An urban farming revival is sweeping across the United States, sparking a flood of conversation, and sometimes conflict, among communities large and small. Some regard urban farming as the hope of the future, while others target it as an elitist pastime of hipsters. While many agree that the food system in the United States is broken, there’s difficulty when it comes to making a consensus about the nature of the breakage, and how best to fix it. Urban farming is one possible approach, if it can be done well.
The discussion sparked by urban farming opens up an opportunity to talk about food politics in the United States, as well as the race and class issues tied up in food security and who has opportunities to participate in urban farming. As a core necessity, food represents a sum greater than its parts, and becomes an axis of a much larger conversation about autonomy for marginalised communities.
Some coverage of urban farming acts as though it’s an entirely shocking and new concept when this isn’t actually the case. People have been producing food in urban environments for centuries. With the development of crowded tenements at the turn of the 20th century it became more difficult for people to grow their own food, and some turned to markets for the bulk of their food supplies, but not all did.
For that matter, even the government has been involved in urban farming. In the Second World War, ‘victory gardens,’ a form of urban farming, were widely promoted and heavily used. Used as a combination food security, propaganda, and community-building tool, some victory gardens were quite large and productive, and included people who hadn’t been involved in food production before.
And in low-income communities, urban farming has always been present to some extent. Thus it’s surprising that in the current battle in numerous cities over ordinances prohibiting livestock or cracking down on farming, people seem to be forgetting that one of the reasons these ordinances were passed in the first place was to push ‘undesirables,’ like immigrants producing their own food, out of the community. The historical context of urban farming becomes important when discussing its present and future; the concept was not, in fact, invented by white hipsters.
Local food production has a number of clear benefits, which is why urban farming has become more popular as people work to increase awareness of the possibilities. It can be more cost-effective as well as environmentally friendly to produce food locally and independently, and urban farms also provide a mechanism that connects people with the source of their food. In an era where many urban dwellers have never actually seen vegetables growing, urban farms allow people to learn about food sources; and they may provide nutrition education as well, allowing to learn about how to use the food they’re producing.
Urban farming can increase the sense of independence, especially in low-income communities, and may create access to fresh foods where none was available. Detroit in particular has seen a renaissance of urban farms as people take over empty lots and convert them to agricultural purposes. Urban farms can turn into community hubs, making them organising and gathering spaces that empower members of a community—especially when they are the ones setting up and managing their farms.
The potential community benefits of urban farming are vast, as such gathering spaces can extend far beyond farming. At many urban farms, people meet for educational sessions covering a range of topics, including trainings in useful skills, radical book clubs, and other activities. Members of urban farming collectives, as well as volunteers, may find that farming becomes an entry to radical politics as they learn more about the food system and the interconnected web that capitalism has drawn around it.
There are also issues with urban farming, which are often glossed over in conversations about its capacity as a tool for social change. One is the sense of white saviour complex which can hang heavy over some installations, where outsiders enter a community as ‘teachers.’ They may not consider the context in which they are operating, and do not necessarily work with the members of the communities they’re ‘helping.’ This can create divides and tensions, rather than the desired spirit of cooperation and interdependence.
When people of different classes and racial groups impose their values on communities in the guise of assisting them, it’s a grim reminder of the legacies of colonialism. These ‘urban farms’ become nothing more than playthings for people who want to boast a sense of social awareness, rather than tools created by their own communities. Many are established with a lack of cultural sensitivity; urban farms may be producing foods people don’t traditionally eat or know how to use, for example, or the values promoted at a farm don’t mesh with those of the community.
Some white, middle class urban farmers also evoke a specific ideal of urban farming, one that is pretty and neat and organised, with chicken coops costing thousands of dollars and neatly arranged containers or beautifully dug beds with crisply maintained edges. Urban farming can be messy, may involve the use of scrap and donated material by people making do with what they have. As a collective endeavor, it sprawls outside of borders and lines, and not necessarily in an artfully deliberate way.
The sanitised, hipster version of urban farming is so far from the reality, and the necessity, that it can be offputting to people who are struggling for acceptance of urban farming in settings where this kind of high-gloss version of farming is not an option. City councils, for example, may use such farms as a model of what urban farms are supposed to look like, making it impossible for low-income groups to start their own farms because they lack the finances to establish a plot that will meet city ordinances.
There are also space issues in many urban areas, where it can be hard to install urban farms because there isn’t enough room. Owners of empty lots are not necessarily willing to see them converted into farms, even temporarily, and the lots may contain heavily contaminated soil. Soil testing is a requirement in most areas, and this can be very costly, another potential barrier for urban farmers. If the soil is contaminated, people may need to seek a different site or create enclosed beds. This requires the construction of containers and the use of safety measures to ensure that people don’t get sick eating the very goods they farm, adding cost and labour to the investment needed for an urban farm.
Urban farmers are facing sneaky barriers like Monsanto’s steady takeover of the seed supply in the US, which is stripping individual farmers of autonomy and the ability to save and exchange seeds. With a recent move to purchase a number of seed companies that specialize in home gardening and small farming cultivars, the firm heavily controls the distribution mechanism in agriculture from industrial to the fire escape garden.
Urban farms can become a form of resistance for those who work through seed exchanges to cultivate, save their own seeds, and develop independent from Monsanto. But they can also become victims of large seed companies, by unwittingly purchasing their products and walking into legal traps; Monsanto has a long history of aggressively suing for patent violations, creating situations where people incur legal liability simply for growing something. There can be a fast learning curve as people enter urban farms and start learning about the complex social and political issues going on around them, such as restrictions on so-called ‘cottage foods’ produced at home and on small urban farms that make it hard to sell them at farmers’ markets and other venues.
As a pathway to food independence, urban farms have huge potential. Some are models of sustainability and effectiveness, involving members of a community working together to create the garden they want and need, reaching out to people in the area to offer food education, fresh produce, and more. Others are nothing more than idealistic experiments with no real foundation; there is a potential for truly radical politics in urban farming, but that requires pushing through fears, both among the community at large and among the people working on the farm.
Urban farming is very much an example of the underclass taking control of a system that has been used for abuse; people are yanking power away from the hands of corporations and reseating it in their own communities. They are defying an utterly broken system with their own new model, and must do so against considerable opposition. Fighting the food system is an uphill battle when the current iteration has so much to lose if people start growing their own. It can start to seem overwhelming for participants, especially in areas where neighbours may be hostile to urban farms because of manufactured worries about smell, property values, and other issues.
Sweet and sanitised urban farms turn a radical political act into a commodity that can be bought, sold, and traded like so many other things under a capitalist system. These ‘farmers’ buy all their supplies from companies that have taken advantage of the resurgence in urban farming to create a market, one which yields substantial profits for them. They contribute to the further commodification of urban farming by changing it from grassroots rebellion to product. An entire industry including everything from chicken consultants to custom gardening beds has arisen to meet an artificially created need while people in low-income neighbourhoods work in solidarity with each other to defy the system.
As urban farming is commodified, it becomes more expensive, and more difficult, for people working on the ground. The same sanitised farms become models for cities adjusting their ordinances to accommodate the demands of yuppies who want to be able to keep chickens in their back yard. Urban farms that don’t meet these models may be frowned upon and labeled eyesores, because they don’t comply with the capitalist system.
As is common with radical movements, urban farming walks a thin line as it becomes popular. People who fancy themselves symbols of resistance buy seed bombs from mail order catalogs while others gather on squatted urban lots contaminated with heavy metals in an attempt to change their communities from within.
Front page photo by s.e. smith.