When I was in the Ukraine in 1992, I heard an interesting story about small and large-scale farming happening side by side in the countryside. Although most rural people worked on the massive state-controlled collective farms, each person was allowed a small garden plot next to his dacha for personal use. Predictably, folks ended up using these plots to produce a lot of fruits and vegetables and even, through barter and the black market, income for their families. Meanwhile, the collective farms did not usually live up to expectations. The way the Ukrainians told it it, they made more income off these sub-acre plots than they did off the huge collective farms.
At first blush, this story is a lesson about capitalism rewarding hard work in the midst of the general failure of Soviet-style communism. Of course there are some other lessons more applicable to our current situation. One is that small-plot agriculture like we often see in urban settings can be incredibly productive. Studies by the Rodale Institute have shown that organic agriculture is at least as productive as conventional chemical-dependent agriculture, and the experiences of intensive urban farmers everywhere continue to demonstrate how much can be done with a little space.
Right now in the U.S., there are many consumers who are willing to pay a premium for beyond-organic, local produce, and there is a growing number of urban farmers who are coming up with inventive ways to harvest produce in tight quarters. Last week I was sitting around a table in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans at the Blair Grocery project as part of the filming for my upcoming documentary “Plant This Movie.” Nat Turner and the Blair Grocery team do a lot of great things including a good bit of education and a whole lot of community building. But the grocery’s business model is particularly compelling.
I observed a group of high school students busily stuffing bags full of sprouts to be sold at a local co-op and to restaurants. Each 4.2 ounce bag sold for $5, and the co-op was turning around and selling them for more than $7. Some of this exchange trickles down to the students themselves in the form of $50 weekly checks for their roughly 10-hour per week commitment. The Blair Grocery farmers also sell at farmers markets and to their neighbors, who usually get a discount from the co-op prices.
New Orleans isn’t exactly crawling with healthy marketplaces, so if this model works there, it can certainly work in more affluent communities in the developed world. Sure, the kids are absorbing many intangible benefits by being part of a farm team and taking responsibility for their product, but I know from talking to them that the weekly stipend is definitely one of their motivations for getting and staying involved. It’s hard to imagine community gardens generating the same kind of excitement in a teenage population who need to make a living.
Even in Cuba, where food security was much more than an academic term, urban farming developed into a vital part of local economies across the island. What began as a dramatic effort to fend off starvation turned into a way for many Cubans to make a living. They formed co-ops where many of them still make three to five times the average Cuban monthly salary. I asked Macon Fry, a legendary urban farmer in New Orleans, his opinion on the profit versus free question. We were in one of his three farm plots at the time, a space owned by Xavier University. As part of his answer to the question, Macon pointed to a run-down plot in the corner of the garden. “People need to have ownership,” he said. He thinks the best answer for most people is tending a backyard garden.
To borrow an idea that I read about years ago, why don’t we have more people working two part-time jobs–20 hours a week inside doing office work or anything else, and the rest of the work week spent outside, growing food? Of course when the need is very great or where the growing is very easy, people are going to grow food regardless of their ability to make money doing so. But I do think that the dacha garden example does make an argument for the profit motive. Community gardens have been around for a long time, and while they do their part for creating community and putting fresh vegetables on the table, I think if we are interested in scaling up urban agriculture in the developed world, we need to support for-profit ventures. Now more than ever we need to think about the way our food is produced and how best to keep our urban farmers in business.