Agriculture’s Next Frontier

Early Girl and Celebrity tomatoes hang ripe and ready. Swollen pods of beans cover lima plants. The deep orange shoulders of carrots poke out of the ground in long rows. Collards, black-eyed peas, and okra stand up in their fullness against the din of this urban world.

‘Do you know where you are?’ two Los Angeles police officers ask me. ‘I think so,’ I reply, somewhat confused by their question. ‘Do you really know where you are?’they ask again. ‘Do you realize that these two blocks are the two most violent blocks in the entire city of Los Angeles?’

I am standing on the corner of 103rd and Grape in Watts, in a three-acre garden. Half of the land is devoted to small private plots farmed mostly by Hispanic families. Their gardens are filled with foods from Mexico, from Central and South America: tall milpa corn, dry beans, hot chili peppers, epizote, verdulaga, alfalfa, and various squashes. The other half of this land is a market garden planted in okra, black-eyed peas, lima beans, carrots, tomatoes, collard greens, cucumbers, and squash: foods from the American South grown for the African American community that lives next door in the Jordan Downs housing project.

This is a community with an average per capita income of $8,000 a year, a neighborhood where more than 50 percent of the male population is unemployed.

One hundred miles to the north, floating in a sea of tract homes and shopping centers, is a small farm where I live and work. Most of my neighbors are employees of Raytheon, Applied Magnetics, Santa Barbara Research, and Delco–the companies that designed the ‘smart’bombs used during the Persian Gulf and Kosovo wars. Here the average income is $65,000 a year, each home has at least two cars, and crime is virtually nonexistent.

Our farm produces a hundred different fruits and vegetables: avocados, mandarins, peaches and plums, tomatoes, peppers, melons, corn, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, berries, and herbs. We also provide nourishment of a less tangible nature through tours and educational programs we offer the community. The land is located in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country, saved from development and preserved by the community through a conservation easement, protected in perpetuity for future generations.

I have farmed this land organically for the past 20 years, actively involved with the national movement to return to a more sensible and ecological way of producing food. But the truth is that most organic food is available only to a narrow segment of our society–those who can afford it. The food from our farm is no exception. And while we struggle to reach out to lower-income communities, the economic realities of our own survival require that we grow white asparagus and French beans and baby artichokes to help pay the bills and occasionally sell to upscale restaurants that can pay a premium for our efforts.

Jobs and fresh food do not exist in most low-income urban communities. The open field at 103rd and Grape in Watts was a chance to provide a little of both.

We load two tractors, a disc, a mower, a rototiller, a subsoiler, and other equipment onto a semi-truck for our agricultural journey to Watts. The driver is hesitant, and everyone I encounter seems to offer advice or a casual warning: ‘You can’t farm in the middle of the city’or ‘Isn’t it dangerous down there?’

In two days, our farm crew and local community members remove 20,000 pounds of asphalt, old wiring, hubcaps, trash, rubble, bones, hypodermic needles, old dolls, and tires. The hum of urban life circulates around the perimeters of the garden. Boom boxes blast, cars and trucks cruise by, groups of kids pass by on their way to and from school, people openly smoke crack on a nearby corner.

Directly across the street at Mama’s Place, a small graffiti-covered restaurant with bars on its windows, people in cars come and go constantly. At first I think that they must have good food; later I find out that other things are served up there.

In contrast to the suburban world we come from, the streets here are alive. Groups of kids stop by to see if they can help. Moms with little ones in tow hang on the fence wanting to know what we’re doing, and a burgundy Mercedes with tinted windows cruises back and forth, checking us out. A chain-link fence surrounding the garden provides the illusion of security from vandalism and theft.

Within a few months the fence is cut and a 40-foot container with six-inch steel walls is broken into. Everything is stolen: 600 feet of PVC pipe, 30,000 feet of irrigation tape, market tables and awnings, construction materials, chippers, shovels, rakes, hoes. The container is emptied, yet the produce in the gardens remains untouched–not a single tomato is gone.

At three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon I’m doing an informal survey. I ask several of the local kids who come by the produce stand we have set up near the housing project what they have had to eat that day. One kid tells me a corn dog. I ask him if that was it for the whole day and he says yes. I’m pretty sure it’s not enough to nourish a growing body. Other kids provide similar reports: chips, a piece of bread, a candy bar, a Coke. I send each one off with a bunch of carrots. They stuff the carrots in their back pockets and I watch them as they walk off, carrot tops dancing out of their pants. I wonder if they will eat them. Older black women come by and are in ecstasy over the collards and fresh beans. They sample watermelons still warm from the heat of the field and argue with each other over okra recipes.

A quiet revolution is stirring in our food system. It is not happening so much on the distant farms that still provide us with the majority of our food: It is happening in urban neighborhoods, suburbs, and small towns. It has evolved out of a basic need to know our food and to have some sense of control over its safety and its security. It is a new agricultural revolution that provides poor people with a safety net, an opportunity to provide nourishment and income for their families. And it offers an oasis for the human spirit where urban people can gather, preserve something of their heritage through the native seeds and foods they’ve brought from other places, and teach their children about food and the earth.

The revolution is taking place in small gardens, under power lines, on rooftops, at farmers’ markets, and in the most unlikely of places. It is a movement with the potential to affect a number of social issues–economic justice, environmental quality, personal health, community empowerment, and cultural connection. It also plays an important role in the battle against human hunger. It is especially important for the world’s poor, a majority of whom now live in cities.

Hunger and malnutrition affect approximately 800 million people worldwide. Earth’s capacity to feed exploding populations using current industrial methods is reaching its limits. Urban poor who live far from the source of their food, and who already spend as much as 80 percent of their income on food, are extremely vulnerable.

But there are reasons for hope. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are receiving at least some of their nourishment from urban gardens. In the city of Accra in Ghana, 90 percent of the vegetables consumed are grown within the city. In Poland, 30 percent of urban families farm almost a million plots, and in the Netherlands, 33 percent of total agricultural production is from urban lands. In Calcutta, the composted soils of old garbage dumps are being used for food production, providing employment for approximately 25,000 people.

Coming into almost any European city by train, you see nearly every square foot of land along the tracks planted in small plots, often with a little shed and a couple of chairs. In Berlin, families work 80,000 of these small ‘allotment’gardens around the city, with 16,000 more people on the waiting list. Freiburg, a city of 200,000 in Germany’s Black Forest, boasts 4,000 gardens, adding 300 to 400 a year. These primarily recreational gardens provide fresh food for city dwellers–on land that in most U.S. cities would be vacant except for litter and chain-link fences. But things are changing. The urban agriculture movement is expanding in America, as neighbors gather together to clear trash and rubble from abandoned lots and grow food.

Urban farms in the United States can produce 15 times more per acre than their rural counterparts. Small plots in some of the most rundown neighborhoods in America’s cities are producing herbs, flowers, and specialty vegetables that are being sold to upscale restaurants and at local farmers’ markets. This trend has the potential to create thriving cottage industries and community-based economies that would put income directly into the pockets of those most in need, at the same time recycling waste and enhancing urban environments.

Until the 1950s, 98 percent of the fertilizer used to grow food in China came from recycled and organic sources. Public toilets even had signs encouraging passersby to stop and make a deposit. Contractors paid large sums to collect this ‘night soil’to compost and use on local farms. In the United States we spend millions of dollars constructing and maintaining sophisticated sewage systems, which then pollute our oceans and rivers while our soils are suffering from an ever-increasing fertility deficit. New York City alone receives 20,000 tons of food each day via an army of trucks and ships and airplanes. Thirteen thousand tons of solid waste are hauled away each day–as much as 40 percent made up of valuable organic matter.

Relatively little organic waste is returned in any usable way to the land from which most food is grown. When soil nutrients are exported from our lands and replaced with manufactured petroleum-based fertilizers, neither people nor the land are ever properly nourished. Cities could separate the organic matter out of that waste, convert it into soil-enriching compost, and distribute it onto local lands.

In California’s arid central valley, where a majority of the fruits and vegetables consumed domestically are still produced, water is transported hundreds of miles or pumped hundreds of feet from deep aquifers to irrigate, labor is brought in hundreds of miles from Mexico, and food is shipped an average of 1400 miles from the fields to its urban destinations. Vast amounts of energy, fossil fuel, and packaging are required to feed our cities, when cities could–at least partially–feed themselves.

Along with the economic and environmental advantages that growing food in the city can provide, the exploding urban food production movement has other benefits that reach all levels of society. Fresh, locally grown food is essential for good health. As supermarkets flee low-income inner-city communities, fresh food is often not available, and the diets of poorer residents are dictated by limited availability.

Even greater is the potential for urban plots to provide a much-needed psychological boost to people who live in urban areas devoid of trees, plants, and soil. Reconnecting to the earth and to the natural process of growing food has a well-documented balancing effect on the human psyche. Having personal control over their source of nourishment empowers urban dwellers who have become totally dependent on the industrial food system.

In Philadelphia, Alta Felton starts her seedlings in late winter indoors and worries that they are vulnerable to the draft coming through her broken window. She proudly points out that she and her neighbors always ‘grow a little extra to feed the poor’in the community’s Garden of Eatin’. Her sense of abundance is real. Her commitment to community endures even under the most difficult of conditions.

Approximately 12,000 publicly owned lots sit vacant in New York City, enough land to provide jobs and produce food for thousands of people. Most abandoned lots require major cleanup before they can be used to grow food. Debris must be removed, and the soil often is contaminated with asbestos, lead, and other toxic materials from previous buildings or from illegal dumping. In some cases, the soil must be completely removed and replaced. Most of the technical advice and capital input for urban agriculture comes from private organizations.

Many urban gardeners and farmers have only temporary use of land, and their future is always at the mercy of the city and the landowner. Too often, urban gardens get caught up in the frenzy of skyrocketing urban land values. In New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to auction off 114 community gardens to the highest bidder. The gardens were saved only by public outcry and an eleventh-hour, $4.2 million purchase by two private nonprofit organizations. In San Francisco, the Bartol Intergenerational Garden at the On Lok Senior Center started life on a ground-floor lot. When a high-rise was built on the site, the garden was moved up eight stories to the roof. Today this small rooftop Eden continues to produce a healthy array of Chinese vegetables and fruits for the residents who tend it.

Across the country, conservation easements (which saved my farm in suburban Santa Barbara), land trusts, and creative win/win arrangements between landowners and urban communities are beginning to give farmers a means to stay on their farms even in booming real estate markets.

Americans have come to believe that food comes from distant farms far from the places where most of us now live and work. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. A vibrant and productive urban agriculture that provides fresher food, a stronger connection to nature, and the satisfaction of growing the food we feed our families is not a utopian dream.

Many elements necessary for urban agriculture are already in place. This movement does not require construction of expensive facilities, the destruction of existing buildings, or new transportation networks. The land, the people, and the cultural knowledge already exist to make it happen. All that stands in the way is the lack of political support and a shared vision of how we can transform our cities into biologically and culturally alive gardens.

Michael Ableman has farmed 12 acres of land in Goleta, California, for the past 20 years. He is the founder and director of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens and the author of two books–From the Good Earth: A Celebration of Growing Food Around the World (Abrams, 1993) and On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm (Chronicle Books, 1998). Ableman is the subject of the new film Beyond Organic which will air nationally on PBS in the spring of 2001. From Earth Island Journal (Autumn 2000). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues) from 300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133.

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