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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Return of the Urban Farm

Tracey D. Shiflett, AICP

A Brief History of Urban Farming

Urban farming is not a new concept in America. Up until the 1950's they were common in many communities.  I know from my own family history, my great grand parents raised chickens, grew vegetables and fruit and even made wine in a urban neighborhood in Staunton, Virginia.

According to the urban agriculture Wikipedia During World War II as many as 5.5 million Americans took part in the victory garden movement and over 9 million pounds of fruit and vegetables were grown a year, accounting for 44% of U.S.-grown produce throughout that time.

However the need and inclination to farm in urban areas declined as rural agricultural production increased with the advent of improved fertilizers and pesticides.  Also contributing to the decline in urban farming was better transportation efficiency and the availability of a wide variety of food in supermarkets.

Read More>Victory Gardens


Why are they farming?


There are two primary reasons for the renewed interest in urban farming.  The first is a growing concern about food purity. Every year there are news reports on food borne illnesses.  Additionally, many people are concerned about pesticide residue on their food.  Growth enhancement drugs, such as steroids and antibiotics are another concern.  Finally, many are concerned about the safety of genetically modified foods (GMO).

Read More>The Intensifying Debate Over Genetically Modified Foods

Entrepreneurs or "farmprenuers" as they are sometimes called,  are the second reason why urban farming is growing.  Seeing a growing demand by restaurants and consumers, these businesses are taking urban farming to a whole new level with innovative production techniques designed for the compact urban environment. Innovations include hydroponics, roof-top farming and vertical farming.

Read More>Two Young Entrepreneurs Get Their Hands Dirty With Urban Farming 


Who are urban farmers?


Many new urban farmers surprisingly did not grow up on a farm. They are by and large emigrants from the suburbs to cities.  This new breed of farmers are generally young; often millennials, and are from all walks of life. According to an article in MySA entitled Rooftop farms, millennials and the joys of all things urban an "estimated 94 percent of college graduates who in 2010 said they would prefer to live in urban areas".

Where are they farming?

Farming in a city is a real challenge because there is generally little available vacant land (Detroit excluded).  Land that is available is usually very expensive.  Therefore, urban farmers have to think differently about how to produce food.  They have to think compact and vertical.  Borrowing from  European concept of green roofs, urban farmers have made use of rooftops and walls for their planting needs.  
Rooftop Farm in Chicago
Farming on roofs poses several interesting challenges.  The roof must be able to take the weight of the dirt, water and building materials.  Also, the roof must be water tight.  Another challenge is access.  In many cases, the only way onto the roof is via a ladder or steps.  Which means that everything needed to farm must be carried up.  Likewise, produce has to be carried down.  

Additionally, rooftop farms are relatively small.  This means that a high level of plant density is needed in order to produce enough food to be worth while. 

While there is a lot more vertical space than rooftops in cities, vertical farming is not as wide spread as roof farming.  However, as new techniques and plant variates emerge, it is likely more vertical farms will be built.

Indoor farming is another option.  LED lighting has dramatically reduced the cost of growing food indoors.  In combination with hydroponics, very dense food production is possible.

What are they farming?

Because space is so limited in urban areas, most urban farmers grow vegetables and herbs. Most do not raise animals because they use anywhere from four to ten times the amount of space than do crops.  However, if animals are raised, chickens are the most popular animal to raise in urban areas.  The advantage that chickens have over other animals is that they can kept confined to relatively small pens. Moreover, chicken manure can be used as a fertilizer.

What's next?

In my upcoming posts, I will discuss urban farming from a public policy perspective.

Picture Credits:

National Public Radio: Rooftop Farming Is Getting Off The Ground

1 comment:

  1. Rabbits are another common urban livestock animal. They produce healthy protein dense meat and their manure can be applied directly to plants without fear of burning the plants.