COMMENTARY: Urban farming is an urban myth
Editor’s Note by Rich Keller: This opinion article below is written by Maurice Hladik, author of Demystifying Food from Farm to Fork. He grew up on a farm in western Canada and was an active farmer into his early adult years. He earned two degrees in agricultural economics, served as an agricultural diplomat in several countries and also worked for an international agricultural company. Hladik explains how some activist are completely off base to suggest growing food in urban settings will have real impact on feeding the world as the population increases. It would require a widespread starvation situation in the U.S. and Canada before those who think it would be good for urban gardens to actually try to grow 1/16 of an acre of food crops, and then most of them would fail miserably.
By Maurice Hladik
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!
First a little disclosure – I spend many happy hours in my half-acre urban garden attempting to grow raspberries, cherries, pears, apples, hazelnuts, kiwis, tomatoes, zucchinis, etc. with varying degrees of success where I once had lawns. Unfortunately, natural maples (I also harvest the syrup) have matured and rendered my fruit trees unproductive in recent years. Furthermore, squirrels, groundhogs, and birds, including gold finches and the occasional wild turkey, share my harvest. As enjoyable as my hobby is, highlighted by more tomatoes than we can possibly eat or preserve over six weeks, my efforts have little impact on our family’s food requirements, although relatives, friends and neighbors do appreciate my fleeting bounty. This year has been a disaster; a hail storm has left my veggies a tattered mess. Indeed, to compare my gardening effort to farming would be akin to elevating a stamp collector to postmaster.
Taking a look at the big picture of national land use places the movement in perspective. The US landmass is classified at 2.1 percent urban and 19.5 percent cultivated farmland (pasture and rangeland are not included). While the farmland is 100 percent dedicated to and capable of producing food, the urban landscape was originally selected because of a natural harbor or other factors usually related to convenient transportation. Thus, the quality of the urban terrain is often marginal for food production. Indeed, 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, 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.