Armed with nothing other than a longing to deepen my understanding of American food culture, sustainable farming and the steps needed to facilitate a food system change in an urban community, I drove solo from Virginia to California over a 3-month period. I needed to see it for myself: the aquaponics tanks crammed into basement corners, the potatoes growing in crates on rooftops and the urban farmers that turn metropolitan cities into epic playgrounds for nature’s edible organisms.
There are just under two million small family farms in the United States, each of them with their own set of practices. The first rule of urban farming is that there are no rules: it’s sometimes rogue, often messy and always requires an infinite supply of resourcefulness and ingenuity. If you’re considering starting an urban farming project or you already have one, you know what I’m talking about.
Over the course of my trip I lived and worked on many types of community farms spanning diverse backgrounds, missions, resources and goals. Some production-focused, some education-focused, some homesteading-focused. There were, however, some concepts that proved to be essential to all projects.
The Rethinking of Urban Spaces for Food Production:
When you envision a farm, what does it look like? Do you see a sprawling field with symmetrical rows of kale and chard or do you see a vertical web of PVC pipes with one lettuce head poking out of each opening and small potted herbs hanging from the horizontal lines?
I spent a few weeks working on Trevecca Urban Farm in Nashville, Tennessee, a city that boasts a blossoming, community-focused food scene. Jason Atkins, the mad scientist behind Trevecca Urban Farm, recalls the must-read book that overhauled his perspective on what a farm looks like: John Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You can Imagine. While some farmers thrive in wide-open fields, Jason prefers the urban environment. “Constraint of environment forces creativity,” he says.
At Jason’s farm the chicken coop is wedged between two parking lots. The fruit trees grow in the space between the buildings and sidewalk. All fences are covered with beans. The aquaponics tank inside the greenhouse is vertical: the tilapia swim in a tank half under the ground as water filters up the walls and then gravity brings it back down through the plant system. No space, however small, is wasted.
The Plant, an abandoned meat-packing building turned urban farm that I visited in Chicago, Illinois grows produce on their roof in a vertical PVC pipe garden (see photo above).
At times, rethinking urban space means considering the potential of a currently unusable plot. In partnership with Nashville Mayor Karl Dean’s office and the city’s Board of Metro Parks and Recreation, Hands On Nashville, a non-profit and volunteer connection agency, started its childhood education-focused urban farm in 2012. Josh Corlew, the agency’s Urban Agriculture Program Manager, oversaw the start-up and manages the continuing development of the farm today. The property had been plagued by flooding for decades, and in 2003 FEMA approved buy-outs for the property. The Nashville flood of 2010 resulted in further buy-outs, and Hands On Nashville and the city saw an opportunity for a positive use of the space. When Josh and his team acquired the land there was little space that could be farmed. They added trees to increase vertical storage space for water, grew native grasses and flowers to absorb the water and created a system to redirect flooding water to care for the plants, allowing for more growing space.
I worked for urban farmers in North Carolina, Texas and New Mexico that had part or all of their urban farming projects on their own private property. They valued the short commute, autonomy with land-related decisions and benefits of living in the community where they farmed. Do you own any property that you would be willing to donate to your own project? Consider if the idea of having volunteers or customers on your private property appeals to you.
In an urban environment your resources are constantly changing and transforming which means your creativity must follow suit. Are you using everything that is available to you in your urban environment, such as libraries, high-speed Internet, vertical space, volunteers, waste from local businesses and city compost? Consider a question that you hear often on an urban farm; “What else can we use?!”
While an urban farm may be an oasis, it is not an island. One thing I noticed about successful farming projects is that they had all reached out for support in the form of partnerships. Rethink what types of groups would be interested in your project. Don’t just think community non-profits and farms, think bigger – hospitals, universities, corporate campuses, state-owned lands and national foundations such as Starbucks’ Shultz Family Foundation.
If there is a university, hospital or other large public or private institution nearby, take advantage! To do this, identify key-holders in the institution that may have aligned interests: a professor of civil engineering who leads community volunteer projects, a professor of environmental, agricultural or social issues, a faculty member who leads the garden club, etc., and make contact. Jason’s farm in Nashville is situated on both privately owned land and university property. Jason has the opportunity to farm on university-owned land because he made contact with a science professor who was interested in building a greenhouse. The two became friends and now Jason and the farm team are staples of the university community.
It is common for universities to own empty properties in the neighborhood of their campus in case they want to expand down the road. These spaces often remain unused for many years. Such auxiliary properties can be great places to start your project, and if the partnership with the university flourishes, you may land yourself a permanent location or additional spaces.
Being linked to a partner such as a university, hospital or corporate campus also gives you direct access to people who may be looking for volunteer opportunities. Joining organizations such as Workaway, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), and your local volunteer connection agency can also be helpful if taking on volunteers is something that interests you. Each farm I worked at participated in at least one, if not many, of these groups. All the farmers agreed that taking on volunteers is a worthwhile effort for them, but that it is not always as simple as just free labor. “Volunteers keep you on task and force you to understand and explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” one farmer said, “they ask questions and make you realize what you don’t know so you can learn it. You also must have enough tasks for volunteers to stay busy at their knowledge level. There is an aspect of management to it.” Josh Corlew at Hands on Nashville found that giving volunteers responsibility increased their commitment to the project. “You do have to invest in some training,” he reports, “but volunteers are beating down the door to get involved in positions that have leadership opportunity.”
Investing in the Community:
Is your urban farming project community-based or community-placed? If you want a community-based urban farming project, one that is grounded in the history, roots and passion of the community rather than simply located in a neighborhood, it is essential that your project align with the wishes and needs of the community itself. Jason Atkins in Nashville connected with Chestnut Hill neighborhood leaders prior to starting his project. “There were many conversations with community members around the dinner table where I listened and learned from them,” he told me, “for the community members, these conversations unearthed the needs that I already saw. They told me what they wanted accomplished on the land and I agreed to work on it.”
During my stay at Trevecca Urban Farm, Jason held a farm dinner and invited neighbors, volunteers and community stakeholders to enjoy a meal prepared with food from the farm. These types of events may seem like a lot of work, and they are, but in my observation the farms that invested in their communities had far more success than the ones who avoided it.
The Plant in Chicago is another example of community-based urban farming. They rent out extra space on their property to other neighborhood farmers to bring in revenue and increase community engagement. They also offer tours of their farm that are open to the public. Is there something you have that you can offer to your neighbors?
An urban farmer’s best asset is an infectious vision. Inspire people about what you can do on their land and in their community. While working on an urban farming project there are many people you need to keep happy, people who have expectations of what should and should not be going on in a city. Meet these challenges head on. Several farmers I spent time with had mentioned that they wish they had been more prudent during the earlier stages of their project, reporting that it is easier to build strong, trusting relationships with neighbors and stakeholders upfront rather than repairing relationships later on, when neighbors’ frustration over unsightly compost piles has been festering for months. An urban farming project will force you to deal with a lot of personalities, expectations and needs – whether making community connections is part of your mission or not.
A community’s movers and shakers are not necessarily suit and tie-adorned adults elected to an official neighborhood association board. In the case of one farm I visited, it was a man named Diesel who lived in a tent next to the train tracks. Community leaders come in many forms but they do affect how the community is run and their support is essential to your long-term success. You wouldn’t be in this line of work if you didn’t have a passion for your community. While every urban farmer is unique there is an underlying need to serve our communities and our earth that connects us all. Consider how the urban environment can foster innovation and community for your farming project. Go out there and engage like never before!