home Food, North America, Politics, Science & Technology The Politics of Urban Farming

The Politics of Urban Farming

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.

8 thoughts on “The Politics of Urban Farming

  1. Great suggestions about affordability and looks regarding urban gardens; many people visualize a perfect garden with everything neat but gardens rarely happen that way. Although, when a garden is tended to, it has an inherent beauty that shines through from rising vegetables and fruits from the ground even without the costly fixins’.
    One could start a fund that could donate to start-up urban gardens where soil has to be tested and removed as this is definitely a costly issue.
    Save your seeds, share them, protect them, store them, grow them, learn them. They are Freedom’s last hope. You can protest all day long but if you do not have food, you have nothing.
    How do you protest jobs created around urban gardening and then in the same sentence reference people of low income who garden in solidarity; if “people of low income” who know how to garden would start a business teaching “yuppies” how to garden, would they be low income? It’s like you want poor people to be poor for what? The sake of meeting your ideal urban gardener? Get involved in your local government and demonstrate what gardens look like instead of criticizing “yuppies” for actually being into something good for the Earth. Since when has growing our own food been a “Radical Political Act?” I agree, our food supply is in danger of being owned by Monsanto and that capitalism capitalizes on all opportunities in the market, but you are hating on a positive movement of everyone eating right, remembering and learning how to grow their food, raise chickens, and going to their local markets. There’s enough hate, get involved, everyone eats.

  2. Pingback: Pluck and Feather » Mounting Tension
  3. It’s really too bad you didn’t define Hipster in your article because it basically reads that urban farming is dominated by white hipsters, that they are basically doing a disservice to urban food production, and are only playing the urban farming role as part of their hipster image. Why is it that when us white folks (no guilt here, by the way) engage in “fringe” activities that we are somehow now “discriminated” against ourselves. I have been working in urban food production for 12 years and I can’t say I know too many hipsters (whatever that is) that engage in this activity, I see people who are making a conscious choice to engage with the food system in a more ethical way then they were likely raised. And they struggle to make a living doing so.
    Further, you use US urban farms to demonstrate your rather shallow point – including Detroit. How many white hipsters do you think are urban farming in Detroit? What about Chicago? Baltimore? Milwaukee? Lots of hipsters there?
    Here’s something that acts as a disservice to urban farming: journalists taking a relatively small sample of a larger population and generalizing that to the whole. What happened – did you see a bona fide hipster working on an urban farm and project your dislike of the hipster image onto urban farming? Not much in your article rings true to me, though perhaps I just can’t see through my “White Saviour Complex” goggles.

  4. Geez, did some hipster throw a PBR can on your yard? I’ll bitch about hipsters with the best of them, but for their gardening?

    Guess what, some people that end up being leaders in a community don’t always start out meeting some ideas of purity proclaimed from on high. The heirloom tomato seed saver of tomorrow sometimes starts out by growing a Monsanto hybrid in their raised bed today. Sometimes rare chicken breeds get preserved, and flourish, in $3000 chicken coops. And — The Horror!– once in while a guy in tight girl pants can genuinely be helping his community establish a workable food system, even though he looks ridiculous.

  5. detroit for the record has plenty of hipsters in urban ag. while i’d prefer not to be identified as one – i think that most outside viewers would see me as one.
    i too have been working in food systems work for a good little while about 12 years as well, and i can honestly say that while in detroit the majority of those gardening are people of color – those that are able to obtain more resources are usually white, as is leadership at many of the non-profits leading the charge (myself included).

    i also maintain that growing a garden is a radical act as it breaks down the commodification of food, and returns it back to the rightful place as a human right that no one should control but the community most impacted by it .

    thanks for the multi-faceted critique, much of what you have to say certainly rings true of my experience working in detroit.

  6. Pingback: Mounting Tension | East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance
  7. The main problem with this article isn’t how its defining hipsters or those doing the urban farming, its how it is defining urban farming. See, farming is a profession, it is an income generating activity. This article confuses farming with gardening. It isn’t true that urban farming began decades ago, and victory gardens were not farms. Yes, white people can come into a neighborhood, thinking they have all the answers, and turn a vacant lot into their image of what is best, without doing any real good for anyone. That is the major problem with urban gardening, its superficial. However, real good comes when people take vacant land and create a business out of it. They create jobs, they create income for themselves and their neighbors, and a model for others to create value from vacancies. This article misses the mark, thinking that backyard growing is urban farming, and that the only value of urban “farms” are teaching and radical book clubs. As urban food production progresses beyond nice looking gardens and into real food producing, community controlled enterprises, we’ll realize how short sighted this article is.

  8. Fuoye Students enjoying more Agriculture Product

    At Federal University Oye-Ekiti (FUOYE), Agricultural Science is given a pride of place. The focus on the course is not just because it is one of the pioneer faculties in the university but because of its strategic place in the Oye/lkole axis of Ekiti State. The location of the Faculty at lkole is therefore instructive. The faculty of Agriculture at Ikole used to house the former offices of the old Ondo State and now Ekiti State Agricultural Development Project (ADP). If one suggests that the FUOYE Faculty of Agriculture draws from a rich tradition which predates the establishment of the university, it will not be far from the truth. Popular opinion at the Faculty runs thus: we are the most important faculty in this University and the faculty is as old as the university.

    In fact, the Dean Faculty of Agriculture Prof. Olusegun Oladimeji amplified this view: “There is a strong sentiment among faculty members that FUOYE was conceived because of this Faculty, and that the location of the Faculty of Agriculture at Ikole was not a mere coincidence”.

    The immediate past Dean of the faculty, Prof. Akin Omotayo, said the agricultural revolution in the faculty started small. We started with a small farm, which hopefully will develop to be the university’s teaching and research farm in due time. We started with a crop farm on maize and cassava. We did one hectare of plantain and we acquired about 5.5 hectares of oil palm from ADP”. The palm fruit was harvested and processed into the now popular FUOYE palm oil.
    The Vice Chancellor, Prof. Isaac Uzoma

    Asuzu, echoed similar sentiments when asked his views on the on-going revolution at the faculty. “What the Faculty of Agriculture is producing is still at its pilot stage. Plans are on the way to evolve effective and sufficient market for the produce. Having said this, the Faculty of Agriculture is one that l am looking at as a major source of income for this university”.
    One may then ask, Why Faculty of Agriculture in a young university such as FUOYE”?

    Agriculture has been described as an entity just like a human being with head, body, arms, and legs. It has components, which are inter-related. For instance, Soil Science cannot be meaningful without Crop Science. Crop Science is useless without Food Science.

    Agricultural Science as a faculty in FUOYE has seven distinct components with each component representing a department. Therefore, we have the following departments:
    Soil Science
    ii. Crop Science and Horticulture
    iii. Animal Production and Health
    iv. Fishery and Aqua-culture
    v. Water Resources Management and AGRO- Meteorology
    vi. Agricultural Economics and Extension
    vii. Food Science and Technology.

    A closer look at the activities of the Faculty in this young university reveals a lot of achievements and high points to buttress their claims, Even though they are still at an infancy stage – barely over three years, they have recorded some remarkable achievements that belie their age, the Dean of the Faculty was modest in accessing their activities. Hear him: “We are barely three years old, we can only talk of what we hope to achieve”. Among the things they hope to achieve is what he describes as ‘sustainable agriculture.

    According to him, sustainable agriculture is aimed at empowering farmers and providing them an enabling environment to maximize the usefulness of their harvest through preservation. For instance, attention will be paid to cocoyam, plantain and related perishable produce, including fruits that need processing. There is also the value-addition angle to agricultural produce to enhance the economy of the local farmers, Part of the strategy is to transform agricultural practice in this area, by evacuating excess produce to markets outside the locality. This reduces wastage to the barest minimum, It is no exaggeration to say that every season, the percentage of wasted fruits like banana, orange, mangoes and the like far outweighs what farmers get to sell.
    In furtherance to this concept of sustainable agriculture, over 250 hectares of land have been earmarked for fruits and livestock. This will be preceded by soil survey for site selection. This process is expected to generate necessary information for decision-making on what types of soil are available and the kind of fruits or plants to deploy there for maximum yield.

    Unique Selling Points: “Unique” relates to environment where you operate. Attention is being paid to things that are matchless here relative to the surroundings. The Faculty of Agriculture, and by extension, FUOYE, wants to be identified with arresting wastages, raising agriculture to a noble venture, and providing employment. It also intends to add value to agricultural produce in its environment, whether produced by the university or by its host communities. The aim is to, for instance, transform palm oil to export level. Cocoa has been drifting at the international markets. Its price is low because of quality as a result of the variability in the small farmers. These variables affect quality. A central fermenting facility where all cocoa farmers bring their produce for uniform fermenting to have uniform quality will abate
    these drifting prices and enhance the capacity of local cocoa farmers to do more. This kind of situation falls into the long term plan of the Faculty.

    “We are barely three years old, we can only talk of what we hope to achieve”

    The Faculty has 156 undergraduate students as at 201 2/2013 academic sessions, with high quality teaching staff; the highest quality compared to older universities. There is high optimism that they will not only pass course accreditation by the Nigeria University Commission (NUC), but also be highly commended.

    Income generation is a global practice in universities. The FUOYE Faculty of Agriculture is actually ahead of its peers in this regard. The sustainable agriculture policy is its vehicle to drive Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). The plan to emerge income spinners involves production of raw materials, which in turn are processed in order to fetch raw cash. The Vice Chancellor affirmed this position in a chat with the Innovatel. According to him, The University Senate has approved the programme of sustainable agriculture for the faculty to embark on crop and animal production, as well as all other kinds of agricultural practice that will generate income. What we mean is this; they will not only serve as sources of research for our staff but also

Comments are closed.