addition, they can create jobs in urban areas.

In the United States, urban farming probably will impact food security most in low-income areas where land is cheap and the need for fresh food is great. An example of such an area is Detroit, which has more than 100,000 vacant lots (many of which are cheap because of the city’s recent bankruptcy).

Domenic Vitiello, who teaches city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “In poor communities where households earn very little income, a few thousand dollars’ worth of vegetables and fruit grown in the garden makes a much bigger difference than for more affluent households.” Writer Elizabeth Royte says, “Whether these gardens ultimately produce more food or more knowledge about food — where it comes from, what it takes to produce it, how to prepare and eat it — they still have enormous value as gathering places and classrooms and as conduits between people and nature.” Laura Lawson, a landscape architecture professor, says, “City gardens are part of our ideal sense of what a community should be. And so their value is priceless.”

Drawbacks and challenges

Though the benefits are great, there are several drawbacks to urban farming. A major one is soil contamination, mainly from lead, through plant ingestion and more likely from direct contact. Children playing in gardens may eat dirt containing lead. Lead also may be in the soil that adheres to produce and in airborne particles. Others are pesticide overuse, zoonotic disease transmission (diseases such as avian flu that can be transmitted from animals and birds to humans), and concerns about the quality of neighborhoods in which the farms are located (smells from farming activities, unattractive yards).

Other challenges for urban farmers include access to water, access to capital and zoning ordinances that prohibit certain types of urban agricultural activity. Many cities are dealing with these challenges through reviews of their ordinances, zoning that’s specific for urban agriculture, community outreach and education, and city planning that includes urban agriculture.

Implications for ministry

“We work with families [that] often run out of food. And our mission through our food programs aims to help those living in poverty. During the summer and fall, once a week, after our packaged food distribution was over, we would take those families outside and offer them the contents of our garden. They would take what they wanted, and it was awesome,” says Margret Powell, pastor of Solid Rock United Methodist Church in North Philadelphia’s Olney neighborhood.

Solid Rock is an example of the possibilities urban farming can offer for ministry and mission. In 2013, the church worked with two other nonprofit organizations, Partners for Sacred Spaces and the Philadelphia Orchard Project, to plan the development of “an edible forest garden and orchard” for children’s education and to help those in need. Volunteers built five raised beds for the garden, which was planted by children from the local elementary school and the Solid Rock summer camp. The harvest that first summer was abundant. Children from the summer camp got to enjoy the produce they had planted and harvested. In addition, the garden offered educational demonstrations on plants and nutrition and provided employment for two teenagers who tended the landscaping and monitored the garden.

During fall 2013 and into winter, the congregation prepared for the next spring’s vegetable garden and began working with a landscape architect to plan the orchard design with eight types of fruit trees and over ten types of perennials and groundcovers. Eventually, the fruit trees will yield 2,000 to 3,000 pounds for the congregation’s food program. The website of Partners for Sacred Spaces says, “The orchard will be a beautiful addition to the civic landscape, a nourishing respite for the community, a learning garden for children, and an entrepreneurship site for teens.”

The Solid Rock garden and orchard — an urban forest garden — provide an inspiring model for ministry that other congregations can adapt. The garden and orchard address hunger, engage the neighborhood, build community, provide educational opportunities, and provide jobs. What an impact urban churches could make on their communities if they followed the lead of Solid Rock and joined the urban farming movement!


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