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Urban Agriculture

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Chicken soup for the soil: Cleaning up toxic earth in Philadelphia [VIDEO]

Urban farming is more popular than ever, but growing food in most major cities means tangling with a major hazard: toxic soil. Many urban farming circles see cleaning it up seen as a mandatory next step. This video looks at a recent collaboration between the city of Philadelphia, the Environmental Protection Agency, and an art collective called the Future Farmers (spearheaded by the artist Amy Franceschini).

Called Soil Kitchen, the 2010 project provided citizens of Philly with free soil tests (and free soup) with the hope of mapping the soil in the area, determining soil cleanup grant eligibility, and spurring both citizen action and policy changes that would "revitalize polluted municipal lands, and make them into assets of food security and engagement."

The video is part of a fantastic new series called OnLand that's in development by the New York-based young farmer group the Greenhorns. In fact, they're in the process of fundraising to finish more videos, so if you like what you see, you might want to visit their site to learn more.

Read more: Food, Urban Agriculture

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How to make a fold-out window garden

Sure, apartment-dwellers without balconies could grow all their herbs and veggies in tiny windowboxes, but why not make the most of your small space? This garden uses all the window real estate when it's tilted up, giving you three times as much growing space as a window box -- but then it tilts down to soak up sun and avoid obscuring your view.

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A guide to the sweet and simple life

Robyn Jasko started her blog Grow Indie as a way to offer a guide to easy, DIY garden and cooking projects. (It’s part of the goindie.com network, which she and her husband created to encourage the support of local, independent businesses.) Now, Jasko has put together a book, inspired by information on her website, called Homesweet Homegrown: How to Grow, Make and Store Food, No Matter Where You Live. A slim paperback sweetly illustrated by Jennifer Biggs’ drawings of vegetables and raised beds, Homesweet Homegrown gives instructions so straightforward they made even this brown-thumbed author feel a little less daunted -- excited, even -- by the concept of growing some legit food.

The book is neatly divided into chapters titled “Know,” “Start,” “Grow,” “Plant,” “Plan,” “Make,” “Eat,” and “Store,” with growing tips and recipes organized in alphabetical lists of vegetables. It also includes easy-to-decipher charts of seed germination times and companion plants. We caught up with Jasko recently to hear more about the book.

Q. Why did you decide to write Homesweet Homegrown?

A. I’ve always been a gardener, whether I’ve lived in the city, the country, or the 'burbs. Even on my fire escape in Philadelphia I had a tomato garden. Every year when I garden I have about 20 different books that I use and pull different things from. So I thought, wouldn’t it be great if all that information was in one book? I was also inspired by all the questions I get. So I created what I wished existed. It’s a pocket manual that covers all the basics of growing your own food, with recipes, food storage tips, garden planning, information about GMOs, organics, heirlooms, and more.

Read more: Food, Urban Agriculture

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New Agtivist: Meg Paska runs Brooklyn’s first urban farm pop-up

Meg Paska with one of her chickens. (All photographs by Valery Rizzo/Nona Brooklyn.)

It’s a dreamy combination of hipster clichés: an urban farming-themed pop-up store made of salvaged materials. In Brooklyn. Maybe that’s why, when Hayseed’s Big City Farm Supply opened at the beginning of April, founder Meg Paska thought, “We're going to get mocked.” But mockery did not ensue; instead, an enthusiastic community response showed that Paska was on to something with this small, seasonal shop catering to the needs of people growing food and raising animals in the city.

Paska, who blogs about her own backyard garden, chicken coop, and beehive at Brooklyn Homesteader, started Hayseed’s with the folks who run Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm in Queens. The store will be around until early July in a space Paska rented from the design studio Domestic Construction. We chatted with Paska recently about the project.

Q. How did Hayseed’s Big City Farm Supply come together?

A. My business partners and I both kind of have our own urban farm things going on. We were talking one night over beers, and we both admitted that we had thought about opening a farm store. But we were concerned about retail spaces being really expensive. We kept our ears to the ground and hoped that something would present itself, and it did. A bunch of friends of mine had posted a Kickstarter campaign for a design studio a few blocks from my house. They were going to try and save the lot next to their studio and turn it into an urban farm. I asked them how they would feel about hosting a pop-up store, and they were really into the idea. Their studio is in a big mechanic’s garage. They rented out the front space to us and then actually built out a storefront with pallets and old wood. We didn’t spend a single cent on materials; they built it all with salvaged objects.

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New agtivists: Young filmmakers take an urban farm adventure

Dan Susman (driving) drove around the country documenting urban farms with his co-filmmaker Andrew Monbouquette.

Fresh out of Dartmouth College and with time on his hands, Dan Susman and his childhood friend Andrew Monbouquette set out on an excellent, edible adventure -- a road trip to document many of the innovative urban agriculture efforts sprouting up all over the country.

Susman, now 24, grew up in Omaha, Neb., gardening in the backyard with his mom and dad. He planted pumpkins, named them things like "Big Max" and "Atlantic Giant," and always hoped come fall he might end up like James and the Giant Peach. No such luck: Evil squash bugs, and ever-looming drought, meant from all those seeds he carefully tended he’d typically end up with just one pumpkin weighing more than he did. But it was enough; a farmer was born.

Since then, Susman has worked on a small-scale farm in Venezuela and for the urban ag-focused Zenger Farm in Portland, Ore. He grew to realize not all kids are as lucky as he: Many never get a chance to plant a bean or taste a watermelon straight off the vine. But with the forthcoming film Growing Cities, Susman hopes to change that.

Read more: Food, Urban Agriculture

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University strikes back against Occupy the Farm

Photo by Steve Rhodes.

“Maybe you’ll be my one phone call from jail,” urban farmer and activist Ashoka Finley says, just before our phone conversation ends.

He’s joking, but I imagine he can probably see a group of police officers out of the corner of his eyes as he says it. Finley is one of a group of Occupiers who have been living and farming on a 10-acre piece of land on the outskirts of Berkeley, Calif., called the Gill Tract.

Finley has also just told me that he’s prepared to get arrested if things at the Gill Tract escalate. “We’re not going anywhere, we’re going to keep planting and farming,” he says, as if it’s the most defiant thing he can imagine.

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By growing food, Occupy the Farm helps a movement grow up

This post originally appeared on the Earth Island Journal website.

All photos by Jeff Conant/Climate Connections.

It doesn’t take an agricultural expert to know that you can’t grow vegetables without water. So it wasn’t surprising that after hundreds of people marching under the banner “Occupy the Farm” took over a University of California (UC) agricultural testing station on the edge of Berkeley, Calif., April 22, UC officials responded by shutting off water to the site. The next day, a late-season storm brought a half-inch of rain to the San Francisco Bay Area, irrigating the thousands of vegetable starts in the ground and lifting the spirits of the urban farming activists who are determined to save the site from development. Score: Occupiers, 1 — UC administrators, 0.

Social change activists in Berkeley, Calif., have always been ahead of the curve. Today, May Day, is the spring reemergence for the Occupy movement as activists around the United States engage in work stoppages, street marches, and various forms of civil disobedience to press their demands for a more equitable economy. The folks with Occupy the Farm got started early. On Earth Day, they marched from Berkeley’s Ohlone Park to a five-acre plot of land in the adjacent bedroom community of Albany. They cut the locks on the gates of the UC-Berkeley and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) field trial plot, pulled up nearly an acre of thick mustard growing there, and got busy working the soil with a pair of rented rototillers. Then, scores of volunteers planted 150-foot rows of lettuce, beans, cucumbers, and leafy greens. By the end of Earth Day, the Bay Area had a new urban farm.

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San Francisco’s urban ag-spansion

Photo by Jeff C.

A version of this post originally appeared in the CUESA Newsletter.

Mary Davis started feeling the squeeze of city life about a year ago. She had grown up gardening and spent a stint working on an organic farm while attending grad school in Missouri. Now an architect living in San Francisco's Mission District, she longed to reconnect with her gardening roots, but her small apartment was lacking in the dirt department. "There was no garden, no outdoors," she says. "I really wanted a place with some soil."

She started looking around her neighborhood and fell in love with the historic Dearborn Community Garden. But when she inquired about getting a plot, she was told there was a 22-year waiting list.

She signed up nonetheless and continued her search, adding her name to the Potrero Hill Community Garden's list as well, which had a comparatively modest seven-year wait. Since then, Davis has moved into a house with a shared backyard garden, but she still longs for a plot of her own.

Davis' experience is not uncommon among would-be gardeners in San Francisco. Most of the city's community gardens have waiting lists of two years or more, according to Public Harvest, a new report by San Francisco Urban Planning + Urban Research Association (SPUR). The most comprehensive report of its kind in recent years, it paints a sweeping portrait of the current urban agriculture landscape and presents a bold agenda to help San Francisco meet the demands of a burgeoning movement.

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Getting your goat in Louisville [VIDEO]

Jean-Marie herds goats within the Louisville city limits. He sells them to the growing immigrant and refugee populations. Goat isn't yet popular with all Southerners, but it reminds Jean-Marie of his home in Burundi.

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Tanya Fields: Breaking locks and planting seeds in the South Bronx

The website for Tanya Fields' The BLK Projek describes her vision as seeking "to address food justice, public & mental health issues as they specifically relate to under-served women of color through culturally relevant education, beautification of public spaces, urban gardening and community programming."

All true. But the high-minded rhetoric doesn't quite capture the drama of the moment when Fields decided to engage in some direct-action urban guerrilla farming by cutting the lock on a gate to a vacant lot near her home in the South Bronx.

"It was Memorial Day, 2010," she recalls. "We were giving out vegan hot dogs, and planting sunflowers, and cleaning up weeds."

And then suddenly the owner of the lot, who hadn't answered Fields' calls for a year, showed up. And then the police got involved. And then Fields had to scramble to find the cash to pay for a new lock and repairs to the gate.

It's not easy being a food justice activist in the South Bronx, says Fields, who was born and raised across the river in Harlem. It's especially tricky when you are the mother of four and depending on food stamps to keep everyone fed.

Read more: Urban Agriculture