Why Urban Farming?
Last post we discussed WHAT urban farming is. Today we're looking into WHY someone might start an urban farm.
Urban farming has a certain je ne sais quoi, does it not? It seems cool and trendy. Urban farms are blowing up! But are they really? Urban farms make up a minuscule percentage of US farms. Only 13% of U.S. farms operate on 10 acres or less according to the 2017 ag census. Urban farms often function on an acre or less, and as far as I can tell, are such a small population the USDA doesn’t even bother counting them. Because they are so few and so small, urban farms also produce a very very small portion of the agricultural value in this country.
But urban farms are very visible. They often make the news and people see them walking around town. They make people excited to engage with farming and food. Urban farms are also much more likely to be nonprofits, community gardens, and other community-based institutions that aren’t “farm businesses,” but still bring food growing into the city. The state government includes those non-commercial operations under the label "urban agriculture" when granting funding. (Just giving my argument some governmental clout.)
What I’m trying to say is that even though urban farms aren’t a big population or making tons of money, they’re still important.
If we focus on the business side of urban ag, why would a person choose to start and urban farm rather than a rural farm? (Other than the obvious fact that it’s cool and some people just prefer living in the city.)
1. COOL FACTOR
First, is one we already touch on: inherent marketing. A farm in the city is a farm that’s seen. Most farms function in anonymity away from population centers and have to put a lot of extra work into being seen and building up a brand. An urban farm is already where the people are, and there’s already the story of “being an urban farm” associated with the enterprise.
2. FOOD MILES & FRESHNESS
Speaking of being where the people are, let’s talk about food miles. Another benefit of being where the people are, is that you can give them the freshest produce imaginable, and still be convenient to where customers live. For environmentally-minded folks trying to reduce the footprint of their diet, you can’t shorten the food chain much more than purchasing from an urban farm in your own neighborhood.
3. HEALTHY FOOD SYSTEMS
When you bring great food into people’s neighborhoods, you’re strengthening the local food system, and that is another big incentive for many to pursue urban agriculture. We have areas that some call “food deserts” where neighborhoods are more than 3 miles way from grocery stores and healthy foods. Many people have started calling this “food apartheid” because this is not a natural occurrence like a desert ecosystem, it is human negligence and sabotage of poor neighborhoods, usually home to higher percentages of people of color. Many folks start urban farms to address this societal ill and bring good foods and sustainable businesses to people that need them. Saltless Sea Urban Farm operates in Lincoln Park, a neighborhood identified by the federal government as one of these food deserts.
4. LAND ACCESS
Another significant reason people get into urban farming is because getting into farming is HARD. Like really hard. We have a huge problem of land access for beginning farmers in this country. If you aren’t inheriting land and aren’t independently wealthy, you will have an exceptionally hard time finding a farm you can afford, let alone a farm with soil you can work with, in areas with a market to buy your products. Cities have lots of land wasting labor, water and gas to grow grass lawns. Lawns are the #1 irrigated ‘crop’ in the US. Lawns don’t feed humans or animals and offer very limited ecosystem services compared to other vegetation. Growing on borrowed or leased land in cities (sometimes scattered across numerous locations) is an affordable way for some to get into the farming business.
5. LOW OVERHEAD
Closely related to land access is reduced start-up and overhead costs. Many urban farms are high intensity growing operations running at hand-scale, so the farmer isn’t going into debt to buy a big tractor or build a barn. If the farmer is growing on borrowed land, there isn’t even a land cost. Any business benefits from keeping costs low, but a small urban farm has built in limitations (namely space) that help the farmer keep it lean. The exception to this rule would be most rooftop or indoor urban farming operations that have VERY high start up costs to build in the technology and infrastructure needed.
Cool-factor, marketability, food miles, sustainable foods systems, land access, and low-overhead costs are factors pulling people into urban farming. A lot of young people (i.e. Starr extrapolating her own experience) are feeling a craving to learn tangible skills and connect to the land in meaningful ways in their professional life. All these factors make urban farming an accessible way to do that. Viva la urban farm!