The Spin on Urban Agriculture

Can urban agriculture save the world? My friend David Tracey (Guerilla Gardening, A Manualfesto, New Society, 2007) and I did a series of podcasts that attempted to answer that question. All of our guests (there have only been three to date –  a roof top farmer , an urban farmer, and a uniquely local corner store) answered no or probably not. They are probably right.

Michael Pilarski, founder and director of Friends of the Trees Society, has explored the role of home gardens in world food production. Pilarski makes the case that 50 percent of the world’s food supply could be grown on 10 percent of the arable land. He ventures a guess that currently gardens supply somewhere between 10 and 20 percent. Guess it depends how you define home garden. He hauls out the usual urban ag precedents, the World War II Victory Gardens and Cuba after the Russians pulled out.

So just how much land do you need to feed one person? There are a lot of differing facts and figures out there. John Jeavons (How to Grow More Vegetables, 10 Speed Press, 1974) from Ecology Action in Willits, CA came up with a pretty good estimate: 10 feet by 100 feet (1000 square feet) or 1/43 of an acre. Pilarski says he can feed himself on about a tenth of an acre and puts in about 8 hours a week. Worldwatch Institute says a third of an acre will feed three people. Those figures do not include livestock; an acre of leafy veggies can produce 15 times more protein than the same land devoted to meat production, according to Frances Moore Lappé).

In the city, sometimes the acreage can be spread out over several yards. Craig Heighway of  Kitsilano Farms is a SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) farmer. His “farm” is in nine different backyards – none of them his own. One of them is the front yard of a mansion! Urban farmers like Craig sell their produce at local farmers’ markets or through Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) programs. One group of these urban farming daredevils in Vancouver set up a market of their own, guerilla style, right along a bike route so that cyclists could stop and pick up dinner on their way home.

Another urban ag innovator is Will Allen, a former pro basketball player turned farmer. He may not have saved the world, but it’s a safe bet that he’s saving lives through his organization, Growing Power. The group trains low income youth at their intense urban farming and greenhouse operations. They began in Milwaukee and Chicago, but their projects are now dotted around the world.

Many cities have warmed to the idea of carving out more gardening space for their citizens. We now have a permanent community garden on the lawn of Vancouver City Hall. Alice Waters, chef, author, and owner of Chez Panisse, talked the Mayor of San Francisco into letting her plant a large vegetable garden right in front of City Hall. It was the showpiece for a Slow Food festival; 85,000 people showed up! Waters called the garden “the ultimate symbolism” and encouragement for others to grow their own. The most famous symbol of all – Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden at the White House – a sight not seen since Eleanor Roosevelt’s WWII victory garden.

So urban agriculture is sexy right now. But is all the hype about growing food just spin? I remember when we started the worm composting program at City Farmer. Residents of Vancouver could sign up for the one hour “wormshop” and go home with a complete kit to set up on their balcony or patio. The program was funded by the City; it diverted a miniscule amount of waste and was expensive for them to run. But every time we advertised, our compost hotline calls would triple. Often the caller would be more suited to a backyard bin, but it was an educational opportunity. We’d invariably get a call from the media – worms are media darlings – then we could spread the word, thicker and wider. The City saw the value in it, they still fund the program. The wormshops always sell out. The phone still rings off the hook. Nevertheless, some would say the world is still going to hell in a hand basket.

Urban agriculture may not save the world either, but it’s sure building awareness about healthy food and more resilient food systems.

2 Replies to “The Spin on Urban Agriculture

  1. I am so happy to see an opening for dialogue on this subject. I am a farmer who works orchards, grapevines, raised bed vegetable gardens, and acres of widcrafted herbs, berries, mushrooms and flowers.

    Maturity is the keep to food production. The 40 year old vines produce hundreds of pounds of organic green seedless grapes without our effort. We make more jelly, juice, wine, and raisins than we can use. We give them away and feed them to our free range poultry and still there are so many they rot in piles under the vine. It is the same for apples, plums, pears, berries and tomatoes. I have started many trees like olives and exotic fruit like paw paw too since we have the rooms to grow them.

    Unlike fruit production, vegetable production is hard work. For this reason we only grow the vegetables we are going to eat. Workers are available but it is risky to invest in perishables without a reliable market.

    It is isolated here and everyone who wants fresh food grows their own, leaving no market for sales. Hawking at the farmer’s market puts me in competition with my neighbor, dividing the small consumer dollar even further. Many farmers are in the same boat.

    Any ideas?


  2. Maturity is the KEY to food production. For example peppers and tomatoes are perennial plants and will grow, producing food for years if cared for indoors by a sunny window. Swiss chard and similar greens will grow back the leaves you cut off the mature plant to eat, and with a little forethought can be grown for extended food production.

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