Is a Farm Coming to a Strip Mall Near You?

strip mall

Growing food closer to where we live, both in urban centers and suburban tracts, is going to become more important as oil prices rise. Right now, it’s an important step to providing access to healthy food for more people, making agriculture more sustainable and providing more opportunities for a younger crop of farmers. But it’s going to require a reversal in development patterns.

For generations, the pattern has been to pave over farmland with housing and shopping center developments. In California, particularly, this is a problem because California is not only one of the fastest-growing states but also contains some of the world’s most valuable farmland.

For example, according to this article, The San Joaquin Valley produces over 250 different crops and about 25 per cent of the United States agriculture output by dollar value. In 1960, the population of the valley was around 1.4 million, by 2000 it had risen to 3.3 million, it is projected to reach 4.2 million by 2010 and near 8 million by 2050. I’ve seen figures stating that farmland is converted to subdivisions and shopping malls at a rate of two acres a minute. If this pattern continues, where is our food going to come from?

Last week I attended The West Coast Direct Marketing Summit, organized by Roots of Change with the USDA. The main topics of conversation were about enhancing opportunities for farmers and increasing community access to nutritious foods, with special emphasis on ways to replicate and scale up grassroots efforts.

The conference was organized around a series of case studies to share best practices among participants. It was wonderful to witness government officials, farmers, food activists, farmers’ market managers and funders sitting in the same room together hammering out solutions to the issue of food access.

At the conference, it became clear to me that there is a quiet reversal in land-use patterns. One case study I attended was organized by Soil Born Farms located in Sacramento. Soil Born has two small farms within the Sacramento city limits. Through creative land use agreements, they are able to feed, employ and educate local youth as well as serve a senior center nearby. Watching a slide show about the farm, it was gratifying to see the verdant farmland take over the suburbs instead of the other way around.

There are other examples around and outside the country:

Here’s a story about a retired CIA official farming among the McMansions outside of DC. He says that local food might be a luxury now, but feels it will be a necessity in the future. He wants to use his small plot to train up-and-coming young farmers.

In Maryland, a group of neighbors has organized gardens on every block in their community.

In Portland, Oregon, the 47th Avenue Farm consists of three farms plunked down right in the middle of suburbia, serving customers through a CSA program. These are all examples of farms that have grown up organically, conceived of and created by ordinary citizens.

Recently, developers have started getting in on the game. In Australia, there is the Crystal Waters Permaculture Village. Outside of Chicago, there’s Prairie Crossing.

It’s fantastic that developers are beginning to intersperse edible green space and farmers’ markets among developments. Not only does this increase future food security, it’s smart marketing. People who buy into these developments know they are buying into a better quality of life.

But there’s a dark side, too. Micro farms within city limits are an important part of the picture, but they are not going to feed the entire population. We need to preserve large swaths of prime farmland. “Eco” developments that result in a net loss of valuable farmland should be discouraged. These developments should be interspersed among current suburbs or built on marginal land, not prime farmland. As this article illustrates, each potential development must be evaluated on its individual merits.

Image: gary j wood

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.