Urban Farms or Myths?

Feeding Ourselves, Our Cities, and the World

The excitement surrounding urban agriculture is partly rooted in a notable history and possible future capacity to actually help feed the entire nation. During the Second World War, so-called ‘Victory Gardens’ provided close to half of the fruits and vegetables consumed by the population; albeit, people in those days ate smaller, healthier portions. Perhaps the revival of urban farming will lead not just to a diet for a small planet but a diet for smaller people?

Victory Gardens, a.k.a. ‘War Gardens’, played a major role in the mobilization of the civilian population during the two world wars but were especially important during the Second World War. Most reliable estimates confirm that 40 to 50 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed during this period were grown in urban gardens.

The return of urban farming echoes these monumental efforts of the past, but the new ‘Victory Gardens’ are about a victory over poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and the dissolution of community ties. The phenomenal success and rapid growth of urban farming has created extraordinary opportunities for food justice and an ecologically superior, community-based approach to reinvention of our current food system, which is dominated by unsustainable and inequitable industrial models and a profit-driven top-down corporate anti-nature and anti-worker rationality.

Not surprisingly, this success has now unleashed a reactionary industry of naysayer pundits and would-be expert analysts who denounce urban farming as a left-wing liberal conspiracy to undermine American food security. There is now a torrent of critics who deride and demean; insult and belittle; and otherwise distort the truth about urban agriculture and its real perils and actual promise. Some of these critics fancy themselves both farmers and urban gardeners, adding legitimacy to the criticism since it appears to be coming from aficionados and insiders rather than corporate shills.

Among this latter type of critic is Maurice Hladik, a columnist for the on-line magazine, Ag Professional, who says he grew up on a farm in western Canada and was an active farmer into his early adult years. Before proceeding, I wonder: What exactly is an “active farmer”? Are not all farmers, by definition, active? It seems curious that anyone would identify as a formerly active farmer, since farming, when you are doing it, requires by definition a great deal of mental and manual activity.

This is a revealing tautology. You are either a farmer; or you are not. There is no in-between. A farmer may not be farming right now; but a true farmer never stops thinking about the land; the seed and water; the seasons of hunger and plenty. S/he may be displaced but they are always farmers. I have learned this from the landless farmers of Mexico who are now in the U.S., and who are always searching for that little bit of vacant land in the city or acre in the countryside where they can keep planting heirloom corn from Oaxaca or Chiapas. You can take the farmer off the land but you cannot take the love of the land out of a farmer’s heart; that is, unless farming was just another job, an occupation, and, in that case, you were never really a farmer, probably more of a contract grower, a mere bioserf, most likely for some corporation or bank that owned your ass. But now I am angrily mincing words with our tautological critics.

As a matter of self-disclosure: I am a full-time ‘seasonal’ farmer in rural Colorado because our growing and irrigation season runs from May through September. I am also an urban gardener, when possible; even if it is just a small patch of herbs, given my busy schedule when we live in the city of Seattle where I work as a college professor from the end of September through early April. Among my principal teaching areas are agroecology, ethnoecology, and the anthropology of food among other agricultural and food-related areas of research and scholarship. The university may pay my salary, but it is the land that sustains my soul. That does not make me less active a farmer than anyone else dedicated to food: to growing it; sharing it; cooking and eating it. We are all equal in our desire to feed a hungry planet by starting with ourselves and our families, neighbors, and local communities.

Hladik, who has reportedly earned two degrees in agricultural economics (one was not enough?), recently penned an op-ed piece that misrepresents the urban agriculture movement. He begins his commentary, entitled, “Urban Farming is an Urban Myth,” with the tale of a lettuce grower in the city:

I recently read an article that waxed eloquently about the virtues of urban farming in the U.S. and Canada, using the example of someone who was growing lettuce in the saddlebags of a rusted, old bicycle leaning against a garage. True, this was the delightful handiwork of a resourceful and imaginative gardener, but the author got carried away and used this as yet another example of how the urban farming movement has a meaningful impact on the nation’s overall food supply.  As if four heads of lettuce were really going to have an impact on feeding the world!

This is a fine example of how our critics use the poetic verses of overly enthusiastic writers to belittle a creative, serious, and significant social movement. Of course, four heads of lettuce will not feed the world, but no one I know in urban agriculture is making such an absurd claim. This is a classic straw-man [sic] argument. The lettuce patch enthusiasts I know are not deluded enough to think they can feed the world. They have a much more modest and realistic goal, which is to feed themselves high quality, culturally appropriate, fresh and organic produce a good amount of the time and perhaps with enough to spare to exchange or share with friends, neighbors, or fellow enthusiasts.

Besides, this is never just about the food; it is about community and sense of place; it is about sharing the labor and the fruits of that labor. This, of course, has no obviously intrinsic economic value and perhaps this is why our critic, the ag economist, cannot understand the nature of this movement and is so easily drawn toward belittling its modest yet profoundly transformational accomplishments and future potential.

Four heads of lettuce may not feed the world but multiplied a thousand-fold they can sure help to feed a city. And if you can help feed a city, that leaves more of the rural farm product to feed the world; no? Less food destined for our cities means more for the rest of the world. Perhaps Mr. Hladik is not really serious about feeding the world with the additional rural agricultural surplus consequent as a side effect of a revitalized urban agriculture? If so, then I can only understand his commentary as a poorly reasoned example of corporate agribusiness agitprop. Oh wait!, Syngenta is a major sponsor of his web page. That about covers it.

But let’s take the argument seriously for a moment more, in order to deflate points that could become destructive urban myths; this is how they get started, no? Better to nip them in the bud before they grow to larger proportions and start misinforming the grant making community, among others. Let me turn to another facet of Hladik’s argument, for he seems very committed to ‘sustainability’ and has the air of someone able to present serious questions for our weighty consideration. He asks a good question but then follows through with an erroneous and preemptive response that reveals how little he seems to know about farming and agroecosystems:

What about the sustainability of urban farming in North America?   At any garden center there are mountains of topsoil available in convenient plastic bags and by the truckload. That soil does not just “happen;” it was once farmland that has forever been removed from productivity in its natural setting.

This is another straw-man argument. Most soil used in urban agriculture comes from urban compost piles; the University of Washington students keep one of these compost piles and it is so big they give the stuff away now. No one is going out into the countryside, under cover of dark or otherwise, to rob farms of their topsoil. First, why would they do that? Chances are most of those soils have already been plenty depleted by agribusiness monoculture ventures or are heavily contaminated with fertilizers and pesticides. If anything, urban farmers tend to be organic and they are not going after pesticide-ridden soil from bankrupt family farms or corporate monoculture plantations. The thought is anathema to us.

Anyone who thinks that topsoil for P-Patches comes from the national sacrifice zone of rural farms, now abandoned to satiate the pesky urban gardeners, surely must live on a different planet.

There is another problem with Hladik’s argument, one that is between the lines or in the subtext: When he waxes poetic that soil does not just “happen,” and once removed from the land it is lost forever, he appears to lack any understanding of how any wise rural farmer, using traditional polycultural and biodynamic methods, can constantly create and replenish the soil. I believe it could only be a contract grower, wed to monoculture practices, that can envision the idea of soil getting exported for cash, forever lost to the land, or eroding due to poor management associated with unsustainable industrial farming methods and practices.

Maybe agricultural economists do not understand the principles of soil formation. Hladik certainly seems completely unaware of the rich soil, pun intended, of ethnoedaphology (see my series on Sodbusters and the native gaze), which is based on evidence of how traditional, indigenous, or regenerative practices can actually produce and replenish the soil rather quickly. Many of the best holistic farmers maintain large compost piles and add manure and other natural materials to enrich and deepen their soil horizons. This is more than soil conservation it is actual soil formation.

A growing number of farmers are relying on biodynamic methods and the use of companion plants and inter-cropping planting patterns, which are by now legendary enough that I am left wondering how this once active farmer does not know of these things. Maybe Hladik sees the world through the lens of corporate monoculture, and that is a world where soil is being lost at an unsustainable rate. Under those conditions, I suppose I would also be eager to hold on to what is left. But this is not the reality for urban farmers who do not need to raid rural landowners for whatever remains of their topsoil.

Another revealing part of Hladik’s argument against urban agriculture as a strategy to feed ourselves (and by extension, the world) is apparent in his summary of the “big picture of national land use” in the U.S.  Hladik states that a mere 2.1 percent of land-use is urban and 19.5 percent is in farmland. That accounts for 21.6 percent.

What happens to the balance of 78.4 percent, or most of the land mass in the country? Does it count if other organisms, besides human beings, are using the land? Apparently not. In this version of land use accounting, nonhuman uses disappear. I am left wondering why.

Hladik is wed to the reductionist thinking of neo-liberal economics: If it is not subject to human use, then the land use is not worth counting. This is anthropocentrism of the worst type because urban and farm uses of the land are interconnected and not just in the sense of the evolving city-country relationship. Instead, human urban and rural activities affect other land uses including uses by other organisms that need land as habitat. In my estimation, there is no more important land use than habitat and yet in Hladik’s worldview this disappears completely; it is simply not worth counting.

But the data Hladik uses is also suspect to begin with. If we include the entire infrastructure of the built environment — buildings, roads, highways, bridges, canals, dams, transmission lines of the power grid, and yes, farms and their related physical plant — then the human footprint on the landscape is considerably larger than 2.1 or 21.6 percent of land use. One study reported by National Geographic places the total human footprint at 83 percent, leaving a mere 17 percent as non-urban and rural non-human.

Landscape ecologists are justifiably concerned and the study found that 20 percent of the continental U.S. land mass is within 500 meters of a paved road. This is the data Hladik should be working with rather than his simplistic binary of urban versus farm land use. Besides, it is not the percent of land dedicated to city or farm use that matters but rather how the city and farm fit within a web of relationships in the landscape ecology of places. A well-built city or a well-designed and managed farm can create habitat, promote biological linkages and connecting corridors to support the diversity of life on the planet and respect the resilience of ecosystems and watersheds.

Hladik continues this attack on urban agriculture by questioning the availability of appropriate land – he refers to “the quality of urban terrain [as] often [too] marginal for food production” [brackets added]. There is a contradiction here as well that goes back to one of my initial premises about the wisdom of urban farming:

…the world is a better place where cities do not spring up on prime farmland. Then there is the clutter of houses, schools, hospitals, roads, railways, office buildings, historic sights [sic], universities, airports, etc. where nothing can be planted. Realistically, I would be surprised if the food production potential of the available urban land would amount to even one percent of that available on conventional farms utilizing open fields, pastures and rangeland.

I agree that the world is, or would be, a better place if cities did not encroach on “prime farmland.” But this is one of the best arguments for making urban agriculture more viable and central to any strategy seeking to make cities more food self-sufficient and thus lessen urban pressures on the surrounding countryside. If people in cities can better feed themselves, you might even be able to convert some of the farmland back to wildlife habitat and restore broader ecological values. This possibility completely eludes Hladik.

The failure of his analysis extends to the demographic composition of urban farmers in the U.S. Hladik fails to understand who is doing much of the urban farming in the U.S. today. While belittling the lack of knowledgeable farmers in U.S. cities, he attempts to draw a distinction between the U.S. and so-called ‘developing’ countries:

…the presence of recent migrants with farming skills and household labor ability are quite different than in North America and, in such an environment, significant quantities of food are produced in urban settings.

This is quite simply inaccurate. Numerous studies demonstrate that immigrants comprise a major percentage of urban farmers. A good source to start looking at these studies is a recent dissertation by Professor Teresa Mares, “We Are Made of Our Food: Latino/a Immigration and the Practices and Politics of Eating.” There are many other studies demonstrating how Latin American, Asian, and African immigrants now comprise a significant force in urban agriculture — for example, the edited volume by Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman, Cultivating Food Justice.

Many of these immigrants are displaced farmers and so they bring the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful urban and periurban farmers. Indeed, several programs exist across the U.S. to assist such displaced farmers make the transition back to farm ownership and operation; a good example is just up the road from us, the Viva Farms project in Skagit County, north of Seattle.

Hladik ends his commentary on a predictably condescending note:

As hobbies go, gardening arguably tops the list of activities that provide exercise, exposure to nature and a sense of pride in producing fresh nutritious food. Furthermore, as all human indulgences have some impact on the environment, the guilty pleasure of using some topsoil or water from the hose to grow a bit of food is perfectly acceptable.  However, the bottom line is that urban farming is a myth when it comes to being a significant contributor to the nation’s food supply…. Gardeners everywhere – just get out there and enjoy yourselves and the bounty of your efforts. The burden of feeding the world, or even your community, should not be your concern.

Social scientific studies of urban agriculture in the U.S. illustrate that this is not just a hobby. For most immigrant and low-income families this is quite simply a matter of survival, of avoiding hunger and malnutrition. Urban farms feed families; they provide access to safe, more nutritious, and organic produce. Significantly, urban farms and gardens provide crops for food or medicine that may not be grown by agribusinesses in the surrounding countryside. This has been illustrated by numerous studies, including my own work (Link 2 at Acequia Institute) on the diversity of crops grown at the former South Central Farm in Los Angeles.

The need to re-establish viable urban agriculture is not a burden; it is a central raison d’être of the food justice movement. Most urban farmers realize they cannot feed the world, but they understand how urban agriculture can help cities feed themselves. This can reduce the impact of the city on the surrounding countryside, a benefit that we are certain even Mr. Hladik would find commendable. Perhaps the most significant benefit of urban farming is an opening toward the transformation of agriculture in rural areas. The agroecological practices common among urban farmers, like organic composting and biodynamic inter-cropping, many of them introduced by immigrants, hold important lessons for conventional farmers in the countryside.

There was a time when conventional agricultural economists like Hladik argued that organic farming was impractical and could not feed the world. They alleged that organic farming could not operate at the economies of scale required to feed the world. They were obviously mistaken and organic produce is now the fastest growing sector in agriculture, both domestic and abroad. Unfortunately, from the vantage point of food autonomy, organic methods have been too successful and the same large transnational agribusiness corporations that control conventional agriculture now dominate the organics sector.

Perhaps this time the co-optation of a progressive and grassroots movement will be avoided and urban agriculture will not only come to contribute to the rebuilding of more sustainable and equitable cities, it will help us feed ourselves and by extension the rest of the world, by simply allowing others to live simply, according to their own cultural traditions and foodways.

To avoid co-optation, U.S. urban agriculture communities need to support a massive program of land redistribution in urban and rural areas in the U.S. and abroad. Stolen land must be reoccupied and farmed or restored to habitat; indeed, we must practice the principle that farms can be re-made as habitat.  This is surely an idea that Mr. Hladik and his colleagues may not find comforting. Then again, a food revolution, as my friend Sandor Katz likes to say, will not be microwaved, and I will add, will not need the services of agricultural economists, and least of all the neo-liberal ideologues that have hitherto dominated our national conversation about sustainable agriculture.

• This article was first published at New Clear Vision.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. Read other articles by Devon G..