City Slickers getting their Hands Dirty: Addressing Food and Land Scarcity in Urban Areas

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) released statistics, as of 2007, demonstrating  nearly 30% of the nation’s poor reside in urban dwellings.  The majority (80.7% ) of our nation’s population resides in urban areas (US Census Bureau). Yet, only 3 percent, or 61 million acres, of the US has been utilized for urban development (Nickerson, Ebel, Borchres, Carriazo).  Why am I spitting out these facts?  Well I’m about to dwell in those depressing despotic corners of the pessimistic environmentalist’s mind.  Although, I’m not here to mope about the sad future.  No, I want to report on the issues of food and land scarcity, the efforts of alternative agriculture production in urban areas, and conclude with my spiel about the right to food.

It can be argued that cities are more sustainable than rural areas due to the complete and centralized system of facilities  and operations that allow a people to live in a relatively small area in which much of the activity is densely concentrated.  However, consider one variable to the vitality of city life. In the research that calculated the 3% of land is utilized by the urban areas, approximately 30% is utilized by farmland.  The diagram  below deomonstrates the correlation between the concentration of urban areas (in green) and the rise of market prices for crops (blue meaning higher cost, brown meaning average cost).

            Interestingly, there are areas of high crop production still have a higher market value for food (the Southeast for example); likewise, there are areas of dense urbanization that do not reflect this positive trend (Southwest and California for example).  The overall relationship here is that in areas of high urban density food prices tend to increase due to demand and competition for land.  This correlation is analyzed in an article by Choice Magazine, “The influence of Urban Areas on Farmland Values.”  To reinforce this competition for land, this article published the price per acreage in rural and urban-influenced areas of the United States.

            What can be seen is a rise in price per acre both in rural and urban locations, and how prices of land in urban areas are much higher than rural areas. “Urban influence is associated with land values being ‘bid up’ by competing land use activities, including residential and commercial development”  (Kuethe, Ifft, Morehart).The price to farm near urban areas—where demand for local foods is rising and where there is a limitless number of bellies to fill—demonstrates that in the economic world it is gamble of an endeavor.

Maybe, if I flex these facts a bit, you could see how a city is less sustainably sound as you may have thought.  Urban areas rely on outsourced (as in outside city limits) food production to meet the demand for food.  Furthermore, this reliance is so demanding that city residents are willing to front the cost.  Well, some of them are.  Remember how I mentioned earlier that 30% of  residents in urban areas are impoverished?  This percentage of the population cannot always afford food and some have little access to quality food.  Many impoverished people have to rely on affordable means to be fed.  Fed, not nourished, and also not I did not say well fed.

These are the issues of food scarcity and food deserts in city areas.  Food scarcity refers to the inability to supply food to a population (more so the case in developing nations).  A food desert refers to an area, in a developed nation, in which a population has little to no access to affordable, quality food.  Food deserts are not only found in urban areas (where the nearest “food source” maybe the corner market or gas station), but also in rural areas in which a box store grocery is the only source of food in a 25-mile radius.

Now, let’s combine the issues of land scarcity and food deserts in the form of urban agriculture.  How does one turn a concrete jungle into the Gardens of Babylon?  Land is scarce in urban areas.  When I was in D.C. last spring, most homes were connected for entire block and yards consist of 12’ by 6’ spaces.  Most metropolitan areas do not allow easy access to starting a garden.  The opportunity for the individual resides in participating in community gardens or, more drastically, guerilla gardening.  However, what about food production beyond a neighborhood scale, as in, areas with population densities as concentrated as 10,000+ people per square mile?  In other words, how can city planners and developers establish a farm smack dab in the middle of the city?

Cities have become creative with the space they have to utilize.  City planners are asking architects to design buildings that incorporate vertical farming into its structure.  Vertical farming refers to the ability to cultivate plant or animals within (or outdoor) a vertical structure (as in a skyscraper or tower).  This form of alternative agriculture is, by far, the most fascinating to me in regards to its elaborate and heavily complicated applications.  Below is a rendition of a building designed for Seattle that would be both utilized for its office space and its agricultural space.

Tearing down a building is more than likely not the probable alternative.  People must use what is already present.  In this case below, Food Project is repurposing a roof top in Lincoln, Massachusetts to create an edible roof space.  Roof  top gardens, in addition to growing food, are effective ways to reduce rain runoff, energy costs due to temperature fluctuations (as roof top gardens act as insulation), and the Heat Island Effect.  Much in the same way, many parking lots are becoming “renovated” and turned into community gardens in order to salvage as much unused space as possible.


The final method I want to present is hydroponic farming.  Our internship has visited two hydroponic facilities here in Tennessee, King’s Hydrofarm and Greater Growth Aquaponics.   Every hydroponic facility has its individual differences, but the idea behind it is a condition-controlled, closed system in which water and nutrients are cycled and recycled to cultivate edible food in soilless conditions all year round.  One example is the NFT (nutrient film technique): Fish (a step-up form of NFT known as aquaculture) is grown and used for both its meat and its fertilizer (fish waste), the fish waste (at this point not prohibited by the USDA and is regarded as safe to have present as the plant is growing) is ran through the water systems to water and nourish vegetables that are growing in a hydroponic medium.  Compost can be made through a process known as vermiculture (utilizing worms to breakdown food waste, compost, etc. resulting in a fertile amendment)  is incorporated to create a worm casting production and a food source for the fish (a supplement to create a perfectly closed-system instead of feeding the fish food derived from corn or wheat).  There are countless other methods such as known as the Dutch Bucket System is used for vertical productions (i.e. growing tomatoes for a prolong season).

Stacking strawberry plants, or other various plants, and using a method such as drain and flow (in which water is applied to a top container and the run off flows down the column) reduces required space to grow crops.  In a way it is a small scale version of vertical farming.  There is also the folkewall (named after the Swedish biologist/farmer Folke Günther) which is a form of vertical gardening and water purification in which grey water is circulated through a wall arranged with plants—both nourishing the plants and filtering the water—and made potable after the process is finished (I believe it is much more extensive than that, but I got to keep it short). The downside to all this is the necessity to introduce natural pollinators (especially in the case of strawberries and cherry tomatoes).  For this reason, most hydroponic facilities will only produce plants that can be easily accommodated with the current technologies.

To briefly touch on hydroponics here is a great overall video:

Hydroponics Explained

For there to be cities that are less reliant on outside food source and function sustainably to produce food within its own limits then urban agricultural systems need to be incorporated.  I do not like to bring politics to the table, but sometimes it is necessary; because right now, even here in Knoxville, sometimes the only sources of food are the bodega down the street or the gas station on the way to work.  Safe, healthy food should not be separated by a higher price per pound.  Food should not discriminatory element in society.  there should be no excuse as to not be able to solve the food desert issue within cities and the surrounding areas as technologically advanced as our society is.  Regardless of whatever socioeconomic background you may be or wherever you live food is a right and not a privilege.


Growing Power!

ImageLast Week Matt and I went to visit his family in Milwaukee. While we were there, we had the opportunity to check out Growing Power–the innovative community/urban garden organization based in the Millwood Parks neighborhood of the city. I first heard of this (now famous) operation at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference last winter. Will Allen, founder and CEO, was a guest speaker and showed dozens (if not hundreds) of slides depicting all the good work they do in urban areas of Milwaukee, Chicago, and Madison, WI. I was inspired by how much could be done with so few resources! The “headquarters” in Milwaukee is on a 2-acre site, which holds the oldest greenhouses that are still in operation within the city limits. In this small slice of land, staff and interns maintain 6 greenhouses used to grow greens like arugula, pea shoots, sunflower shoots (microgreens), mustards and salad mix. Two more hoophouses are devoted to aquaponics, where tilapia and perch are raised (for protein!); 7 more greenhouses for salad and mushroom production, and a hoophouse just for vermicomposting (the base of the whole operation). In addition, Growing Power raises honeybees, goats and chickens! The site also includes a retail store and newly installed–anearbic digester (for creating bio-energy based on methane gas) and a water catchment system. Needless to say, I was in awe. To accomplish all of this, and also fulfill their commitment to education/outreach and community empowerment, there are 26 staff members that are on the payroll, earning a livable wage. The overall goal of this operation is to “grow food, grow minds and grow community”. The tangible results is they provide healthy, affordable and fresh produce to the community. The side effects of this are so much more: a safer neighborhood, education for the community, jobs for young people, recycling of waste (composting is HUGE there), reduction of energy use…these are just a few examples.

Will Allen has a book out entitled “The Good Food Revolution”. I purchased it after the tour, and can’t wait to read more about this project. Will Allen was also a 2008 MacArthur Genius Award winner, and as a result, Growing Power is getting more attention recently. I think this is a great thing–someday, maybe the “good food revolution” will creep across the Nation so that every city has something like this to serve as a model for urban agriculture!

Onions and potatoes for sale outside the Growing Power retail store.

Community Supported Agriculture

Community Supported Agriculture has been gaining in popularity for the last twenty years or so.  Typically called a CSA, these involve a consumer investing in a farm by paying up front for vegetables that will be provided weekly to the customer. CSAs can be a great way for farmers to get money up front to fund their farm for the season. CSAs are also great for the consumer.  Consumers can get to know the farm and the farmer from where they get their food to eat. Also, they are often times encouraged to try new things and new recipes that they didn’t want to try before.

Farmer’s can also institute work days where families that participate in the CSA can come and work for the day and learn about the processes of the farm. This can be a great way for children to learn more about where vegetables come from.  However, vegetables are not the only things that can be a part of a CSA! Some farmer’s include eggs, milk, meat, or processed foods!

On the organic farm, we have had the opportunity to do our own type of CSA with McKay Used Books! Each week, employees are encouraged to sign up for a box of vegetables, either a $10 box or a $20 box! We have also been offering individual bags of basil and tomatoes by the pound.  This has been a great learning experience for me and I have had a lot of great feedback from the employees! I hope to continue bringing the vegetables and that more people will take advantage of CSAs in their areas.

Broadening our Horizons

This past Tuesday we had the opportunity to tour Broadening Horizons Organic Teaching Farm. The farm is a small, family operated teaching farm dedicated to the learning, the practice, and the teaching of sustainable based agricultural practices. The farmers who care for the farm are a husband and wife team, Farmers Leaf & Cielo.

When you step onto their farm there is an air of harmony that I think comes from the consciencious way they care for the land and animals. A great deal of insight and understanding of land management, permaculture, water use and animal husbandry is evident at Broadening Horizons Farm. Farmer Leaf explained the whole farm water collection system onsite used for crop irrigation and animal water needs. It was amazing to see how much has changed in the landscape since they began in 2004. Water conservation is a key element at this farm.

Farmer Cielo gave us a tour of Chicken Village and Pulletville which are centrally located on the farm and are home to a farm-bred mixed flock of select heritage breeds of chickens. These girls live pretty well with access to two acres of pasture and a variety of bugs and forages to feast on. Not to mention the chicken houses which are spacious, clean and even decorated in some cases!

A crop of heirloom Tennessee Red Cob corn stood tall and proud on the farm and the farmers explained it has resistance to heat and drought which helped it to pull through last weeks hot and dry conditions. One of the products available from the farm are heirloom seeds. For a complete list of available seeds check out the website link. Other products include honey from the on farm apiary, eggs and milk.

Our visit was meant to be an education/work exchange but mother nature had other plans and the skies opened up around 2pm. We shall be returning to the farm in the near future to help out with some farm work and look forward to visiting this wonderful place again! Please take a look at the website as they offer workshops, volunteer and internship opportunities to aspiring farmers.


Looks are not everything, a lesson that applies universally.

A while back, before tomato season was in, I had bought a few tomatoes from the store.  Upon purchase, they appeared flawless: a perfect plump body, an electric-red coat; but, a taste similar to, well…stale bread, limp celery, or to many critics, cardboard.  This disgruntled conversation in the world of store bought tomatoes, and almost all produce, is fairly common.  As I henpecked through the entire display of two or three-hundred tomatoes searching for the best looking tomato, I stopped to consider the magnitude of the energy invested to produce this harvest for this grocery store—and furthermore, the production of this produce for that same grocery store nationwide.  I considered how many acres of farmland would have to be dedicated to produce this fruit, how the tomato plants been modified to increase yield, how yield increase affects tomatoes’ taste, and how cultivar names of the tomato plants have become reduced to market labels such as “slicer tomato,” “off-the-vine tomato,” and “beefsteak” tomato.

A couple of weeks ago I heard an article on the radio about how this bland fruit results from the decades of developing a better producing tomato plant.  There are a two elements here to analyze, the first is the inability for modern cultivars to maintain an adequate supply of sugars and minerals for its rapidly producing fruit.  The second refers to green shoulder on tomatoes.

For tomato producers, the market demands yield and flawless appearance (taste, I suppose, is not priority?).  To make the market’s demand, producers grow varieties that generate overly abundant yields.  The issue lies here, most modern tomato plants cannot provide ample amounts of sugar and chemicals, known as volatiles, which give tomatoes that acidic and savory-sweet taste.  Roughly 30 different volatiles and the interaction of non-volatile compounds (sugars , organic acids, salts, and free amino acids)  contribute to that full-bodied taste of a quintessential tomato (Yilmaz 150).  These components are largely absent in current forms of reduced-land and quantity-encouraged agricultural production.

The second matter you can see for your own eyes; that is, if it makes its way to market.  I am referring to something most growers instantly get headaches when they hear about, that is green shoulder.  Green shoulder is a phenomenon in which the top of the fruit fails to ripen at the same rate as the rest of the fruit—generally a result in conditions of high or large fluctuations in temperature.  According to recent studies, a gene found in heirloom and wild varieties of tomato known as SIGLK2 is responsible for a larger amount of chloroplasts (Kupferschmidt).  When there are more chloroplasts present, more sugar is produced as chloroplast converts CO2 and water into glucose and fructose.

                       Click for larger image

What occurs today is that farmers, that is, those farmers who focus on quantity over quality, grow tomato varieties that are bred with this gene inactive.  The result is a uniformly ripening tomato that is picked when green and ripens during transport.  Consequently, however, the inactivity of this gene means that there is a severe lack in chloroplast and therefore desired sugars.

Now, this does not necessarily mean that all tomatoes that have green shoulder are the best pick at market.  No, green shoulder is still a defect of poor growing conditions.  What it does indicate is the presence of the SIGLK2 gene, and therefore a much more flavorful tomato.  New forms of genetic modification are interested in reincorporating this gene to create a plant that produces abundant and flavorful fruit.  There are also still the arguments that close to 80% of sugars are produced in the tomato plants’ leaves and later transported into the fruit.  However, it could be argued that production methods, more than anything else, are greatly responsible for the lack of flavor.

Critics of these issues always raise the argument that if you are fed up with grocery store produce then grow your own.  However, with the way housing and land scarcity is growing, gardens have become harder to implement.  However, this is a topic for next time’s blog!

Yilmaz, Emin.  The Chemistry of Fresh Tomato Flavor.

Kai Kupferschmidt, How Tomatoes Lost their Taste.  Science Magazine. 28 June 2012.