Farming Starts In Cities


Farm commentators are remarking somewhat in surprise that the new move towards local food production and backyard farming are much more in evidence in and around cities than out where the big tractors lumber over the landscape. But, as most historians and economists have attested, this has always been true. Odd as it seems, agricultural innovation usually begins in cities. My favorite mind-stretcher book, The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs (1969) reviews the historical evidence in favor of this conclusion and it is almost impossible to dispute her, though at first I tried. I didn’t like the idea of those city slickers being agricultural pioneers. But it was all too painfully the truth. “New kinds of farming come out of cities,” Jacobs writes. “The growing of hybrid corn… was not developed on corn farms by farmers but by scientists in plant laboratories, promoted and publicized by plant scientists and editors of agricultural papers, and they had a hard time persuading farmers to try the unprepossessing-looking hybrid seeds.”  In another instance she points out that when the wheat farmers of New York realized they could no longer compete with western wheat growers, or thought they couldn’t, and switched to fruit farming, “the change was primarily… by the proprietors of a nursery that first supplied the city people with fruit trees, grape vines and berry bushes and then showed farmers of the Genesee Valley… that orchards and vineyards were economical alternatives.”  Likewise, “the fruit and vegetable industries of California did not ‘evolve’ from that state’s older wheat fields and animal pastures. Rather it was organized in San Francisco for supplying fruits to preserving plants and later to vegetable canneries.”

This primacy of urban initiative ruling rural work has been the case as far back in history as we can go. Where stable farming activity once established itself, it was in connection with people coming together to live in towns and cities. People out in the boondocks ate wild animals and plants and after they congregated in cities and couldn’t get enough food that way, they started gardens and livestock farming. Alfalfa was a medicinal garden plant in cities long before it became the hay crop of choice out in the country.

So now we are in the early days of yet another urban innovation in food production. Food farming, as opposed, say, to fuel farming (ethanol), is coming on line as a way to deliver higher quality and fresher food to people willing to pay what the new food is worth and with backyard food mini-farms for those who want to save money or guarantee quality by producing their own. These farms are driven by the chefs of big city restaurants, by city customers who flock to urban farm markets, by concerned consumers desiring food that they consider safer to eat than the commercial food of the present economy, and by nine to fivers yearning for more meaningful and challenging work.

Trying to figure out where this all is headed, I think a lot about so-called demographics— about where people live and don’t live. Seems to me, this local food movement is a reflection of how suburbia and exurbia are spreading all across the land. Driving down the road, it is difficult to tell where urban development ends and farmland begins. Both are becoming more and more mixed together, raising havoc with zoning ordinances and neighborhood relationships— people effing each other over so-called ill-kept lawns, backyard chickens, loose-running dogs, speeding cars, pesticide drift,  tractor noise at night and a thousand other little grievances  that are marks of cultural merging. The problems could be mostly resolved if everyone understood how cities and farms are parts of a whole, not divisible one from another. Eventually we will realize, as we munch our good food, that the Big Merge not only means a better environment for all, but the end to this silly political anger that colors everything blue or red instead of a lovely productive green.

The merging is of course being driven also by electronic communication. For instance, I have a hard time, out in the boondocks, getting the New York Times, which not too surprisingly has more insightful articles about the new age of farming than traditional farm magazines do. But I can get it handily on a computer or even on a smart phone while I wander through my pasture field.


Beth, it was both wars.

Gene is right about chefs driving some local produce production–but only to start with. Here in the Chicago area, besides private citizens, schools and other institutions also want local food and not only are small farms popping up all over, but school gardens, too. And now there is a nascent local processing industry, as well as various kinds of distribution networks. Not yet at critical mass, but on the way.

A posting ripe with topics to be fleshed out each on their own. I’ll tease out a bit on a few.

Regarding agricultural innovation, semantics is at play here. However, I offer this for readers’ consideration. I claim that humans have yet to out innovate creation. We only need to make observation of creation to find our next inspiration about how it works as it relates to how soil, water, minerals and all life forms have interplay to sustain life on this planet. So, whether we are permaculture practitioners or we wear white coats in an agribiz lab, we are simply identifying what we observe in creation and leveraging it, capitalizing on it or extracting it. I will grant that the necessity that is often associated with challenging urban life can drive creativity, which I would say is partially what Gene was getting at, if I could put words in his mouth.

How does one define a city, was part of Jacob’s comment. If we dispense with the idea of what is or isn’t a city and focus on what is or isn’t urban, I think we might find it easier. I don’t believe the words city and urban are synonymous. Though I chuckle at the notion, the “city” I live in currently is populated by approximately 40,000 people. Technically, it is a city and has man-defined boundaries, but it is by no means urban. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, population density is how they define urban from suburban. From there we squabble about numbers, which is not productive. But the idea of density of human life in a given area is a critical notion when it comes to feeding people in dense areas. Since quality food requires a host of natural processes many of which could be referred to as agricultural, this puts pressure on people in densely populated areas to become creative or default to convenience.

Does this mean that those in non-urban areas are not creative? That’s not what Gene was getting at. But, for many in non-urban areas, the motivation or need for innovation is less felt. Yet, there is a slowly growing number of us who are purchasing small amounts of non-urban land (mine is 10 acres officially located in a town of 497 people) on which we practice many alternative approaches to agriculture. This gets to Jacob’s other notion of “industrialized” practices. Technically, my little place is considered rural, but there is significant creativity going on there, especially as compared to industrialized practices. But, what I do there with a variety of techniques and practices and what is going on in the labs of agribiz isn’t new. We’re simply making use of what we observe in creation whether at the micro or macro levels. Now, what I believe distinguishes my practices from those of the “industrialized sort” is the fact that I work with the natural process and propensities of creation where industrialized agriculture seems to be at odds with them. My practices are based on understanding how the whole works, whereas industrialized approach needs to reduce the whole into parts and then focus on the parts.

Now, to the notion of civic leaders being resistant to change. I confess this is a sore subject for me. I became frustrated that I could not plant a vegetable garden in my suburban lawn. My solution is not a viable one for most people. I simply bought land outside the city. But, others still face this problem so I set about trying to understand the motivations of HOA committees, city councils, aldermen, etc., when they make decisions or hold fast to restrictive policies. My conclusion was this: Even the most progressive civic leaders want to protect property values (residential and commercial). Those resistant to keeping fowl or gardening in lawns make the assumption that it causes depreciation of property value. Yet, this is largely passed on a narrow aesthetic. Why is Kentucky blue grass more beautiful than a row of eggplant? It’s a misconception, in large degree, on the part of the legal entity laying down the rules and regulations. What to do? Those in authority simply have to be shown the reality that because consumer demand is on the rise for properties that allow chicken keeping and home vegetable gardening, thus increase in property value because of demand. They also need to be shown the non-quantifiable value that these more accepting subdivisions and cities have, and that’s a growing sense of community. That translates to longer-term residence. But, my point is that we have to demonstrate to civic leaders and HOA committees that their fears are actually misplaced and the communities they are elected or appointed serve will prosper more as a result of allowing these practices. But, they won’t listen to us if we’re antagonistic to them. Make the business case as to why chicken keeping should be allowed or why home gardening should be acceptable and you’ll likely gain acceptance more so than if you took a polemic approach. Besides, you might actually get to have the delightful task of educating a suburban city council member that hens don’t require a rooster to lay eggs. In a council meeting discussion, one such female council member was asked by a chicken fancier if she needed a man to ovulate. This question ended the discussion about chickens being too noisy due to morning crowing.

While I can’t flat out dismiss this post by Gene, there’s just something about it that doesn’t set well with me. I appreciate the notion of encouraging folks (city and rural) to get their hands dirty and be more self-reliant by producing their own wholesome food, but the idea that innovation in agriculture primarily is driven by neighboring cities seems far flung at best. To be fair, my perspective comes from rural roots and is more sympathetic to a certain way of being. One thing to consider are the use of terms in the post–what defines a city? or what defines agriculture? Because from where I sit, the agriculture that is often criticized is of the industrialized sort. This redefinition was created/innovated by individuals completely disconnected from the land and “highly encouraged” by land grant universities to neighboring farmers who blindly abide by the “experts” findings. What I find interesting is that many individuals in rural communities have continued to do what has always been done–gardening, canning/preserving, raising a few hens, etc. Not only that, but they too experiment and try new things for the pure joy of it. No, their experiments aren’t written down and shared with the masses who read the NY Times, but if you happen to strike-up a conversation in the feed store with them, they’ll likely invite you over to show what they’ve done and encourage you to go home and try it too–but not until you come and sit in the shade and enjoy a glass of their freshly brewed sun tea.

I think it was Mark Twain that said “Pioneering doesn’t pay” and most farmers take this advice whether they realize it or not and for those farming on a large scale its very good advice.Experimenting with a 200 acre field that fails can be financially devastating while experimenting on a 1/4 acre is entertaining regardless the outcome.Most farmers stick to tried and true methods for good reason–keep from going broke.On the other hand experimenting by small landholders is a great thing and adds greatly to agriculture for sure.I have 8 small (1/4 to 1/2 acre)plots that I experiment with growing different crops every year some have been real successes and others have been total failures but all have been interesting and a lot of entertainment really and cost me very little but no way I’d try this for the first time on a large acreage too much financial risk.Its great that city folks are starting to care about agriculture as for a long period of time they didn’t.

The little Borough (~900 pop.) to our east is the site of a farmer’s market that has a Community Learning Garden next to it. The idea is to reacquaint the residents of this rural area to gardening for food by showing them how “easy’ it is.

Meanwhile. the town to our west which harbors a really large university has had community garden plots available for decades. Three of the five municipalities surrounding that school are chicken friendly and one even has a forest grazing farmer. I can’t wait for our country folks to catch up with our city cousins in living more sustainably.

Enjoy the feral black raspberries. It looks to be a good year for them here.

Whoops, should have been WWII!

Let’s hope that when TSHTF and the whole food transportation goes to pot (could be peak oil, war, trucker’s strike, EMP, who knows?) all these little gardens will keep people fed as the Victory gardens in WWI did. Those V-Gardens were so successful the output was equal to what commercial ag could grow in terms of fruits and veggies!

There is a misconception that gardening/farming is only in rural areas. Just today an Amish vendor of mine thought I was pulling his leg when I told him how much produce I grew and preserved. After he realized I was telling the truth he told me I was “way ahead of most of my people”.

If there were ever a dream I would like to fulfill it is to teach as many people as I can how to have better health, a little more wealth, and maybe some wisdom growing their own fruits and vegetables in biologically alive and well mineralized soil.

Sundancer, I live in a town of 20000 that does not allow chickens, yet Louisville Ky south of me is ok with it. (pop 400,000 +) Go figure.

If I live long enough and the California drought lasts long enough, I hope to see local food production be the norm not the exception. I remember my Grandmother tell me how many canning factories there were in Indiana back in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It can happen again.

I noticed that friends and relatives living ln cities have a better understanding of modern agricultures shortcomings than my giant farm neighbors about ten years ago so lt makes sense that solutions would come from there.

I’m going to make copy of this post and take it with me to the next City Council meeting and maybe it will help explain in a more precise manner what I’ve been trying to say to them for the past five years. They just don’t get the whole ag thing, it would seem. We are surrounded by communities who allow backyard chickens et al, but not us – not the 2nd biggest city in the State, oh no. But the biggest city in the State finds no problem with this idea and has allowed it forever. Go figure. It’s not like role model cities don’t exist around here. Too many closed minds is the problem we have.

I agree with most of what chimel31 says, too – not big on hydroponic farming methods. But I’m also not sure about the animal farming in sewers . . . 8-]

Well, there are what, 1% of farmers in the American population, so of course there’s more farmers in cities,1% of a 1 million people city is 10,000 farmers! 😉

It doesn’t make much economical and environmental sense to own a car when you live in the city, so more and more people want to see some green spaces like community or shared gardens right where they live. Space is at a premium too, so there are some innovative and productive concepts being experimented,like repurposing old factories or buildings into “vertical” farms or hydroponic ones, growing 6 superposed trays or vegetables over the same surface. I am not too keen on hydroponics, but you could do the same with trays of dirt, maybe under an “organic” label too if artificial lighting is or becomes authorized. Maybe we’ll see animal farming in the sewers some day too…

A Really Small Farm June 24, 2015 at 8:37 am

Even in “small farm” country vegetable gardens of the sort urban farmers grow seem to be a rarity. It doesn’t take much space to produce enough vegetables and fruit to preserve for a year or even more sometimes.

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