The history of urban agriculture should inspire its future
In that book, Jacobs exploded the long-held assumption that people first established agriculture, then established cities — the “myth of agricultural primacy,” as she calls it. Jacobs shows that in pre-historic Europe and the Near East, pre-agricultural settlements of hunters have been identified, some of them quite dense in population. As the settled people began to exploit resources like obsidian to create tools for hunting, a robust trade between settlements began to flow.
Eventually, edible wild seeds and animals joined obsidian and tools as tradeable commodities within settlements, and the long process of animal and seed domestication began, right within the boundaries of these proto-cities. And when organized agriculture began to flourish, cities grew dramatically, both in population and complexity. Eventually, some (but not all) agriculture work migrated to land surrounding the emerging cities — and the urban/rural divide was born. (More rigorous scholarship, especially that of the Danish economist Ester Boserup, confirms that dense settlements preceded agriculture.)
Jacobs shows, cities and agriculture co-evolved, and the concept of “rural” emerged from them:
Both in the past and today, the separation commonly made, dividing city commerce and industry from rural agriculture, is artificial and imaginary. The two do not come down through two lines of descent. Rural work — whether that work is manufacturing brassieres or growing food — is city work transplanted.
Photo: Library of CongressAnd much agricultural work remained within cities over the millennia. In 19th-century New York City, dairy farming proliferated (if didn’t exactly thrive), as shown by this passage from Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink, by UC Santa Cruz sociologist and food-studies scholar E. Melanie Dupuis:
By the mid-19th century, “swill” milk stables attached the the numerous in-city breweries and distilleries provided [New York City] with most of its milk. There, cows ate the brewers grain mush that remained after distillation and fermentation … As many as two thousand cows were located in one stable. According to one contemporary account, the visitor to one of these barns “will nose the dairy a mile off … Inside, he will see numerous low, flat pens, in which more than 500 milch cows owned by different persons are closely huddled together amid confined air and the stench of their own excrements.”
This was the dawn of fresh milk as a mass-produced, mass-consumed commodity, and the filthy conditions in these urban feedlots produced what Dupuis calls “an incredibly dangerous food … a thin, bluish fluid, ridden with bacteria yet often called ‘country milk.'” In line with Jacobs’ argument that rural work is “city work transplanted,” here we find evidence that today’s concentrated-animal feedlot operation, or CAFO, originated in cities before migrating to rural areas, where CAFOs are found today. (Of course, it was a chemist residing in the French city of Strasbourg, Louis Pasteur, who came up with the technology for making CAFO milk safe to drink … more or less.)
Photo: Kelley & ChadwickAn even stronger model for today’s CAFOs can be found in Chicago’s notorious stockyards, which didn’t close for good until 1971. Meatpacking is now an exclusively rural industry, clustered more or less out of sight in remote counties of Iowa, North Carolina, and Arkansas. But for nearly a century starting in the mid-1800s, farmers from Chicago’s hinterland would haul their cows to the city’s vast slaughterhouses, where they would be fed in pens while awaiting their fate. According to the Chicago Historical Society, by 1900 the stockyards “employed more than 25,000 people and produced 82 percent of the meat consumed in the United States.” Famous meat-packing giants like Armour and Swift got their start there.
Cities didn’t just innovate techniques that would later become associated with large-scale, chemical-dependent agriculture, they also incubated sustainable ones. The so-called “French-intensive” method of growing vegetables — in which large amounts of compost are added annually to densely planted raised beds — is one of the most productive and sustainable forms of organic agriculture used today. And guess what? It developed not in the countryside, but rather within the crowded arrondissements of 19th century Paris. Maine farmer Eliot Coleman, one of the leading U.S. practitioners of the French-intensive style, credits those pioneering Parisian farmers with ingenious methods of extending growing seasons that are only just now coming into widespread use in the United States.