The New York City urban farm has moved from a scene to a movement. Foodies, growers, chefs, non-profits and artists converge to get ever more creative in how to utilize space in the city for growing fruits and vegetables. Swale by artist Mary Mattingly has taken to putting a farm out on the water. Chicago’s O’Hare airport has installed an aeroponic, or vertical, farm. From hotels to restaurants, urban farming so far has been highly specialized and for hyper-local food distribution like Brooklyn Grange’s two food markets and neighborhood CSA. “This is truly seed-to-plate agriculture, with no use of fossil fuels, people walk over from where they live, and go home with produce that was picked that morning.” says Anastasia Cole Plakias, Brooklyn Grange’s vice president and founding partner.
The main principles behind urban farming is providing local residents with fresh food, creating community around growing food, reducing concrete heat in urban areas, and encouraging people to reconnect with the earth. With initiatives like NYC’s Farm School, the urban farming movement is pushing towards democratizing the process and generating a mass grass roots support so that urban farming becomes easy and prolific. The USDA has recently introduced an Agriculture Toolkit that provides information about funding, business planning and resources for starting an urban farm. In October 2016, a new publication provides information on how to build high tunnels (the greenhouses that extend growing into the winter season) in urban areas.
Progress and growth isn’t limited to New York City. It is global – from Bangkok, Milan, Uganda, Brazil, urban farming is becoming an alternative and solution for making food available to growing urban populations.
Chicago is seeding a burgeoning urban farming landscape. Leading the charge is LaManda Joy of the Peterson Garden Project. LaManda’s bio reflects the kernel of an idea that blossomed into a mission that is now being widely recognized, and awarded, for success in the Chicago urban farm movement. She is a master gardener, author, educator and she is passionate about urban farming being a catalyst for change. PSFK caught up with her about her thoughts on urban farming and how it is progressing.
PSFK: How is urban farming different from 5 (or longer) years ago to today?
LaManda: Urban farming is certainly getting more attention that it was 5-10 years ago. It used to be more of a fringe thing but is now becoming more mainstream. It seems that it has grown from a novelty to a more viable option for food production… not that it has “arrived” by any means. There are so many issues with acquisition and use of urban land. And, my personal bandwagon, not enough people know how to grow food so there’s that. Plus urban farms are businesses so you need a grower who also has business acumen (or a partner) to make their efforts profitable. It is definitely a work in progress but it has come a long way.
An interesting side note – the famous landscaper Jens Jensen… when he was building Chicago parks at the turn of the last century (1900’s) put food gardens in each of them because he was worried that urban children wouldn’t know where their food was coming from. Ironically, most food was grown very close (even inside) urban areas at that time. So the concept of “urban farming” is really quite old and, at least in the post-industrial age, food security and awareness has always been a big concern.
PSFK: Has your approach or perspective changed from when you started?
LaManda: Community and individual food gardens get lumped in with urban agriculture but don’t get the attention they deserve. In most community gardens, the food is grown for individual use, not for retail. The needs of the urban farm and the urban garden are “exactly the same but different” – land, someone who knows how to grow food, resources. But the outcome is different. Interestingly, this hasn’t changed at all in the decade I’ve been working in this realm. Nor has my approach – I believe that teaching people to grow food is one of the best things you can do and that’s the mission of Peterson Garden Project, too.
PSFK: What do you see as the future of urban farming? What do you personally want to do, what’s in store for Peterson?
LaManda: For urban farming to really take off there has to be money behind it. We’ve seen success with various hydro and aquaponics businesses that have the funding to scale, have a supply chain, etc. For the “mom and pop” urban farmer, farming is the same no matter where you do it – lots of hard work with no guarantee of return due to mitigating factors – weather, economy, sales, etc. So, like any business, urban farming is maturing and the real potential for it is becoming more obvious. For Peterson Garden Project, we work on a nonprofit model. I’m working on a social enterprise project that will allow home and community gardeners the opportunity to grow successfully. Like many other nonprofits in this sector, we’re realizing that funding is a challenge for small organizations and creativity is required.
PSFK: What do you think people’s attitudes are towards urban farming?
LaManda: I worry that urban farming is “precious” in that – to make it viable in the current model – high-end restaurants and farmer’s markets are the biggest outlets with, often, premium pricing. I wish urban farming could be more democratic and available to everyone. That’s why I love teaching individuals and families how to grow food because it levels the playing field a bit more. There are amazing groups in Chicago and elsewhere working on urban farming and gardening as solutions to neighborhood blight and food deserts. I wish there were more, and easier, funding available for this corner of the urban agriculture world. I see a sad discrepancy in urban farming having to do with class and wealth.
PSFK: Do you think urban farming will save us in the Zombie Apocalypse?
LaManda: It is funny you say this! I have a concept I call “The Joy/Apocalypse Spectrum” – on one end (Joy) you have people who grow food purely for the joy it brings them, they have no need, no financial constraints. On the other you have the “oh shit” factor – nuclear war, civilizations falling apart, supply chains ceasing to exist. The thing is – food gardening is good on both ends! Most gardeners fall somewhere in the middle – although I know some prepper types who are closer to the apocalypse side of the spectrum. In my book, I quote Geoff Lawton (a famous permaculturalist) who said “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.” And I know, from personal in-depth experience, that this is very true.
So no matter where urban farming is going, it’s a good thing.
One thing that I think is important to address is the local nature of urban farming. Farms (and gardens) in cities really cater to neighborhoods. In our project, we have six Pop-up Victory Gardens in different Chicago neighborhoods. Even though I think of it as one big program, the gardeners think about it as it relates to them – how far it is from their house, the neighbors they know, who will help them water, etc. With small-scale urban farming, the supply chain is often whomever is close by – either a farm stand customer or a local restaurant. From this perspective, I think urban farming and gardening is tremendously important because it gives people a chance to see what growing food really looks like. You know they say a picture is worth a thousand words, well seeing a plant growing and fruiting is worth that, too. The ah-ha moments I’ve seen on people of all ages is always a joy. We, as a country, really need to connect more with each other and our food source so, as an educational/awareness raising exercise, urban farms and gardens are critical.