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Urban Agriculture, What Is It?

Simply put, urban agriculture is the growing of food in a city.  However, urban agriculture manifests itself in many ways and for many rationales.  It is for this reason that urban agriculture is conceptually difficult for people to understand.  It’s not one thing, it’s many things.

Some people participate in urban agriculture for community; some people do it for empowerment; others are trying to make money.  Sometimes people grow right in the soil; other times they grow in raised beds; some folks skip soil altogether and grow hydroponically indoors with LED purple-colored lights; and still yet others grow on top of roofs with specialized light weight soil blends.

Urban agriculture looks different in different places.  In population dense cities like New York and Chicago, growing on rooftops is commonplace.  In Rustbelt cities with huge swaths of Landbank land like Cleveland, we have yet to see a rooftop farm.

In this essay, we will discuss the many reasons and types of urban agriculture.

Reasons for:

In Cleveland, the most popular reason for urban agriculture is for community-building.  This is easy to recognize in the almost 200 community gardens enrolled in OSU Extension’s Summer Sprout program.  However, community expresses itself in other ways.  For example, Refugee Response is a non-profit group that assists refugees (many fleeing from war) in establishing themselves to a new home in Cleveland through farming at the Ohio City Farm.

 

Education often goes hand in hand with community-building as urban agriculture creates many opportunities to teach kids and adults alike on a bunch of different topics.

  • Through fertilizer requirements, kids can learn basic chemistry and applied math.

  • Personally, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “I never knew tomatoes came in so many colors,” or explained what a Mexican Sour Gherkin is.

  • Urban ag uses a lot of small engines (tillers, mowers, weedwhackers, walk-behind tractors); at the very least, urban ag presents a chance to teach small engine maintenance; and at its most, it can teach small engine repair.

  • Urban ag also gives an opportunity to learn about animal husbandry.This is evident with all the chicken ordinances that allow chickens in the urban setting, or all the interest in growing fish, or all the goatkeepers using goats to mow lawns.

  • Conservation can be taught through soil biology and pollinator gardens.

 

Food empowerment and security is another reason people grow food in the city.  At this time in American history, there is a growing population that questions the health and sustainability of our chemical-laden industrial agriculture system.  For these people, growing food is a small act of rebellion against what they see as corporatization of a human right.  By growing a garden, it enables one to ever-so-slightly drop out of the “system” in a way that’s not possible in other fields like money and banking or gas and oil companies.  This is what is meant by empowerment.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is food security.  Food security can be summarized as the ability to get one’s daily caloric intake with healthy fresh foods.  This may not sound like a big deal; however, Cleveland.com just reported that 450,000 people in Cuyahoga County (see article here, http://www.cleveland.com/healthfit/index.ssf/2017/10/as_many_as_450000_people_in_th.html) live in food deserts.  Food deserts are areas that do not have access to healthy fresh food via the normal means of grocery stores.  Food deserts often result in food insecurity and a community’s reliance on packaged microwaveable foodstuffs from convenience stores.  Urban ag is a community’s response to the food desertification of the inner-city.

The last major rationale for urban ag is money-making.  Some people are literally trying to farm the city for their livelihood.  In Cleveland, this goal seems elusive.  However, that has not stopped farmers from trying.  Additionally in the last few years around North America, several farmers have started claiming six-figure incomes from ridiculously small square footages.  Curtis Brown out of British Columbia has even written a book appropriately titled “The Urban Farmer” that outlines a step-by-step template to achieving these six-figures.  So, gainful employment may be on the rise for Cleveland farmers.

To summarize, community, education, food security and empowerment, and money-making are the four basic rationales why people engage in urban agriculture in Cleveland, Ohio.  In this discussion, the four rationales were discussed separately for the sake of clarity.  However in the real world, these rationales crossover, blending into gray tones instead of being black or white.

Types of:

So, we’ve already established that urban ag simply means growing food in a city.  That being said, there are many types of practitioners with greatly varying budgets.  These can be divided up as gardeners, community gardeners, independent producers (what most people think of as urban farmers), organizational farmers, and highly capitalized projects.

 

If you’re a gardener in a city, then you are an urban agriculturist.  Gardening mostly takes its form as a hobby that provides food as a return.  Often, gardening is the first step to becoming an urban farmer.

Community gardeners are very similar to gardeners.  However, they differ in the fact that their garden plot is away from home and shared with other community gardeners.  Some people solely community garden due to a lack of available space at home; whereas, others community garden for a sense of community, or to be around others, or to have like-minded peers to bounce ideas off of.  Community gardens are often started with government, corporate, or foundation monetary backing.  Beyond just a space to garden, community gardens normally offer amenities like fencing, fire-hydrant access, a shared varmint trap, sometimes seeds and plants, and sometimes seed swaps.  Typically, community gardens have a manager and charge a nominal fee.

Independent producers are what people think of when they think of urban farmers.  These are people who grow vegetables for sale.  Most often they work alone.  However, husband and wife teams are common and occasionally you can find a team of non-related urban farmers, farming as one farm moniker.  These businesses can be organized as for-profit or non-profit ventures.  The farm property may be bought or leased.  In Cleveland, many of these have been established on Landbank properties, where long-term land tenure can be questionable especially on major thoroughfares and in up-and-coming neighborhoods.  The general goal for urban farmers is money-making, but community and food empowerment may be close second goals.  Bay Branch Farm, Good Earth Farm, Village Family Farm are all examples of urban farms/farmers in Cleveland.

Organizational farmers are farm operations that are owned and operated by some kind of larger entity, whose main focus is often not farming.  These are normally non-profit and earn their status primarily through education or life skills building.  These organizational farmers sell their food in the same marketplace as urban farmers, but profit is not the main focus.  Cleveland’s Botanical Gardens’ Green Corps and Cuyahoga County’s Board of Developmental Disabilities’ Cleveland Crops are the biggest organizational farmers in Cleveland.

Lastly, we arrive at highly-capitalized project farming.  These farmers rely on technology and very significant outside funding sources.  These are the farmers that use greenhouses, coupled with LED lighting and hydroponic and/or aquaponics grow systems.  These are also the farmers that grow on rooftops with specialized light-weight growing medias.  Green City Growers is the best example of this in Cleveland with 3.5 acres under glass and rain water collection.  They grow hydroponic lettuce and basil, and their business is wholesale.  Those 3.5 acres came with a hefty price tag of over $15,000,000.  As of yet, Cleveland does not have any rooftop farmers, which is likely because of our abundance of land.

In conclusion, it’s easy to see that urban agriculture is not one thing.  It’s many things.  Furthermore, there isn’t a singular reason why people pursue urban ag, but rather a list of reasons.  For an additional more scholarly explanation, please see the hyperlink below.

https://medium.com/@wayneroberts/the-ways-and-the-way-to-urban-agriculture-digging-into-three-new-books-29d43b84c585