The Maturation of Urban Agriculture

Urban Agriculture is maturing, and like any concerned parent, those of us with a vested interest are worried about the path she will take and the choices she will make in these crucial developmental years. She's not quite ready to leave home, but she certainly isn't interested in hanging with the 'rents all weekend. That corporate bloke has been coming around a lot more lately, whispering sweet nothings in her ear and chumming it up with Dad in the den. With all this attention, she's beginning to see that life exists outside of the small community in which she has grown up. The city offers so much opportunity, yet with it comes so much risk, and as for that corporate guy, word on the street is that he's been into some pretty shady business. Meanwhile, there is a young guy around the block that Urban Ag has become friends with; he's so sweet, and seems to be well-grounded. Sure, he's a bit dorky, but we all know he'll treat her better in the end than the corporate bloke looking for some arm candy and a quick buck.

Now that I've lived out my childhood fantasy of writing a mid-90's teen sitcom, I should clarify that comparison. Urban Agriculture is at a pivotal point in its life. It began as an agency for social change, turning abandoned inner city lots into fruitful gardens which accomplished great things within their communities. Not only did these gardens beautify otherwise decaying neighborhoods, they also began to educate underprivileged residents about proper diet, provided nutritious food where none was to be found, and in some cases initiated job training programs with the local residents to jump start agricultural opportunities. Growing Home in Chicago, and Red Hook Farms in Brooklyn are too shining examples of this idea. Indeed, the social gains far exceeded the monetary gains, but it was only a matter of time before the light was shed on the potential of Urban Agriculture.

Today, we are seeing the corporate world snake it's way into the game. A recent article in the Detroit Free Press shows a possible 70 + acre development in the middle of downtown Detroit proposed by 2 financiers. Corporations, operating on the intention of reaping profit, will by nature set in motion practices to eradicate the competition. In the case of Urban Agriculture, this would mean all the small non-profit organizations trying to grow food in community settings to help residents get on their feet. Corporate-run urban farms could dominate the local food market by creating huge quantities and lowering prices which will drive out the many smaller farms. Walmart drove out all of the little Mom and Pop shops; why wouldn't a corporate farm drive out all the Mom and Pop farms?

Meanwhile, behind the backdrop, there is a growing movement of young creatives turning back to the land. Hundreds if not thousands of college grads are learning farm practices, working on CSA farms, and gaining knowledge to begin building a new food network in America. With the average age of farmers nearing 60 years of age, there is a huge push to get youth engaged in agriculture. In this case, Urban Agriculture makes a lot of sense because not only will the food be local, but it will allow young people to work and create in a collaborate environment where they can go out at night and have a life...off the farm.

I can think of about 15 people I know personally who are graduating with design degrees and looking to start their own small farms to supplement their freelance work. Why? Because nobody is hiring, they see the need, and they understand the value that a farm can create within a community. This has been well illustrated by the New York Times over the past year with many features focused on growing young farmers. But these people are starting farms of l1-2 acres, not 70-100 acre lots, and they aren't taking over whole portions of the city, but rather fitting nicely into the existing urban fabric. In addition, this new generation understands the problems associated with industrial farming, and therefore has a new respect for the land as not only creating profit, but creating life. That poetry just doesn't seem to flow from corporate farms, no matter where you put them.

Times are changing for Urban Ag -- she's growing up. The difference between Urban Agriculture and a real person though is a brain. A person can make decisions, Urban Agriculture relies on an intense network of farms, advocates and patrons. Together, we must figure out what is best for Urban Agriculture and our communities, then we must act to insure their safety. Will the introduction of large corporate farms defile the great assets of Urban Agriculture?

(Photos from Chicago GSB, Detroit Free Press, NYT, The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Anonymous said...

I think this is very compelling post. In my blog i've been thinking about how spaces(or places) - the actually physicalness of a place can be consumptive. It seems to me that small grassroots urban farms avoid this. They are truly about creation and about relationships. Large corporate urban farms, may intend to do good by feeding urban dwellers locally, but in the end they are just creating another space that perpetuates the ideas of consumption, and by doing so continue supporting ideologies of globalization including homogenization, efficiency, and power.

Read my blog and let me know what you think.

CaptnSaj said...

As much as I like the idea of grass-roots personal urban farms, Detroit needs a much larger solution and,the reality is probably this will only come when a large corporation gets involved. Only then will Detroit governemnt actally take it seriously and we see the change that will make the city better than it is now. Companies will grab the large land that is not suitable for individuals (ie 1-2 acre farmers like this post says). There is still plenty of room in Detroit and suburbs for non-profit groups and young farmers and there will probably always will be.