Urban farmers, welcome to our world


Two young city farmers learn the land they’d been leasing has been sold. And they made just $7,500 each for their past year’s toil.

Welcome to the real world of farming.

Across the country, urban agriculture has been growing in various forms, from community gardens to community supported agriculture ventures, and from rooftop plantings to produce grown in containers hanging on the sides of buildings.

And, in every city, the frustrations of urban growers sound remarkably familiar to their rural counterparts’ woes:

“What happened to my tomatoes?”

“What I wouldn’t give for some good topsoil.”

“If I could only get a loan.”

“The spring was so wet, I couldn’t get my seed planted on time. And then the weeds took over.”

“I can’t afford to sell my produce for what the market will pay.”

“I need ________ (storage, a truck, refrigeration, more labor, more time).”

“I can’t compete with that large-scale urban farm.”

People are invested in the concept of urban agriculture, but sooner or later, a project has to make money. As one writer noted recently, “It’s that pesky question of economic viability. … do urban farmers have even a hope of maintaining livelihoods within the urban core?”

I’ve long championed agriculture as a means to economic development, and I think that productive commercial agricultural activity can happen just about anywhere. But “farming without a financial motive is gardening,” L.A. Times writer Russ Parsons reminded us in 2010. And that’s true if you’re farming in Champaign County or in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

We need a new business model for agriculture in an urban setting. Unless, as a society, we say we value urban agriculture the same way we value parks and recreational services, and subsidize it with a levy or tax.

Urban farmers, the weather will be your enemy. Insects and critters will eat your plants. Vandals will steal your tools. You will get tired and hot and cranky. You’ll lose money. But you’ll also bask in the glory of the growing season– spring’s rebirth and fall’s harvest. The weather will be your friend. Insects and critters can also be beneficial to your plants. Neighbors will lend a hand. You’ll still get tired and hot and cranky and lose money, but there will be days when you’ll look at your rows of crops and simply whisper, “this is so cool.”

No doubt, the future of food production will include a “mosaic of different farming systems,” as one agronomist recently put it.

But the systems still have to be sustainable — and that means economically sustainable, too.

Welcome to our world.


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