Back in 2006, a Los Angeles developer, Ralph Hurwitz, bull-dozed a highly productive 13-acre farm in the city’s South Central neighborhood.
In its place, he intends to plunk down a vast warehouse designed to facilitate trade in goods shipped in from Asia destined for our great nation’s big-box stores. (I wrote about the South Central Community Farm saga at the time here; for an update, check this out.)
At the time, I think, urban farming generally seemed like a “low-value,” fringe activity. Some 350 families, nearly all of them under the poverty line, grew food at South Central Farm. That’s nice; but surely with global trade booming, that fertile tract made much more economic sense as warehouse for electronics and other goods flooding in from China. Right?
Well, perceptions may be changing. “Shipping costs start to crimp globalization,” declared an article in Sunday’s New York Times. With oil at $125 per barrel and high food prices seriously squeezing low-income consumers, the idea that facilitating global trade trumps community-scale food production is looking frayed.
And suddenly, the mainstream media is taking urban farming seriously.
Last week, Time Magazine ran a glowing piece on “inner-city farms.” Declared the newsweekly:
With its estimated 600 small-scale farms (which are often large-scale vegetable gardens), New York City is part of an urban agricultural boom in the U.S., where rising food and fuel prices are making city farming seem less and less outlandish.
The article notes that urban farming address multiple problems: “global warming, foreign-oil dependence, processed food, obesity and neighborhood blight.” And they also “generate revenue for a down-and-out part of town.” The article mentions just two examples:
To demonstrate how much food can be grown in a small space, a 2006 pilot project on a sub-acre lot on the outskirts of Philadelphia hauled in $67,000 from crops like salad greens and baby vegetables. In Milwaukee, a 1-acre (0.4 hectare) farm filled with greenhouses, tilapia tanks and poultry pens grossed more than $220,000.
The Milwaukee example likely refers to that city’s legendary Growing Power, which has also laid down roots in inner-city Chicago. I’ve heard that the paper version of the Time story included photos of a successful community-oriented farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, called Added Value, which I profiled a couple of years ago here.
The Time article doesn’t state it, but both Growing Power and Added Value employ teens in economically devastated areas and broaden their opportunities beyond working in fast-food and the drug trade.
Meanwhile, The New York Daily News profiled another successful inner-city farm project: East New York Farms in East New York, Brooklyn, one of NYC’s most economically depressed neighborhoods. The article is notable because it lets the teenagers who work at the farm tell its story.
“It keeps us off the streets, and gives us something positive to do. A lot of the kids around us are getting into gangs and stuff like that,” says one. Adds another:
Most of the foods in supermarkets have to be transported … And as gas prices go up, so do the prices of produce, to pay for the transportation of the produce. Down here, the only transportation that we do is from the farm down to the kitchen.
I’ve always hoped that projects like these would one day serve as templates for effective farm policy. Commodity payments, most folks agree, have been a disaster; but that doesn’t mean the federal government has no role in agriculture. These projects — all of which got off the ground with the benefit of foundation grants — point an attractive way forward.