Urban Farming 101

California Farm and Garden recently gave a presentation called: “Urban Agriculture: Who, What, Where, Why, and Return on Investment.” You might assume a presentation like this would be held at a Future Farmers of America conference, or a United States Department of Agriculture forum. Instead, it was given to the San Diego Green Builders Council – a group of architects, contractors, and planners who aim to create a future that will “…give people better, brighter, healthier space to live, work and play.”

While headlines have been led public attention to topics like GMO’s, the California drought, massive bee die-offs, and more, urban farmers have quietly been picking up the pieces and gaining momentum. Now, esteemed groups like the International Living Future Institute and Green Building Councils across the U.S. are recommending and even mandating new designs include vegetative or even agricultural elements.

From Fenway Farms atop the legendary ballpark in Boston to your backyard, urban farms, gardens, and orchards will only become more prevalent in the coming years.

What is Urban Farming?

Farming became central to human society the moment hunter-gatherers learned how to seed crops. Fertile land and access to water became the foundations that urban civilization was built upon, and for centuries cities and food centers were geographically entangled.

The Industrial Revolution eventually spilled over into agriculture, creating machines and tools to farm greater sections of land more efficiently while leaps were made in transportation. These factors pushed farms outside city limits, evolving into the large industrialized farms we commonly think of today.

Urban farming is a movement back to our roots using existing space in and around cities to be closer to our food sources. There are various goals behind this push, many of which are elaborated on throughout this essay.

To summarize, the objectives of urban agriculture can include:

– retail profit

– community gardening and involvement

– providing fresh produce and food security for families

– eliminating “food deserts

– supplying food banks, shelters, or restaurants

In addition to growing food, these goals can be accomplished by:

– beekeeping

– growing flowers and other pollinators

– animal husbandry

– aquaculture

– composting

While a number of factors have contributed to this movement, one of the most noteworthy factors has been information surrounding GMO’s, begging the question…

What’s In My Fruits and Veggies?

People want to know how their food is grown, and the numbers prove it. In the last few years, over $143 million has been spent in Washington D.C. on the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) issue alone. While speculating on the pros and cons of the debate will not happen here, it shows a significant group of Americans are seriously considering the origin of their food. Expanding the view worldwide, over 60 countries now require GMO labeling.

There are other factors as well. Since 2006 there has been an increase of over 180% in U.S. farmer’s markets. In the last decade, the sudden and massive farm-to-table movement is evident in a steep upward slope in online searches. More and more people (not just foodies) are seeking out food sourced from local farms practicing sustainable methods with organic produce, free-range chickens, and grass-fed cows.

The numbers above show trends that allow those who care about how their food is grown to ask the right people the right questions at the right time. It is also why organic, urban farming companies like California Farm and Garden are sprouting up in almost every big city across America. Growing your own food and vegetables gives total control of how the soil, insects, and diseases are treated and what seeds and plants are used. Independent groups such as the Organic Material Review Institute (OMRI) now put their stamp of approval on certain products, making educated choices as easy as driving down to the local hardware store or nursery.

By the way, don’t let the costs of organic supplies sway you. According to the Worldwatch Institute, studies conducted across multiple continents are now showing that farms using organic practices are actually increasing yields!

Where Is My Food Coming From?

In addition to being curious how food is being grown, many are also beginning to ask “where?” Ever wonder why tomatoes, a summer crop, are available year-round in most grocery stores?

The National Resource Defense Council can shed some light: “Between 1968 and 1998, world food production increased by 84% and the population by 91%, but food trade increased 184%. Today, the typical American prepared meal contains, on average, ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States.” The Worldwatch Institute has determined that food travels an average of 1,500-2,500 miles before reaching your plate.

Consider this information, and the questions it creates:

– What kind of agricultural laws exist in other countries?

– Who was the original supplier?

– How was it packaged (or not)?

– How many different temperatures and climates did the harvests sit through?

– What pests and diseases were encountered?

– How many different people handled the produce?

Truths and accountability can easily become difficult to pinpoint in this system. The urban farming and “locavore” movements address many of these issues. Similarly, buying or growing fruits and vegetables locally usually offers avenues for clarity, such as talking to the farmers directly at a market or growing and harvesting your own favorites.

Produce grown nearby is harvested when at its peak ripeness, and ends up in a kitchen within hours instead of days. This can give restaurant owners or chefs confidence in their menu, or your neighbor bragging rights with their “freshest avocados ever!”

Urban farms, gardens, and orchards can provide new and exciting feelings of accomplishment, comfort, and security. Buying local produce also promotes your neighborhood economy, creates jobs, and is a great way to contribute while receiving delicious returns.

Waste Less Produce (Save More Money)!

The average American wastes 250 pounds of food per year, making still-edible food the largest component in U.S. landfills according to the Environmental Working Group. The National Resource Defense Council states that 40% of all food produced is wasted, with households making up 15-20% of this statistic.

As a consumer, you can make a dent in these numbers! Make more trips to the grocery store to only purchase what you need within a day or two. Reduce spoilage buy buying locally avoiding long transit times. Don’t be afraid to buy fruits and vegetables that don’t “look” pretty!

On the other hand, home grown fruits and vegetables cost roughly 57% less per pound than organic produce in grocery stores. This is according to research and figures from the United States Department of Agriculture and data from California Farm and Garden. Waste is reduced when raised beds or orchards are harvested only as needed, and proven plans like succession planting ensure there isn’t too much ripe at once.

To learn more about food waste, what you can do to combat it, and how hunger in San Diego is affected, you can read an California Farm and Garden article here: Food Waste & Hunger.

Use Less Water (Save More Money)!

As California struggles through its driest stretch in the last 120 years, everyone from private residents to local governments are looking for ways to reduce water consumption. Urban farming is once again the answer!

California Farm and Garden determined that water conscious methods of irrigation exempt from California’s restrictions, such as micro-sprinklers and drip tape, are nearly 100% efficient. This is compared to standard sprinklers which are only about 50% efficient. When compared to grass, edible gardens use 66% less water.

By year-end, savings could be in the hundreds of dollars based on San Diego water rates for 2015 and the size of your yard.

Health Benefits.

The benefits of gardening your own fruits and veggies far surpass the classic food pyramid. Research from across the globe is proving that gardening, or even being surrounded by gardens, has noticeable impacts on physical and psychological health.

Iowa State University, for instance, has confirmed the long-held beliefs that gardening provides a range of motions that can influence endurance, resistance, flexibility, and strength. Digging, kneeling, sawing and more can all be demanding tasks.

Gardening for middle to later aged adults is also an excellent choice for exercise. The British Journal of Sports Medicine explains, “…regular gardening…can cut the risk of heart attack or stroke, and prolong life by as much as 30% among the 60-plus age group.”

While psychological benefits of gardening have been a focus of research for many decades, modern society has been slow to catch up. Only recently have corporations realized that an investment in an amenity like a garden pays off, or that patients heal more quickly in hospitals when nature can be seen.

Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, conducted a study “Healthy nature healthy people: contact with nature as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations.” They found people surrounded by nature are not only healthier overall, but also have increased levels of satisfaction with their jobs and lower levels of stress and anxiety. These people score better on tests, heal faster, and get ill less often. The same study also concluded that patients recovering from surgery who had a “…natural view recovered faster, spent less time in hospital, had better evaluation from nurses, required fewer painkillers and had less postoperative complications…”

Of course, the health benefits of spending time on an urban farm with friends and family is immeasurable. That said, here’s something to keep in mind: a Michigan State University report concluded that adults with a family member who gardens are 1 ½ times more likely to eat fruits and vegetables – and 3 ½ times more likely to eat them at least 5 times a day!

Environmental Benefits.

While much of this essay has focused on self or community well-being, urban farming unsurprisingly has a global impact. A 2012 report out of the University of Copenhagen entitled “Climate Change and Food Systems” studied the entire greenhouse gas footprint of the world’s food chain – from seed to table – and discovered this system accounts for 19-29% of the entire planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Organic urban agriculture tackles this in a number of ways by reducing greenhouse emissions on almost every step of the chain. This includes but is not limited to:

– reducing manufacturing pollutants by using organic products instead of synthesized fertilizers and pesticides

– working with existing environments instead of destroying forests and ecosystems already in place

– reducing or eliminating almost all processing, storage, packaging, transportation, and refrigeration emissions

By taking advantage of urban spaces that previously had little to no greenery, the planet could actually start to sequester greenhouse gasses while reducing food deserts and creating beautiful, healthy spaces. The Rodale Institute actually goes a step further, suggesting farms big and small should revert to organic methods only. Mark Smallwood explains, “We feel like we can not only take care of 100 percent of current carbon emissions [with organic farming], but we can also send the needle past 100 percent and begin to draw down some of these excesses.”