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Urban Agriculture

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Texas college turns football field into awesome urban farm

If your football team can’t hack it on the field, perhaps they can grow some kick-ass kale.

At least that’s the sentiment from Dallas’ Paul Quinn College. After the university cut its football program, President Michael Sorrell decided to transform the unused field into a working farm.

The WE Over Me Farm, which covers 57,000 square feet, was a response to the lack of healthy food options in the economically depressed area. Highland Hills, the neighborhood where Paul Quinn is located, is a designated food desert.

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Fowl play: Raising illegal backyard chickens [VIDEO]

Backyard chickens are everywhere. But in many North American cities, keeping a flock of hens is still illegal. We met up with some unlikely outlaws while traveling through Tennessee who are breaking the law by producing fresh farm eggs in their backyards.

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Peebottle Farms: The dirt on the dirt

Photo by Jonathan Steffens.

I’m a phenomenal putter-offer, and getting my backyard soil tested is exactly the kind of chore I am fantastic at avoiding. It is the obvious, responsible thing to do, after all, but the results can be a punch in the gut to any urban farmer.

So I blindly ate my way through two growing seasons before curiosity compelled me to find out whether I was slowly consuming an enormous amount of lead and vintage Brooklyn arsenic.

After clearing our building’s backyard of waist-high weeds and an array of very upsetting litter (note the name of our “farm”), my boyfriend, our helpful friends, and I built three raised garden beds about two feet deep. We debated whether to seal the beds off before adding new soil, using pond liner or, preferably, some organic material, but decided it was unnecessary since we wouldn’t be growing anything with very deep roots.

Were we right, or just cheap and lazy? Maybe all of the above? Sometimes, the paranoid part of my brain plays me footage of all the scary shit in that pale, diseased, clumpy soil leaching its way into our moist, innocent dirt. In this imaginary film, the toxins seep up from under the wood frames of the beds, and up the stems of our precious plants. I’ve also tried to imagine our compost somehow fighting it off. And we do even have our own organic-fed chickens pooping nitrogen gold. What more could you need?

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New Orleans school cultivates a generation of forward-thinking farmers

Nat Turner (third from left, white shirt) stands on a new compost pile with a group of OSBG interns, Americorps employees, and volunteers.

Nat Turner, a former New York City public-school teacher, moved to New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. He didn’t know anything about gardening -- “I could barely keep a cactus alive” -- but he had a vision to start an urban farm that would be a vehicle for educating and empowering the neighborhood’s youth. He’d been making service trips to the Big Easy with students, but he wanted an opportunity to dig deeper, literally and figuratively, into the city’s revitalization.

His first goal, Turner says, “is to figure out how to make the Lower Ninth food secure.” It seems fitting, then, that in a neighborhood with no supermarket, Turner set up shop in a falling-down building that had once housed a black-owned family business called the B&G Grocery. He filled a pink bathtub in the backyard with soil and planted scallions, which floated away when the bathtub flooded in a rainstorm. That was the beginning of Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG).

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Presenting the largest rooftop farm … in the world!!!

In Brooklyn yesterday, BrightFarms announced that it would be building the largest rooftop farm … in the world!!!

The New York-based company builds hydroponic greenhouse farms that are connected to supermarkets. The idea is to minimize transportation costs and time in the food system, delivering very local and very fresh food.

The new farm is going on 100,000 square feet of rooftop in Sunset Park. It will grow up to 1 million pounds of veggies like tomatoes, lettuces, and herbs each year, with the first harvest planned for next spring. The system also will capture storm water, diverting it from New York's overtaxed sewer system.

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No vacancy: Unleashing the potential of empty urban land

Tia Jackson and Kristen Rapp are co-founders of 462 Halsey, a group of community volunteers who are planting a garden in a lot that has been abandoned for decades.

Tia Jackson’s family has lived on the same block of Halsey Street in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood for five generations. Kristen Rapp is a newcomer. Jackson is black. Rapp is white. In a part of town where the gentrification process has been grinding along painfully for years, the two might never have met if not for a sign on a fence on a vacant lot, left there by the members of a group called 596 Acres.

Now Jackson and Rapp have keys that let them into that vacant lot at 462 Halsey. They are shoveling dirt and planting seeds. Together with a dedicated group of neighborhood residents, they are turning an abandoned scrap of urban soil into a garden.

The sign that brought them together was part of a project to identify and map all city-owned vacant lots in Brooklyn, which add up to a mind-blowing -- you guessed it -- 596 acres in total area. To give you some perspective, Prospect Park, the borough’s largest, is 585 acres. In a city where real estate is an obsession (or a cult?) the idea of so much land sitting vacant is kind of astonishing.

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Faraway farms: Chronicling urban agriculture around the world

Urban agriculture outside Calcutta. (Photo by Karney Hatch.)

In all our excitement about the growth of urban agriculture here in the U.S., it can be easy to forget that the tradition of farming in cities has a long international history. “We feel like we’ve reinvented the wheel, but urban farming has been going on as long as cities have existed,” says Karney Hatch, a filmmaker who spent five months traveling the globe to gather material for a documentary about urban farming beyond our borders.

Films about gardening in U.S. cities are practically a dime a dozen these days, but what could we learn from projects in Shanghai, Havana, or Accra? Hatch plans to start post-production work on his film next month, so it’ll be a while until we get all the answers. In the meantime, we couldn’t resist calling him up in for a preview of what he found.

Q. What places stood out to you for their urban farming efforts?

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Indoor farm in Brooklyn helps feed hundreds of families

In Bedford-Stuyvesant, an increasingly hip but historically low-income Brooklyn neighborhood, one food pantry is also an indoor farm. The New York Daily News visited the Child Development Support Corporation, where every Thursday morning clients harvest lettuce, bok choy, and collard greens that help feed hundreds of families.

Right now the greens are all grown hydroponically indoors, but the farm has plans to expand, adding a rooftop garden with cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers. It will also be offering hydroponics workshops and cooking demos.

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Beyond ‘ruin porn': Film gives farm’s-eye view of Detroit

Urban farms are becoming an integral part of Detroit's landscape. (Photo by Urban Roots Film; click to enlarge.)

What happens to a post-industrial city? How does it revive itself amidst the ruins of a disappearing way of life? In Detroit, modern America’s favorite example of urban decay, the auto industry left behind pockets of resilience: “Growtown” is full of urban farms flourishing in backyards and abandoned lots, like wildflowers sprouting from the ash of a charred forest.

Detroiters have practiced urban agriculture for decades, but the city’s economic decline -- which has been dragging on since long before the worldwide financial collapse in 2008 -- serves as a catalyst for gardening’s explosive growth in this town that most of the country still sees as a poster child for inner-city ruin.

Urban Roots, a documentary playing at the San Francisco Green Film Festival on Tuesday, shows us a different image of the city through the eyes of its dedicated urban farmers. In addition to giving background on Motor City’s rise and fall, and introducing viewers to the folks behind a handful of urban farms across town, the film digs into important topics like the racial implications of gardening. Despite its negative associations with slavery, the film argues, working the land can be a powerful vehicle of self-determination and empowerment for Black Americans -- especially in a long-neglected city like Detroit, where residents have learned the hard way not to expect change from above.

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Mexico City’s urbanization threatens ancient ‘floating gardens’

A man works his plot in the chinampas of Mexico City. (Photo by Eneas De Troya.)

Chinampas, or floating gardens -- small artificial islands full of crops, built up on shallow lake beds -- once sustained the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, producing multiple harvests every year. They still exist in Mexico City, feeding its rural citizens -- for now.