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The Most Important Modern Farmer Might Be The Urban Cowboy

Don’t count out the community garden

It’s a modern paradox. In a city like New York, where everything is available 24 hours a day, some neighborhoods don’t even have access to the most basic fresh foods at affordable prices. It’s a problem seen around the world, and one that has some warning that as the global population flocks to urban centers—more than 6 billion people will live in cities by 2045, according to The World Bank estimates—food production might not keep up with the pace of population growth. In fact, United Nations experts predict that food production will have to increase by 60 percent by 2050 to meet the world’s growing nutritional needs. While other experts believe we currently produce enough food, there’s still the challenge of making sure it reaches the people who need it.

“We currently have a situation where some people eat twice as many calories as they need to maintain their body levels and some people eat half as many as they need,” says Dr. Kristin Reynolds, a food systems researcher and co-author of the book Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City with Dr. Nevin Cohen, associate professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Public Health and research director of CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute.

To help meet those who need food where they live, researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, and even corporations are looking at cities as fertile ground to grow hyperlocal produce. While hybrid high-rises where vertical aquaponic greenhouses produce abundant vegetables may be on the horizon, the majority of today’s urban agriculture projects range from community gardens on unused lots to rooftop farms and warehouse hydroponic systems. For many involved—especially in low-income areas and in marginalized communities—these spaces are as much about community building and economic empowerment as they are about nutrition.

In the South Bronx, The BLK ProjeK’s Libertad Urban Farm is a women-led space for economic development. “You're not having a real conversation about poverty if you're not talking about women and children being the most affected by poverty,” explains BLK Projek executive director Tanya Fields, who founded the project three years ago. “It's hard being a mother no matter where on the spectrum you are, but when you start to talk about the intersectional disparity, those who are the most marginalized are the ones who bare the greatest brunt of disparity. In a society like ours, the further you move away from the proximity of whiteness, the bigger you feel the disparity.”

Her program aims to empower women and children in the community using the Black Panther philosophy of radicalization, education, and self-sufficiency. The 5,400-square-foot farm, which sits on the site of a former garden that sat fallow for 20 years, produces Black Beauty eggplants, tomatoes, greens, a variety of herbs, plus bee balm and marigolds. They sell the produce on a sliding scale—with those who can afford to pay more subsidizing those who can’t—at a weekly farm stand or on outreach trips with their clean-fuel-powered “Magic School Bus.” Those who can’t afford to pay are welcome to chip in with sweat equity in exchange for produce.

Libertad Urban Farm is also one of about 40 community-run spaces, each with their own social justice projects, that grow serrano peppers for The Bronx Hot Sauce. The condiment is made by Small Axe Peppers (a nod to a Bob Marley song about the power of organized groups to fight even the biggest social problems), an organization that provides the seedlings to Bronx gardeners, then buys back the peppers for an above-market rate of $4 per pound.

Bronx Hot Sauce is made of peppers from 40 Bronx farms and gardens

“We're selling hot sauce, but we're selling an economic model, and we're selling a story and a vision of what urban communities can be,” says Daniel Fitzgerald, the program’s vice president of operations. Serranos are well suited to growing in the Bronx, he explains, and hot sauce is a particularly high-margin product. The sauce, which won a 2017 Good Food Award, is now sold everywhere from Whole Foods to Grow NYC’s Union Square market—examples of some of the private and nonprofit partners that help keep the project going.

“We’re trying to introduce a system of socially conscious capitalism, informed, enlightened capitalism that could provide an alternative funding source to the great work that they're already doing,” Fitzgerald says, citing Bronx Hot Sauce suppliers like the New Roots Community Farm, run by the International Rescue Committee, and Brook Park Youth Farm, where youths grow peppers in an alternative to incarceration program, as examples. “We never wanted to take over, that's why we say between 10 and 20 percent of the garden, no more than that—because we don't want to supplant the cucumbers, the tomatoes. We want it to be totally grassroots and supported by the community at all times.”

The hot sauce program is just one of the benefits at Brook Park, a garden that’s part of the NYC Parks Department. The park, which community members have nurtured over the past 25 years on the site of what was an unkempt asphalt lot, tearing up the pavement and slowing planting trees, then grapevines, and more over time. “We cracked the egg, we broke the ice, and we started planting, planting, planting,” says Brook Park’s Danny Chervoni. Today, the park offers volunteers space in their vegetable beds to grow food to use however they please. Members in the program include families who come from areas where gardening is an important food source, Chervoni says. “They don’t have money to be going to the supermarket,” he explains. “We try to share the beds with everyone who comes.”

The park is also home to two beehives and 11 chickens, which provide organic eggs to members of the community—and are valuable tools for education. But even such successful programs aren’t immune to challenges from the market. While Brook Park’s space is protected by the Parks Department, they’re currently boycotting Fresh Direct, which has set up a government-subsidized warehouse along the nearby waterfront, bringing fleets of diesel trucks to an area with four times the asthma rate elsewhere in the city, while offering little to those who live here. As Chervoni puts it, “They don’t want to deliver food to us.”

While gardens like Brook Park have been successful tools for community activation, the problem is, as industrial urban agriculture scales up, it “risks replicating a lot of those problems that we say are the result of conventional large-scale commercial agriculture,” including food insecurity in lower-income communities, says CUNY’s Cohen. “You have investors and a few managers making a good amount of money, and then lower-skilled workers doing a lot of the work. Because of the economics of a lot of these projects”—high urban real estate costs and the intensive resources required—“the customers are generally high-income people. So these projects are not really addressing food access in a meaningful way.”

In addition, much of the media attention paid to urban agriculture has left people of color and low-income communities out of the spotlight by focusing instead on trendy rooftop farms that feed into boutique restaurants and retailers or splashy high-tech and cost-intensive projects.

One such tech-forward initiative is The World Food Building, a 17-story vertical farm and office building in Linköping, Sweden, 100 miles from Stockholm, created by agritecture firm Plantagon. The key to this project is “industrial symbiosis,” in which the greenhouse utilizes excess carbon dioxide and heat produced by the city’s biogas and waste incineration plants. If Plantagon’s projections are correct, the World Food Building will one day be able to produce as much as two tons of produce a day—ten times the amount of a conventional greenhouse on the same footprint. But other experts remain skeptical of the lack of transparency about costs of these projects versus the benefits of production, the actual nutritional value of the food they can produce (since many are focused on low-nutrient leafy greens), and the resources that are needed to grow food—things like water and light that are often free in conventional farm settings in the form of sunlight and precipitation. “I have yet to see a single example where the energy and water challenges are being met in a meaningful way,” says Dr. Timon McPhearson, assistant professor of urban ecology at The New School’s Environmental Studies program and director of the Urban Ecology Lab.

“Unfortunately, the image of urban farming and community gardening has been co-opted as young, white, and sort of hipsterish. And that's not the case,” says Fields, who remembers older neighbors growing food when she was growing up in Harlem. “Before there was an actual vernacular around it. There were black and brown people, particularly in urban areas like New York City—you’re talking about communities that were literally burning down around themselves, like the Bronx—who were doing this work as an act of resistance.”

The recent popularity of urban farm-to-Whole Foods success stories can lead some to see it as a cure-all for getting fresher food to city dwellers, but some experts don’t believe that cities can completely feed themselves—or that they necessarily need to. Take New York City, a national leader in rooftop farming and community gardening. Currently, only 2 percent of the vegetables consumed in the city are grown in state, let alone in the city itself. Instead of trying to bring large-scale farming to the city, researchers advocate for developing more efficient ways to maximize the existing agriculture networks with upgrades in transportation and distribution, something that governments in cities like New York are beginning to look at in earnest.

Another solution is “cosmopolitan localism,” in which the goal is to produce food locally where it makes sense (think apples in New York state) and to import crops (coffee, tea, citrus) that can be more successfully grown elsewhere. It’s an approach that, if dealt with through an equitable lens, can help people around the world. At the same time, the success of large-scale commercial projects may outcompete smaller operations, further compounding the problem and erasing the opportunity for urban farming’s social benefits on the local level.

As technology, government policy, private investment, and public interest combine to make urban farming a more viable part of the food system, we may be one step closer to the goal of more equitable distribution of food security and a more just world. It’s just a matter of the players deciding where their values lie.

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