Urban Farms Sprout Across the Country
Gray asphalt and abandoned lots in cities are being turned into farms as city dwellers grow fruits and vegetables in the shadow of skyscrapers.
Red peppers dangle from staked plants, and rows of spinach burst from black earth. Ripe tomatoes weigh heavily on vines, as plump purple tomatillos sway in the wind. While this bounty could be growing nearly anywhere, the backdrop is unmistakable: the Manhattan skyline, which thrusts up behind the lush rows of this one-acre plot on a warehouse roof in Queens, New York.
Inspecting his crops, Ben Flanner, the 30-year-old head farmer at Brooklyn Grange Farm, takes hold of a bunch of greens and tugs, pulling up a bright-orange carrot. The dirt-streaked vegetable, like the rest of his produce, will make its way to a local restaurant or a farmers’ market. “I think it really makes sense to grow food close to where it’s consumed,” he says as he picks a spinach leaf, balls it up, and pops it into his mouth. The former E-Trade employee considered leaving New York to pursue his dream of becoming a farmer, but he didn’t really want to move. Instead, in 2009, he started Eagle Street Farm in Brooklyn, managing it for a year before planting his rooftop crops with a new team at Brooklyn Grange Farm. “There’s really nothing negative to say about urban farming. For me personally, this allows me to farm close to my community without having to leave the city.”
Similar farmsteads ranging from less than one acre to tens of acres are breaking ground in metropolises nationwide. On a one-acre lot in the heart of Chicago, 83 types of vegetables are growing; they include beets, arugula, kale, carrots, potatoes, and 30 tomato varieties. Detroit residents are getting their hands dirty in community gardens and market gardens, reclaiming the city’s many abandoned lots. A Philadelphia cooperative is sprouting produce that it sells at a nearby grocery store, and farm animals are running around yards in Oakland, California. Such operations may provide fresh local food to underserved communities, or sell veggies to tony restaurants. Although they don’t produce nearly as much food as their industrial counterparts, these urban farms do provide significant benefits: They reduce the miles food travels from farm to plate, cut down on rainwater runoff, and provide oases for insects, birds, and other wildlife. On top of that, they revitalize vacant lots, greening properties abandoned in the wake of industrial decay.
The trend harks back to World War II, when the federal government called on citizens to cultivate Victory Gardens in backyards and public spaces. Americans embraced the cause and planted 20 million plots. Today’s advocates argue that gardens next to large population centers make more sense than growing crops in large monoculture fields. “Cities are where the waste is, and that’s where the nutrition is. The food system can take the lead in a sustainability movement,” says Ken Dunn, who runs the nonprofit Resource Center and one of its programs, City Farm, a one-acre plot surrounded by busy Chicago streets. “The surge of urban agriculture can help us get back to our roots and find a healthy food system. It should sell food in the community and welcome school groups, not just be another industry that provides jobs.”
Sitting under a tent at City Farm, his black galoshes caked with chunks of food, Dunn is explaining why he started city farming 40 years ago. A strip mall and eight-story buildings abut the triangular plot just two miles from downtown Chicago and its towering skyscrapers. Verdant rows of lettuce stand out against asphalt streets abuzz with rushing cars. Dunn, who grew up in an Amish–Mennonite farming community, pursued a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Chicago. Then he set to work realizing his vision of a sustainable economy built on overlooked resources, such as empty lots, to create jobs and grow produce. Chicago, the third-largest metropolis in the United States, has as many as 20,000 acres of vacant land—half of which is city-owned, says Dunn. There are plenty of nutrients nearby to support crops. Any organic material, like food waste from restaurants or manure from horse stables used by the Chicago Police Department, can be turned into compost.
City Farm has two ongoing operations in Chicago, growing a combined 20,000 pounds of produce and providing three full-time jobs every year. The group leases the land from the city at the bargain price of $1 for 10 years. To ready the property, they put down a layer of clay and heaped compost on top, forming raised beds—a process that took about a week and cost about $50,000. Volunteers and students who take classes there sell the produce at farmers’ markets. Other clients include North Pond restaurant, which serves local, seasonal cuisine such as red-wine-braised cabbage and garlic scape mashed potatoes, and Frontera Grill, where celebrity chef Rick Bayless makes spicy salsa from City Farm’s habanero peppers. Three times a week Dunn personally drives his truck around to pick up organic waste from some of the same restaurants that buy the farm’s produce, hauling it to a composter. For him the slop sticking to his boots is a badge of honor. “In what other job can you see more than just a paycheck, but also a radish?” he asks. “Instead of grabbing space from development, we’re suggesting that agriculture work in the margins. We benefit from having these [lots] kept up and beautified.”