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Urban Agriculture


Flying the coop: The scrambled world of backyard poultry

Jennifer Keeler feeding her chicken.

Here are a few things you should know about keeping backyard chickens: Poultry are “poop machines” -- but cleaning up after them is “less maintenance than a cat’s litter box.” You can let them range free around the yard -- just watch out for predatory eagles (and your garden: “Chickens will annihilate it.”). Chickens are “not pets,” except when “they’re very much our pets.” Clearly, fowl guardianship is a highly personal endeavor.

I gleaned these scraps of wisdom last Saturday, when I attended a citywide open house of sorts for backyard chicken enthusiasts. On Seattle Tilth’s annual Chicken Coop & Urban Farm Tour, the keepers of the local flocks open up their coops and let the curious poke around. Of course, I was among them. I’ve been taken with the fantasy of backyard chickens for awhile now -- waking in the morning to soft bawk-bawk-bawking, whipping up fluffy omelets with just-laid eggs -- so I had to see how closely real chicken husbandry matched my daydreams. Is it difficult? Is it stinky? Do I really have what it takes to be a hen mother? It was time to find out.

Read more: Urban Agriculture


New San Francisco legislation will jump-start urban farming

The new San Francisco legislation could create more cooperative farms like Alemany Farm. (Photo by Brett Emerson.)

Bay Area locavores and caterpillars rejoice: An edible urban jungle is poised to sprout in San Francisco.

City supervisors approved legislation Tuesday that will help grassroots farming groups replace barren concrete and forests of weeds on vacant land and rooftops with veggie gardens, chicken coops, and honeybee hives. And the move cements San Francisco’s role as a national leader in urban food production.

“[San Franciscans] are thought of as foodies, and environmentalists,” said Laura Tam, a policy director at the nonprofit San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association (SPUR), which helped push the new rules forward. “This is a marrying of our sustainability objectives with the reputation that we have in the world.”

Read more: Food, Urban Agriculture


New York City’s rooftop farms would have prevented the existence of Green Acres

A rooftop farm in Brooklyn. (Photo by lila dobbs.)

New York City recently revised its zoning rules to encourage green development -- in particular, rooftop agriculture. From the New York Times:

Fed by the interest in locally grown produce, the new farm operations in New York are selling greens and other vegetables by the boxful to organically inclined residents, and by the bushel to supermarket chains like Whole Foods. …

For city officials, the rise of commercial agriculture has ancillary benefits, as well. Rooftop farms have the potential to capture millions of gallons of storm water and divert it from the sewer system, which can overflow when it rains. And harvesting produce in the boroughs means fewer trucks on local roadways and lower greenhouse gas emissions, a goal of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration. …

[Brooklyn Grange's Ben] Flanner pointed out two benefits to an agricultural aerie — plentiful sun and an absence of pests. “There are a number of parallels with regular agriculture,” he said. “What we don’t have are deer or foxes or rodents.”

One challenge: wind, which can whip between buildings and topple delicate seedlings.


Have sledgehammer, will farm

Photo by Mike Sheehan.

Not too long ago, we turned some of the most productive agricultural land in the world into suburbs. The business of building homes has slowed since the 2008 recession, but it continues to be true that no matter how well-suited a spot was to growing food, if a developer wants to make money, they'll cover farmland with houses.

In the aftermath of the housing bubble, interesting signs have begun to suggest that the economics of dirt may be shifting. In fact it might one day be more valuable to grow food on a plot of land than to plop a house down on top of it. A few farmers recently made a killing buying back the farms they’d cashed out on. Meanwhile, the value of farmland in Iowa has increased by 33 percent, setting off speculation that farmland could be the next bubble. (It's a bubble fueled by corn for ethanol and therefore food for cars instead of people, but still, it holds promise.) And then there is the matter of the failed shopping mall in Cleveland that began doing double-duty as a greenhouse.

All of this raises the question: What about those farms that have already been converted into subdivisions? Once someone has thoughtfully poured concrete over most of your neighborhood, should you try to un-concrete it and make it a farm again? Could the McMansions of Brentwood become fertile fields again?

Read more: Food, Urban Agriculture


NYC’s homeless bee swarms are good for bees, scary

Bees swarm a light pole in Central Park.

On a rooftop a few dozen blocks south of my apartment, there's a beehive. The hive's owner, a woman named Susan, keeps what she described as an Italian species of bee, Carniolans. (In reality, the species is from Slovenia.) Pedigree aside (we are talking about the tony Upper West Side, after all), Carniolans have other traits to recommend them. They're more docile, for example, and more resistant to certain diseases. They are also more prone to swarming.

This week, The New York Times reported that bee swarms are increasingly appearing around the city.

This spring in New York City, clumps of homeless bees have turned up, often in inconvenient public places, at nearly double the rate of past years. A warm winter followed by an early spring, experts say, has created optimal breeding conditions. That may have caught some beekeepers off guard, especially those who have taken up the practice in recent years.

There's a link between hive overcrowding and swarming. When a hive becomes too crowded, bees can be displaced. New beekeepers, the Times suggests, can be unprepared to deal with a number of bees suddenly looking for a place to stay. The New York City real estate market is tough for everyone.

Bee swarms are frightening. Several weeks ago, my wife and I encountered one on a light pole in Central Park. An audible hum; a teeming mass orbited by a few stragglers. We did what anyone would do: took pictures, Instagrammed them, quickly moved on. (See above!)


What farms can do for cities: A chat with author Sarah Rich

Sarah Rich, author of Urban Farms.

A former editor at Dwell and co-founder of the Foodprint Project, Sarah Rich thinks and writes about food as a key component of today's urban landscape. So when she and photographer Matthew Benson traveled the country recently documenting 16 public and private food-producing operations for their new book, Urban Farms, it was no surprise that the final product turned out to be an intelligent, inspiring work of art.

We spoke with Rich about the new book, the difference between a farm and a garden, and how urban farmers are moving beyond the trend factor.

Q. Why did you write Urban Farms? What was the ultimate goal?

A. There’s a lot of debate about urban farming as a solution that will feed cities in the future, but I was more interested in looking at it from an anthropological angle. I wanted to write about the other things urban farming can do for a city -- whether that’s creating green jobs, community building, environmental restoration, land-use planning, or any number of other things. While farms are essentially food-growing operations, they serve so many other functions in an urban environment.


Isabella Rossellini knows more about bees than you do

Photo by Chris Johnson.

What are fish thinking when they change genders?

When Burt's Bees invited me to this press event, they probably didn't expect Isabella Rossellini to be the one asking questions, much less that one. Or for her to go on and note that gender assignation is largely a human construct. And to then express curiosity about what the process is like from the fish's perspective.

Sitting next to Rossellini, holding my notebook, I'm not really sure how to answer. After a pause, undeterred, she explains that fish are less interesting to play than insects because "sometimes they spawn, but that is it."

Luckily for her, we were there to talk about insects -- namely, bees -- and sitting with people who could answer the trickier questions she raised: for example, how scientists test for neonicotinoids, a pesticide that may impact bee navigation. ("Do they take the hives? … Do they feed them?" The answers were unknown.)

Rossellini has created an unusual niche for herself. Her series for the Sundance Channel, Green Porno, introduced Americans to the exotic, alarming mating rituals of flies, snails, and praying mantises -- with herself starring as each of the creatures. She enjoys the roles primarily because of the eccentricities of behavior, because of the tiny nuanced details that she likes to try and get right. And, clearly, because it is a topic about which she's deeply curious and fascinated to learn.


Farm rentals, dumpster dives: Europe crisis is mother of invention

Greek vineyard. (Photo by ZeroOne.)

In the midst of Greece's economic crisis, one entrepreneur has come up with a novel way to earn extra cash: He's renting out farmland. Dimitris Koutsolioutsos started to connect city dwellers to rural farmers. The urban resident rents out a section of the farmer's land to grow whatever produce is desired, which is then delivered to the city each week -- either to the resident or, if desired, a local soup kitchen.

The benefit to the city dweller is obvious: fresh, cheap produce. For the farmer, the benefit lies in having a guaranteed market for what he makes. (Like a CSA box, but more tailored and one-to-one.)


Soil survivor: An interview with urban farming legend Will Allen

Will AllenWill Allen. (Photo by Growing Power.)

In his new autobiographical book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, we see a different side of MacArthur Genius and urban farmer Will Allen. The book takes readers behind the scenes to witness the process of trial and error behind Growing Power, the Milwaukee-based urban farm, CSA, and youth training program that put Allen on the map.

But The Good Food Revolution is much more than a how-to guide. The story extends back to Allen’s family’s escape from sharecropping, his childhood on the land, the basketball career that pulled him out of poverty and allowed him to travel, his work for various corporations -- including a stint at KFC and one at Procter and Gamble -- and his eventual return to farming. Alongside his own story, Allen also recounts the stories of several people who were instrumental to building Growing Power with him, many of whom experienced their first reliable and fulfilling job on the urban farm.

We spoke with Allen recently about the book, the obstacles it chronicles, last year's gift from Walmart, and the legacy he hopes to pass on.

Q. What was it like revisiting those early days and exploring your family history?

A. My family was part of the “great migration" north and my parents got away to the Washington, D.C., area. But the fact that my father still wanted to farm was a little unusual because most African Americans who had been involved in sharecropping in the 1930s pretty much wanted to leave behind that painful history. And the fact that my father wanted to pass on his agricultural roots to my brothers and me was unusual (so many farmers didn't, and the results are obesity, heart, disease, etc. -- all those things that come from being disconnected from our food and from eating bad food).

Read more: Urban Agriculture


Peebottle Farms: Insta-heirloom

Peebottle garden beds before.

Peebottle Farms is a series about the backyard farm Nina Lalli maintains in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn.

OMG you guys! I’m so excited to tell you all about the lush organic garden I planted at exactly the right moment for optimal nutrition and beauty, because I’m perfect. Just kidding. I planted some seeds rather randomly and then my stir-crazy chickens destroyed the whole thing.

It’s my third summer as a backyard gardener, and apparently I’m still on the curvy part of the learning curve. First of all, when exactly were we supposed to start planting this year? Instructions like “after the last frost” are vague enough in a normal year. But I think New York’s last frost may have occurred sometime in October this year because the world is ending. Since we had such a freakishly warm winter, I held out for the possibility that Mother Nature would throw some ice at us in May just to keep shit crazy.

Read more: Food, Urban Agriculture