Is the Urban Farming Movement Here to Stay?


Urban farming has the potential to help us take charge of the foods we eat, green our cities, build community, and increase food security for urban residents.

Everyday, there’s articles about backyard chickens, bee keeping, or urban yard sharing. Clearly urban agriculture is at the top of the trend pile. But is it just a trend, or a part of a sustainable future?

Last week I attended a panel discussion in San Francisco at The Commonwealth Club (presented by INFORUM), about how today’s urban farming movement began and where it’s going. Attendees were treated to a variety of perspectives from four pitchfork-toting farmerpreneur leaders of the urban farming movement in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Panelists included Jason Mark, co-manager of Alemany Farm; editor-in-chief, Earth Island Journal, Novella Carpenter, author of the book Farm City about her farm Ghost Town Farm, Christopher Burley, founder, Hayes Valley Farm, and David Gavrich (aka The Goat Whisperer), founder of City Grazing. The panel was moderated by Sarah Rich, writer; editor; co-founder, The Foodprint Project; and co-author, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century.

The panel started off with a discussion about the most recent “back to the land” movement and how it differed from today’s urban farming movement.

Back in the 60s and 70s young people migrated back to the countryside to make a go of farming. Novella Carpenter’s parents were part of that movement. But it didn’t last. People found that growing food is very hard and rural life can be extremely isolating. The motives of today’s generation of farmers are different, and more communitarian. They’re not trying to drop out. They’re trying to engage more fully with the world around them.

“We’re realizing that maybe there is a different way. We can stay in the cities and grow food where we live and it can serve as a model for sustainability, said Jason Mark. “There’s not enough room for all of us in Sonoma.”

“We’re all trying to find balance and bring the rural environment into the urban environment. We’re trying to find that niche that we live in. Everyone who plants a seed is sowing a bit of sustainability,” added Chris Burley.

Though the movement is young, things are changing rapidly. According to David Gavrich, the goat whisperer. When his business, City Grazing, put an ad in Craigslist for “goat herder, San Francisco,” they got 200 applications, and half of the applicants actually had goat experience. According to Gavrich, “people are yearning to get away from their desks”.

Urban farming does seem to be helping to revitalize neighborhoods and foster community. For example, Burley, of Hayes Valley Farm, who was featured here in a Q & A a couple of weeks back said that he was amazed to find that 50 people will consistently show up on a Thursday to shovel horse manure for four hours. Sunday work parties regularly attract 100 folks.

Jason Mark says, “community is what distinguishes this from the back to the land movement.” Alemany Farm is completely volunteer run and over the years has built up a core group of volunteers that are friends and together make up a vibrant community.

For Novella Carpenter, the community happened more by accident. Her farm begin as a personal project but has evolved into one in which neighbors are involved in various ways. The involvement started with people picking her produce without permission. Describing herself as “not a do-gooder” but saying that. “If my neighbors are hungry and I know how to grow food how can I not feed them?” she says, “everybody gives what they can.” This includes everything from the wagon proffered by the neighbor who likes her mustard greens to goat butchering lessons from the Yemeni liquor store owner.

What about bureaucratic hurdles to farming in urban areas?

They do exist but each panelist had different experiences. Gavrich has said he’s had no problems in enlightened San Francisco but recommends anticipating problems and getting everything in writing. He has a “goat clause” in his agreement with the railroad line he maintains stating that all landscape is done by natural means.

Mark echoes that San Francisco has been extremely supportive and that the mayor has laid out a food policy proposal that is sweeping and visionary. He does cite “getting the city staff to connect with the mayor’s policies” as a hurdle.

Burley said that the city came to his group to develop Hayes Valley Farm, so they have the full blessing and support from the authorities. He also said that a bottom- up approach to urban farming that utilizes people’s backyards has worked.

Most of the panelist agreed that policy changes that support urban farming are important because (though many of the non-profit farms and farms located in private backyards don’t run into problems) when an urban farm is commercialized, all it takes is one neighbor to complain about commercial activity in a residential area for a farmer to get cited.

And as Burley said, “We need to advocate for farms in residential areas because 60 percent of land is in people’s yards.”

Can urban farming help us rebuild our food systems and increase food security?

Urban farming can certainly increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables to city dwellers but we need to look at how the food is distributed and find creative ways to get the food to the people who most need it. The most sustainable way of all to provide food is to teach people how to grow their own.

For example, Alemany Farm is right next to public housing. The farm runs youth programs and provides plots to nearby residents where they can grow their own food. The farm once held a farmers market where nearby residents could purchase produce on a sliding scale. The farm is no longer allowed to sell the food, which means they have to give it away. Yet all the panelists agree that a charity model is too top-down and not sustainable.

Things are shifting as policy makers realize that urban farming can be both a green solution to city ills and perhaps even a green jobs solution. Novella Carpenter is working on a project in San Lorenzo that is part of the city’s green job training program and is funded by the sheriff’s department.

All panelists agreed that the movement needs to network, share information and resources and build the system from the ground up.

According to Chris Burley, an urban agriculture alliance is forming. And indeed for urban agriculture to ever become more than isolated individuals working on scattered city plots, we need concerted organization efforts that can both demand and work with government backing.

Panelists were asked what role education plays in the movement

Chris Burley says it’s crucial. In fact Hayes Valley Farm’s mission is not even so much to produce food, but to serve as an urban agriculture resource that provides education and advocates behavioral changes. “We can’t change what we don’t know. We need to become more aware of our impact. Food is the gateway drug to a more sustainable lifestyle. Through learning about food, little by little, we’ll become more connected and thrive as a community,” said Burley.

Novella and her co-worker/owners run an urban farming store at Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley. All day they educate people on beekeeping, chicken coops and more. They teach classes on bee and goat keeping, preserving, and other topics as well. With a trend like urban farming, it is necessary to make sure people know what they are getting into or the movement will not develop in a sustainable way.

I wonder if the Internet existed during the 60s and 70s, giving people access to information and ready support from fellow travelers, if the back-to-the-land movement might have survived.

In conclusion: here are the panelist’s best 60-second ideas to change the world.

David Gavrich – “Get leadership and political people to think holistically. Think about the impact beyond what we see. Look at externalities. If we do that, it will be clear that we’ll be better off farming in our communities.”

Chris Burley – “Crop mob. Get together and transform a backyard. Have a potluck.”

Novella Carpenter – “Every city should have a demo farm. It could be a cool tourist thing with a person managing it and showing people how to raise chickens and bees and how to can and process vegetables. There should be an “˜office of urban farming.'”

Jason Mark – “Find a little bit of land and a little water, find a friend and find someone to help. Connect with you neighbors doing the same thing. Personal actions alone don’t do it. Progress happens collectively.”

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.

Image: Jessica Reeder

Vanessa Barrington

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