Do live in a major metropolitan area? If so, you may have noticed a little bit of a phenomenon: Urban farming. In almost every major city, there are urban farms cropping up. New York City. Chicago. Detroit. Philadelphia. Boston. Even Long Beach, CA. In fact, they have 16 of them in only a four square mile radius from the center of town. With a population of over 35,000, that’s a lot of produce.
Here in Connecticut, a prime example of urban farming can be found in what used to be an abandoned florist. New Britain’s Urban Oaks Organic Farm sits on three and a half acres boasting luscious organic vegetables. They also have a farm stand on the premises and a CSA, although this year’s shares are all sold out. Based on a June 7th story from the NBC affiliate in Hartford, they employ eight people full time and have about a dozen high school volunteers during the summer. “They think a vegetable is ketchup from McDonald’s,” said Michael Kandefer, the farm’s general manager said of the volunteer teens. “When they leave, they know what a cherry tomato is.”
But the concept of urban farming is not new. In other countries like Cuba, Russia, Japan, and Africa, when the economy is poor and the jobs are few, people need to eat somehow. According to a recent story from CNN, A third of Africa's population already lives in urban areas. The World Health Organization expects that figure to grow, so urban agriculture is increasingly seen as a backup to commercial farming to meet the food requirements of millions of people.
In a June 10th post on the Good Blog, the profitability of urban farms comes into question. Often, these farms are subsidized by grants and rely solely on volunteer help. While that may be all fine and good, these farms just don’t see the kind of revenue they should. However, many argue that’s not really the point. Their main goal is to provide healthy food to those who need it most: low-income families. They make fresh produce accessible to those that don’t have the luxury of shopping at Whole Foods Market.
Growing Power, founded by former NBA player Will Allen, is an urban farm that has become a notable success. Located in a residential neighborhood in Milwaukee on a two-acre lot teeming with growth, Allen’s organization grows enough food to feed the surrounding community of 2,000 people. The point of this urban farm is not only to give people access to fresh food but also to teach. People come from all over to learn how to grow their own food organically.
Named one of Time Magazine’s top 100 most influential people in May, Allen was recently quoted about the necessity for fresh food to be available to the masses. "Everybody, regardless of their economic means,” he said, “should have access to the same healthy, safe, affordable food that is grown naturally."
The documentary FRESH, released last year, discusses the move to organic farming. But a portion of the film focuses on Allen and his Growing Power organization. Urban farming can be just as rewarding and yield as much produce as organic farming in more rural areas.
In a previous article on this site, we reviewed the documentary when it was shown at the Pequot Library in Westport. In the film, Allen states, “Americans fear only one thing: inconvenience. We don’t want to think about who’s growing it or if there’s a chemical residue on it.”
Keeping with the theme of organic urban farming, one concept that Allen would like to employ is vertical farming. Using walls, roofs, terraces, and anything else as available growing space is his eventual goal. For those living in high-rise apartments, it’s an opportunity to have fresh fruits and vegetables without having to track down a farmer’s market.
Even Sting is reportedly getting into the act. According to a June 21st article from Treehugger.com, the famous singer, known for his other environmental initiatives like raising awareness for the rainforests, plans to film a documentary about vertical farming in a metropolitan area. There is speculation that it might take place in Newark, NJ.
According to a February 18th post on Africa’s IRIN News, a slum in the Kenyan capital is growing their produce in an unusual way. It’s called “farm in a sack.” The project, run by Italy’s NGO COOPI, a non-governmental organization founded in Milan in 1965 to help the disadvantaged around the world, provides the opportunity for residents to fill a bag with soil, manure and seedlings and hope for the best. With a little luck and some water, which is scarce, they grow their own dinner. “When ready for consumption, a sack containing vegetables such as sukuma wiki [kale], spinach and capsicum can feed one household for at least two months,” Simon Kokoyo, director of Ongoza Njia, a network of at least 150 community-based-organizations, was quoted as saying. “Right now water is the biggest challenge for this project…sometimes the water is scarce and this can be a problem.”
Whether growing food in a sack, a pot, a bucket, a raised bed, or wherever you can find space, urban farming is catching on. Everywhere you go, anywhere in the world, someone is growing something.
Images courtesy of Jones Valley Urban Farm and IRIN News.