Friday, January 29, 2010

Rules of Engagement

Via Bitten, I found this thoughtful article about the debate between coventional and local/organic food. Maintaining that reductive, dualistic arguments don't fully address the complexity of the issues, Parsons outlines fundamental principles for both sides to consider, in order to move from debate to discussion.

The first principle has a particular relevance to discussions of urban agriculture. Too often, the possibilities for urban farming in the U.S. are reduced to schoolyard, community and non-profit gardens. While such programs are crucial facets of what might be termed food democracy, their focus is generally on re-establishing a lost sense of our place in the food web and empowering people to understand that they can grow food for themselves. Such programs educate, create jobs for underserved youth and bring beauty to the city. They do not, however, consider productivity, yields and profit.

In order to create an alternative agriculture, the very real question of how to feed all of us must be addressed. To move forward, conversations about sub/urban farming will have to include a long view of real productivity, and the typologies of urban agriculture widened to include for-profit operations.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Photos of the Week - Shanghai Edge Farms

Travelling in Shanghai for business several years ago, I found myself at the city's edge visiting a site along the Huangpu River. On one side of the street the suburbs ended, and on the other, informal farming began. I was drawn into the fields by the beauty of this homemade fence, woven together from willow branches, leaves and bits of plastic twine.

And - the other side of the street.

Harvesting the City

[Image: Argonne Community Garden Orchard in San Francisco]

If you have even one fruit tree in your garden, you know that the harvest yield is often more than a family can handle. When all the lemons, or plums, or avocados start to ripen at the same time, you’d better have a canning plan ready or some neighbors to share with.

Enter Stockton Harvest. The brainchild of Eric Firpo, a Master Gardener and urban orchardist, Stockton Harvest will purchase your backyard fruits and nuts and resell them. The startup currently offers walnuts, lemons, tangerines and grapefruits, fresh from the city and suburb’s backyard gardeners. Their mission:

"Stockton Harvest buys fruit and produce grown by you, the urban and sub-urban farmer — food that, without us, would rot on the ground, on your counter or in your fridge. We resell the fruit to a hungry planet — and deliver it to the doorsteps of people who appreciate natural foods and growing the local economy."
There are so many promising things at work here – innovative urban farming at a dispersed network scale, an ethic of harvesting the bounty you have, a community building initiative that reimages the city as an orchard. And while Stockton Harvest doesn’t pay much for the produce (10 to 25 cents per pound) the genius is in bringing some transparency to the price we pay for food. While 25 cents doesn’t sound like a lot to a seller, the average consumer doesn’t expect to pay more than a $1 per pound for many fruits. By allowing the consumer to assume the role of producer and to understand the labor of production, harvest and distribution (even on this modest scale), the project has the potential to generate a new perspective on the fair price of food.

I look forward to following Stockton Harvest as it grows its business, and wonder if other programs like this exist. Do you have an urban orchard harvest program in your town?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Landgrab City: Investigating Urban Food Footprints

[Image: Landgrab City, found at]

An installation for the Shenzhen & Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture takes the form of an urban farm, with the purpose of educating city residents about the land required to grow the food they eat. The installation, Landgrab City, is divided into plots proportional to the different types of food consumed (vegetables, cereal, meat and more). The installation is credited to Joseph Grima, Jefffrey Johnson and Jose Esparza – Grima is the director of the always interesting Storefront for Art and Architecture.

Grima describes the project on

"Conceived as an experimental investigation into the full extent of Shenzhen’s spatial footprint, the installation is comprised of two parts: an map of one of the city’s dense downtown area, home to approximately 4.5m people, and a plot of cultivated land divided into small lots."

According to the exhibit, Shenzhen's population requires 137,665 hectares of farmland (or 531 sq miles) to sustain them! This equals 0.8 acres per person, a relatively conservative estimate of land use, and small indeed compared with the estimated land needed to support the current American diet - 1.2 to 1.5 acres per person!

[Image: Landgrab City, found on]

The installation is a visually striking way to get people thinking about the relationships between city, farm and sustenance. As we reconsider our spatial relationships to food production we might begin to question whether our current development patterns are wise - that is, will we have enough land left to grow on?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Breaking Ground in Detroit

Hantz Farm is an intriguing, if somewhat troubling, proposal for farming urban Detroit.

Local millionaire financier John Hantz has proposed purchasing rights to 70 acres of land in Detroit in order to establish a for-profit urban farm on a scale as yet untried in the U.S. The project is marketed with promises of “green” jobs, a restored tax base, removal of urban blight, tourism opportunities and a local supply of fresh produce. The cost of the project is estimated at $30 million and includes demolition of existing structures and soil remediation.

The project would certainly be the largest urban farm in the U.S. and the vision of transforming the former industrial city into a cutting-edge, urban-agriculture experiment is promising in many ways. As a prototype, issues of adjacencies, threshold and operations will be tested at an ambitious scale. If successful, one can imagine that it will be held up as a case study for scores of projects in other cities. Even more interesting is the idea of a new form of urban tourism, where visitors come not to see works of art or towering skyscrapers but to wander the row crops; and do not take home museum souvenirs, but apples, preserves and relishes produced in a most unusual terroir. Will the farm enable bed-and-breakfast inns, prepared good co-ops and gourmet restaurants to flourish? Could Detroit become in time a more novel, hipper Napa Valley? Does it want to?

[Image: Earthworks Urban Farm, Detroit, MI]

Large land purchases by a single owner in urban areas are always unsettling. Great cities are defined by diversity. While Hantz denies that any landgrab is taking place, some local groups have opposed the proposition on these grounds. Certainly it would be a more comfortable proposition if Hantz Farm had simply leased the land.

Also unsettling is their refusal to consider organic farming. Matt Allen, the Senior VP of Hantz Farm states that "organic is out for the moment. It takes 3 years to get certified and so we are going to focus on conventional ag[riculture] methods." Of course, one does not need to be certified organic to practice organic. Beyond the environmental impacts of farming conventionally, it seems shortsighted for the city to allow farm chemicals in an urban area where neighbors, including children, will be exposed. Further, use of such chemicals by workers calls into question how green the jobs really will be.

Finally, if Hantz Farm is too impatient to wait three years to become certified, how long will they be willing to wait to recoup their $30 million investment? At nearly $450,000 per acre, Hantz Farms has an astonishing start up cost. Compare that cost with the 2009 average value of farm land in the U.S. of $2,100 per acre. Even accounting for capital costs, labor, seed, equipment and other business expenses, the investment still suggests that Hantz Farm must not be in it for the profits alone.

Hantz’s proposal is not the only ambitious ag-focused project in Detroit. New York City activist Majora Carter, best know for the South Bronx Greenway project, is at work on Mo’Green Town, an initiative to create a worker owned cooperative of existing small growers in Detroit. For urban agriculture, Detroit is breaking ground in many interesting ways.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mowing to Growing

Terreform 1, the self-described "nonprofit organization for philanthropic architecture, urban + ecological design" is hosting a design competition entitled Mowing to Growing. According to the brief the competition operates in the context of "issues concerning the environment, global food production and the imperative to generate a sense of community in our urban and suburban neighborhoods."

Entries from students and professionals across disciplines are welcomed, including architects, planners, artists and scientists.

"From Mowing to Growing is not meant to transform each lawn into a garden, but to open us up to the possibilities of self-sustenance, organic growth, and perpetual change. In particular, we seek specific technical, urbanistic, and architectural strategies not simply for the food production required to feed the cities and suburbs, but the possibilities of diet, agriculture, and retrofitted facilities that could achieve that level within the constraints of the local climate."

Registration is due by March 31 and submissions are due April 30. Entries will be judged by a multi-disciplinary team, including the landscape architect Margie Ruddick and urban theorist Margaret Crawford. For more details, visit

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What’s wrong with the food system we have already? Part 1

I began this project with the simple romantic notion of how powerful the paradox between city and agriculture can be. Rounding a corner in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, to find the one acre farm run by The Food Project literally inserted into the existing urban fabric, was my first encounter with the visual and intellectual impact of this particular adjacency. I knew that many educational and non-profit projects related to urban agriculture existed and wondered if the concept might be expanded to include productive market farms. I knew also that many urban areas suffered from a lack of open space while farmers were priced out of the same areas by high land prices. Somewhere on the continuum between nostalgia and speculative futures seemed to be a fertile middle ground in which answers to these dilemmas might be harvested.

[Image: The Food Project farm in Boston, MA]
But as I began to research our current food system, I realized that actually the stakes are quite a bit higher, that the seemingly steady food supply is built on shaky ground – both ecological and social. So let me begin here. What’s wrong with the food system we already have? In some ways nothing is wrong - that is, food and food products are widely available to most of the population and starvation due solely to lack of food availability is not a social issue we face. Yet in most ways, many things are wrong.

For one, conventional farms are very big. In 2007 the average farm was 449 acres, or 0.7 square miles. Large farms must, by fact of their size, be located far from urban centers. Their size also means that one farmer, or a crew of farmers, must employ heavy equipment and multiple chemical inputs in order to manage the planting, growing and harvesting. Further their size suggests an economy of scales in which monocultures of a single crop (wheat, corn, soy) are grown for distant markets. These factors combined suggest farms that are highly dependant on petroleum based inputs (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, gasoline) to grown their crops and transport them to market. Any interruption in the supply of oil would wreak havoc on these farmers’ ability to feed their markets.

[Image: 449 acres superimposed on downtown San Francisco]

Conventional farms are also very far away from the people they serve. It is oft quoted that the average item of food travels 1,500 miles from farm to fork. The environmental and food security implications are obvious. Just as troubling is the disconnect that people can begin to have with their food and its sources. In 2006 the average supermarket carried 45,000 items, a truly astonishing figure which suggests the potential for 'supermarket ennui' in shoppers. Amongst all the packaging and refrigeration, it becomes hard to make a connection between these products and the natural process that created any of them. In order to value our farmlands and farmers we must first know they exist. Children who believe food comes from the store will not understand why it is important that farmland be preserved; much less believe that food production is not a process owned solely by the food service industries, but rather an act that any of us can perform.

“Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living in a mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.” – Wendell Berry

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Just a thought -

[Image: Alemany Farm, San Francisco, CA]

Can we imagine ways in which farms are compatible with our built environments - vegetables in a public park, a suburban development centered around the community farm & garden, a neighborhood cooperative vineyard? Productive market farms in developing nations are a well-understood concept, but seem less viable in U.S. at first glance. We create a dichotomy in which food production's rightful place is the (presumed to be) pristine countryside and we cannot conceive of farms in our metropolitan centers of art, commerce and consumption. Farm Plus posits that not only do farms belong in our neighborhoods, our communities, cities, suburbs, parks, easements and edge lands, but that it is already happening if we just know where to look.