Is the Urban Farming Movement Here to Stay?

Urban farming has the potential to help us take charge of the foods
we eat, green our cities, build community, and increase food security
for urban residents.

Everyday, there's articles about backyard chickens, bee keeping, or urban yard sharing. Clearly urban agriculture is at the top of the trend pile. But is it just a trend, or a part of a sustainable future?

Recently I attended a panel discussion in San Francisco
at The Commonwealth Club (presented by INFORUM), about how today's
urban farming movement began and where it's going. Attendees were
treated to a variety of perspectives from four pitchfork-toting
farmerpreneur leaders of the urban farming movement in the San
Francisco Bay Area.

Panelists included Jason Mark, co-manager of Alemany Farm; editor-in-chief, Earth Island Journal, Novella Carpenter, author of the book Farm City about her farm Ghost Town Farm, Christopher Burley, founder, Hayes Valley Farm, and David Gavrich (aka The Goat Whisperer), founder of City Grazing. The panel was moderated by Sarah Rich, writer; editor; co-founder, The Foodprint Project; and co-author, Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century.

The panel started off with a discussion about the most
recent "back to the land" movement and how it differed from today's
urban farming movement.

Back in the 60s and 70s young people migrated back to the
countryside to make a go of farming. Novella Carpenter's parents were
part of that movement. But it didn't last. People found that growing
food is very hard and rural life can be extremely isolating. The
motives of today's generation of farmers are different, and more
communitarian. They're not trying to drop out. They're trying to engage
more fully with the world around them.

"We're realizing that maybe there is a different way. We can stay in
the cities and grow food where we live and it can serve as a model for
sustainability, said Jason Mark. "There's not enough room for all of us
in Sonoma."

"We're all trying to find balance and bring the rural environment
into the urban environment. We're trying to find that niche that we
live in. Everyone who plants a seed is sowing a bit of sustainability,"
added Chris Burley.

Though the movement is young, things are changing rapidly. According
to David Gavrich, the goat whisperer. When his business, City Grazing,
put an ad in Craigslist for "goat herder, San Francisco," they got 200
applications, and half of the applicants actually had goat experience.
According to Gavrich, "people are yearning to get away from their

Urban farming does seem to be helping to revitalize neighborhoods
and foster community. For example, Burley, of Hayes Valley Farm, who
was featured here
in a Q & A a couple of weeks back said that he was amazed to find
that 50 people will consistently show up on a Thursday to shovel horse
manure for four hours. Sunday work parties regularly attract 100 folks.

Jason Mark says, "community is what distinguishes this from the back
to the land movement." Alemany Farm is completely volunteer run and
over the years has built up a core group of volunteers that are friends
and together make up a vibrant community.

For Novella Carpenter, the community happened more by accident. Her
farm begin as a personal project but has evolved into one in which
neighbors are involved in various ways. The involvement started with
people picking her produce without permission. Describing herself as
"not a do-gooder" but saying that. "If my neighbors are hungry and I
know how to grow food how can I not feed them?" she says, "everybody
gives what they can." This includes everything from the wagon proffered
by the neighbor who likes her mustard greens to goat butchering lessons
from the Yemeni liquor store owner.

What about bureaucratic hurdles to farming in urban areas?

They do exist but each panelist had different experiences. Gavrich
has said he's had no problems in enlightened San Francisco but
recommends anticipating problems and getting everything in writing. He
has a "goat clause" in his agreement with the railroad line he
maintains stating that all landscape is done by natural means.

Mark echoes that San Francisco has been extremely supportive and
that the mayor has laid out a food policy proposal that is sweeping and
visionary. He does cite "getting the city staff to connect with the
mayor's policies" as a hurdle.

Burley said that the city came to his group to develop Hayes Valley
Farm, so they have the full blessing and support from the authorities.
He also said that a bottom- up approach to urban farming that utilizes
people's backyards has worked.

Most of the panelist agreed that policy changes that support urban
farming are important because (though many of the non-profit farms and
farms located in private backyards don't run into problems) when an
urban farm is commercialized, all it takes is one neighbor to complain
about commercial activity in a residential area for a farmer to get

And as Burley said, "We need to advocate for farms in residential areas because 60 percent of land is in people's yards."

Can urban farming help us rebuild our food systems and increase food security?

Urban farming can certainly increase access to fresh fruits and
vegetables to city dwellers but we need to look at how the food is
distributed and find creative ways to get the food to the people who
most need it. The most sustainable way of all to provide food is to
teach people how to grow their own.

For example, Alemany Farm is right next to public housing. The farm
runs youth programs and provides plots to nearby residents where they
can grow their own food. The farm once held a farmers market where
nearby residents could purchase produce on a sliding scale. The farm is
no longer allowed to sell the food, which means they have to give it
away. Yet all the panelists agree that a charity model is too top-down
and not sustainable.

Things are shifting as policy makers realize that urban farming can
be both a green solution to city ills and perhaps even a green jobs
solution. Novella Carpenter is working on a project in San Lorenzo that
is part of the city's green job training program and is funded by the
sheriff's department.

All panelists agreed that the movement needs to network, share
information and resources and build the system from the ground up.

According to Chris Burley, an urban agriculture alliance is forming.
And indeed for urban agriculture to ever become more than isolated
individuals working on scattered city plots, we need concerted
organization efforts that can both demand and work with government

Panelists were asked what role education plays in the movement.

Chris Burley says it's crucial. In fact Hayes Valley Farm's mission
is not even so much to produce food, but to serve as an urban
agriculture resource that provides education and advocates behavioral
changes. "We can't change what we don't know. We need to become more
aware of our impact. Food is the gateway drug to a more sustainable
lifestyle. Through learning about food, little by little, we'll become
more connected and thrive as a community," said Burley.

Novella and her co-worker/owners run an urban farming store at Biofuel Oasis
in Berkeley. All day they educate people on beekeeping, chicken coops
and more. They teach classes on bee and goat keeping, preserving, and
other topics as well. With a trend like urban farming, it is necessary
to make sure people know what they are getting into or the movement
will not develop in a sustainable way.

I wonder if the Internet existed during the 60s and 70s, giving
people access to information and ready support from fellow travelers,
if the back-to-the-land movement might have survived.

In conclusion: here are the panelist's best 60-second ideas to change the world.

David Gavrich - "Get leadership and political people to think
holistically. Think about the impact beyond what we see. Look at
externalities. If we do that, it will be clear that we'll be better off
farming in our communities."

Chris Burley - "Crop mob. Get together and transform a backyard. Have a potluck."

Novella Carpenter - "Every city should have a demo farm. It could be
a cool tourist thing with a person managing it and showing people how
to raise chickens and bees and how to can and process vegetables. There
should be an 'office of urban farming.'"

Jason Mark - "Find a little bit of land and a little water, find a
friend and find someone to help. Connect with you neighbors doing the
same thing. Personal actions alone don't do it. Progress happens

Originally published on EcoSalon

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