The Growth of Urban Farming


Fed up with an unsafe, inefficient global food system, young urbanites are taking matters into their own hands.



Many recent articles on the U.S. economic and political climate have suggested that we are living through a recrudescence of the worst parts of the 1970s: record-high gas prices, an unpopular and seemingly endless war, record-low trust in government, rising inflation, etc. But one similarity between the 70s and today that has been overlooked is the attempt by some to create an alternative to the dominant economic and ecological structures by advocating a return to farm work. The comparison is not exact. While the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s performed agriculture-related jobs on rural communes and cooperative farms, today's agrarian movement is more urban and individualistic. It's also a sign of things to come. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 15% of the world's food is now grown in urban areas. Welcome to the new frontier: city-based farm jobs.


Of course not all urban agriculture produces both food and full-time agricultural jobs. For many, urban and peri-urban farming consists of a backyard, balcony, or roof-top garden; a larger neighborhood or community garden; or an urban homestead dedicated to conservation and self-sufficient living. Even backyard chicken coops are gaining popularity in major urban centers, and many magazines and how-to books have appeared recently to assist the metro chicken farmer. The growth and utilitarian nature of urban farming is signified by a surprising statistic: in 2006, for the first time in over 50 years, sales of vegetable seeds exceeded those of flowers.


The jump from growing some carrots and peas or raising a few chickens to working full-time or even part-time agriculture jobs is a big one, but it's a leap that a growing number of urbanites and young professionals are willing to make. That's partially due to a growing awareness of the vulnerability and inefficiency of a global food system in which salmonella and E. coli outbreaks are becoming disturbingly common. Authors like Sandor Ellix Katz, Eric Schlosser, and Michael Pollan have also raised awareness of food content, the ethics of eating, and the social and environmental impact of food transportation and industrial-based jobs in agriculture.


The growing market demand for organic food has helped to create career opportunities for entry-level farmers. From 2000 to 2005, the amount of land in the U.S. dedicated to certified organic farming more than doubled. Yet even so, organizations like the Organic Trade Association have acknowledged that they are unable to keep up with consumer demand for organic products.


Measuring the impact this trend has had on the creation of urban or organic ag jobs is difficult, because many young professionals who choose to pursue such agriculture careers are doing so on a small scale, working 50 or 100 acres and selling their produce to local stores or at farmers' markets. In New York, for example, there were 735 certified organic farms in 2007, but the Department of Agriculture and Markets estimates there are three to five times as many organic farmers who chose not to be certified. The USDA also reports that many states in the Northeast have little cropland but a large concentration of market gardeners working at agricultural or horticultural jobs.


The ideological connection that urban farming shares with the traditional American character suggests that this trend, however large, will only continue to grow. From Thoreau's 1840s experiment at Walden Pond to the aspiring farmers of Jack London's 1913 novel The Valley of the Moon to today's urban agriculturalists, the real distance between city and country has always been smaller than we've imagined.


--Joshua Avram

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