Overview: Urban Agriculture

Across the world, the practice of urban farming - the process of growing food or raising livestock and then processing it and distributing it within an urban environment - is not unusual. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, 15 percent of the global food supply is grown in an urban setting. Although in the United States this number is significantly smaller, this may be changing. A number of reasons have combined to make urban agriculture more prominent across the country, including benefits for low-income people through better food security; opportunities to develop vacant, urban land; the potential for local economic development; and the environmental benefits associated with the "buy local" movement.

Low-income people often suffer from lack of quality and sufficient quantity of food. In particular, many low-income communities lack access in their neighborhood to fresh food, a situation known as a "food desert." Urban agriculture offers an opportunity to provide healthy food to low-income people by strengthening the local food networks that are often absent in these communities. One such organization, Growing Power, a non-profit 2-acre farm in Milwaukee, WI, is more than four miles from the nearest retail food market, providing access to fresh, nutritional food that would otherwise not exist.

Unlike traditional large-scale agriculture, urban farming often does not involve large tracts of land because large, contiguous parcels of land are not readily available. But small vacant lots are widespread throughout cities across the nation. A report of the Community Food Security Coalition found that as of 2003, Chicago had an estimated 70,000 vacant parcels, Philadelphia 31,000 lots, and Trenton nearly 900 acres or 18 percent of its total land. Although the U.S. General Accounting Office has identified 130,000 to 425,000 contaminated vacant industrial sites, or brownfields, that could be safely converted to agricultural purposes, proper remediation is still required and expensive. However, many urban farms have developed innovative processes to avoid contamination, such as using raised beds or hydroponics. Lynchburg Grows, an urban farm in Lynchburg, VA, consists of nine greenhouses, exceeding 70,000 square feet in the city's first industrial park, while the non-profit Resource Center in Chicago, IL has entered into an agreement with the city to have available use of any vacant lot until the city seeks to rebuild on it.

Cities also have other unused land, such as rooftops and property surrounding anchor institutions, such as schools and hospitals, that can help provide the initial boost for these farms. One such example is Real Food Farm, a non-profit with access to six acres on city park and school land in Baltimore. Founded in October 2009, it plans to be fully operational in three years time.

Urban agricultural jobs also are a form of green collar jobs as the environmental benefits from urban farming are notable. Due to limited space and resources, conservation methods - such as drip irrigation, composting, and high yield (but often organic) produce - are necessary. Utilizing these techniques, urban farmers can grow as much as 13 times more per acre than rural farmers.

Although practitioners and community gardeners within cities and communities have known the benefits of urban agriculture for years, new steps by the USDA illustrate that this effort may be moving more mainstream. "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" is a recent initiative to promote the growth of small and mid-size farms and improve local food networks by encouraging people to buy local. In September 2009, the program awarded $4.8 million through the Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program and an additional $4.5 million through the Farmers Market Promotion Program.While many of the recipients were not urban based, the initiative did award substantial grants to some urban farms and farming organizations, such as $300,000 to Southside Community Land Trust in Providence, RI and $75,000 to Growing Power, Inc. in Milwaukee, WI.

Urban agriculture can also be an important wealth-building tool. Indeed, non-profits are often focused on community development goals—for example, by providing job training for local low-income youth. Examples include the work of Added Value in Brooklyn, NY (to date, more than 150 youth), and The Food Project in Boston, MA (90 students each summer). Others, such as the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture (Kansas) and the Latino Farmers Cooperative of Louisiana (currently working with 15 Latino farmers), based in New Orleans, operate urban farmer training programs, helping low-income community members start their own business and providing land and grants to get them started.

Urban agriculture also helps build community wealth in other ways. Recently formed Green City Growers Cooperative will be a 100% worker-owned, hydroponic, food production greenhouse located in the heart of Cleveland. In Providence, RI, Southside Community Land Trust utilizes the land trust model to permanently protect community gardens. And in Boston, MA, Victory Programs Revision Urban Farm employs a social enterprise model to help run a youth job-training program, seedling co-op and CSA that is discounted for low-income members.

City policy can also play an important role in furthering urban agriculture development. For example, the City of Cleveland, Ohio has launched a mini-grant program ($3,000 awards) called "Gardening for Greenbacks" to foster the growth of urban gardens that can produce fruit and produce for the commercial market and has also passed an "urban garden district zoning code" to encourage urban agriculture development. See: caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/clevelandcodes/cco_part3_336.html