Commentary: Urban farming topic strikes a chord

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A little over two weeks ago, AgProfessional posted an editorial from Maurice Hladik, who claimed that urban farming is an urban myth. This editorial garnered several responses from people debating the need for urban farming vs. the greed of giant agribusinesses. 

The responses were varied and yet many brought up the same issues again and again. To read the original commentary, click here. A synopsis of the comments AgProfessional received are listed below. My response to the comments are in italics.

1. Anyone who speaks against urban farming as the potential to feed the world is either misguided or misinformed or both.

Not everyone is going to agree with the merits of urban farming, but that is why this is a free country and people have the choice to farm or not. People who choose to farm in the city are not superior to farmers in the country. This elitist attitude will not garner the spirit of cooperation needed to truly feed the world.

2. The burden of feeding the world is not solely the job of agribusiness. It is the job of every person. Big Ag cannot feed the world alone. Urban farming is part of the solution.

Agribusiness is in the best position to offer large amounts of healthy, nutritious food to the world. If these companies had not pioneered methods and products to help farmers improve the way they farm, all of us would not be free to choose jobs other than farming. Not everyone wants to farm. Thanks goes to large farming operations and agribusiness because not everyone has to devote their entire lives to producing their own food to survive. Although there is a place for urban farming, until the culture of the United States changes, most people will not be returning to a mostly agrarian lifestyle.

3. Everyone should emulate various models of urban farming, including Russia, where 51 percent of the nation’s food supply is produced by small family farms; the Growing power model; Occupy the Dirt; and other movements.

People in Russia had to have small family farms because under their government’s regime, there was not enough food to go around. They had to have these farms or they starved. Romanticizing their efforts is misguided. Multiple models of getting “off the grid” and growing one’s own food so as not to be reliant upon others are easy to find, but hard to implement without a significant change in lifestyle, which most in the United States are not ready or prepared for.

4. Urban ag feeds the hungry, educates urban populations about where their food comes from, examines and changes food policy and offers environmental remediation. It promotes local agriculture.

Conventional agriculture also feeds the hungry, teaches urban populations and children where food comes from. For example, the Mid America Crop Life Association has an Ambassador Program where people who work in agriculture volunteer their time to go into classrooms and teach children where food comes from. The idea that only urban farmers, organic farmers or local farmers can teach about agriculture is absurd.

5. Traditional agriculture promotes and perpetuates the problems of our food system.

That issue is a matter of perspective. Thanks to advances in modern, conventional agriculture, this country has not seen a return to the Dust Bowl in a year of significant drought that is comparable to the 1930s. Yes, this country has experienced significant drought, but there have not been reports of dust storms destroying fertile croplands like in the 1930s. That is due to improved efforts of farming including conservation methods that protect the soil and create wind breaks, to name a couple.

6. Urban farming allows people to have control or engage in one’s food and health system. People have a right to grow their own food independently.

Conventional farming allows farmers to control their own food. Many conventional farmers will tell you how proud they are to grow food. No one is claiming to take away anyone’s right or ability to grow a garden. Like many things in this country, it is everyone’s responsibility to choose the best foods for themselves.

7. Unique and alternative approaches to growing food should be celebrated and lauded. Conventional methods are old, environmentally unfriendly and totally uncool.

The idea that conventional agriculture is suddenly uncool is untrue. Just take a look at the two YouTube videos posted this summer by young farmers. The first video, “I’m Farming and I Grow It,” was a parody of “I’m Sexy and I Know It.” Those three brothers’ video received more than 6.5 million views and made the mainstream media circuit including “Good Morning, America!” The second video, “Farm It Maybe” has received more than 694,000 views. These young farmers have captured the spirit of farming life in a cool, unique and fun way that also has crossed over in appeal to mainstream America.

8. World War II Victory Gardens produced more than 40 percent of people’s food at the time. Urban farming is economical.

Similar to Russia’s family farms, World War II Victory Gardens were out of necessity during a time when food was scarce due to war. Agriculture is in the business of looking forward. A return to old style methods and ideologies seems backwards and counterproductive. However, home gardens can and do provide an alternative food source during the summer and early fall months. Urban farming is a poor substitute for food during the winter months, which many pro-urban farming proponents seem to neglect mentioning.

9. Feeding the world has to be sustainable. “Furthermore, feeding the world should be about empowerment and sovereignty of individual countries and communities to be able to feed themselves instead of dependent on strangers from thousands of miles away. … It's definitely not sustainable to spray massive pesticides, utilize GMO's, and make thousands of people dependent instead of independent.”

Traditional agribusiness is becoming more sustainable as technology and enhancements improve farmers’ understanding of caring for crops. Many conventional farms have been in their families for multiple generations. Conventional farms allow many people to lead independent lives away from farm fields and food production. Thanks to genetically modified crops, fewer crop protection chemicals are being used. The more toxic crop protection chemicals are being phased out of production, and the Environmental Protection Agency is approving products for use that are the most environmentally friendly that the industry has ever seen.

10. Urban agriculture threatens giant agribusiness corporations who only want people to buy their heavily marketed, nutritionless products.

It is everyone’s choice as to what food to buy. No one is twisting anyone’s arm when they go to the grocery store or farmer’s market. Agribusiness is not threatened by urban agriculture. In fact, conventional farmers are a great resource for urban agriculturalists to use for learning the intricacies of growing food. In the end, we all need food to survive.

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Roxanne Christensen    
Philadelphia, PA  |  August, 10, 2012 at 10:16 AM

Urban ag vs. conventional ag is a false debate perpetuated by those who only see urban ag as a movement. To realize its potential, urban ag needs to be recognized and developed as a market. It needs to be professionalized, and those who understand this are practicing a new farming system called SPIN-Farming, which greatly reduces the amount of land needed for commercial crop production, allowing farmers to enter the profession without owning much, if any land initially, and allowing them to locate close to markets. These professional urban farmers are synergistic with conventional farmers, with each filling a need the other can't. For one to be right, the other does not have to be wrong. Both need to be a part of the future of American agriculture, and we should get beyond one-sided attacks and defensive responses and start discussing how they can work together in a meaningful way.

Hladik  |  August, 11, 2012 at 12:32 PM

I was not trying to discredit urban farmers in my earlier article that triggered so many opposing comments but was just attempting to stir up a little controversy on a subject that may need a bit of a reality check. Urban farming and gardening is a great initiative but what I was trying to communicate is that the productive capacity of the available urban land will not make a significant difference in feeding many people. It is a great movement, just farmland challenged with a few outspoken players who relish bashing conventional agriculture and do not appreciate this fundamental limitation on how much food can be produced. For example, the gold standard of urban farmers is the Victory Garden movement during the food challenged days of World War II. According to the USDA, at its peak, there were some 20 million Victory Gardens using city parks and a whole lot of lawns to produce nine to 10 million tons of fruit and vegetables per year. While an incredibly impressive effort, this is about three times the current annual apple harvest in Washington State, which is but one farm product from a single state. Looking at the contribution on a national scale, the urban gardens of World War II would have supplied about 1.5 pounds of produce per person per week for the entire US population of today, or enough calories for about three hours of energy every seven days. Finally, I was surprised that most of the comments on my article were intended to discredit me as a person and there was so little attempt to demonstrate that my facts were wrong. Maurice Hladik Author of “Demystifying Food From Farm to Fork”

Roxanne Christensen    
Philadelphia, PA  |  August, 13, 2012 at 01:28 PM

Maurice-- You are right that Victory Gardens are not a serious model for agriculture. SPIN farms, though garden-sized, are operated as commercial enterprises. They produce consistently, in significant volume for their scale, and at commercial grade, and can generate $50k+ gross from 20,000 square feet. So their income makes farming viable as a small business in cities and towns. They won’t replace big ag, but they can compliment it by providing cornerstones of locally-based farm economies that will provide business opportunity and increased food security.

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