Five Groups Working to Help New Farmers Access Land

It’s a tough time for aspiring small farmers. On top of start up capital, they need land, which is next to impossible to find at a reasonable price. This situation has only been made worse since the 2008 economic crisis by a surge of investor interest in farmland. On top of wealthy individuals, large hedge funds, pension funds, and university  endowments have all gotten in on the act, treating land, “like gold, with yield.” Read more

It Takes a Village: Designing St. Paul’s Frogtown Urban Farm

Urban farms are almost a cliché these days. Since the mid-2000s, media attention and increasing grassroots efforts have looked to urban farming as a kind of cure-all, a way to address a whole range of social, ecological, and economic problems facing cities and their residents. While I don’t want to dispute these ideas, I am interested in a more nuanced understanding of what it takes to make an urban farm “work.”  How can these farms go beyond the hype? What challenges do urban farms face? Read more

U.C. Berkeley Food Institute (BFI): Report Back from Inaugural Symposium

Recently, I had the privilege of being invited to participate in the inaugural symposium of the new University of California Berkeley Food Institute (BFI). The BFI is an effort to bring together colleges within U.C. Berkeley to conduct interdisciplinary research to support the transformation of the food system into one built on diversity, justice, resilience, and health. This is an admirable effort and my initial interaction with the BFI and its organizers bolstered my confidence that the Institute may very well support the work of activists like myself. Read more

From Food Security to Food Sovereignty

It’s an exciting time for the good food movement. Sometimes it can feel as though the efforts to make agriculture more sustainable are the most visible and active component of the broader environmental movement. This shouldn’t be surprising. Our relationship to food is visceral, emotional, and continues daily.  Read more

Urban Ag: Taking Steps Toward Political Ecology

Practitioners of urban agriculture have a lot to be proud of, including forming part of a “food movement,” which is increasing in size and influence. People are questioning food systems conventions and the dominant forms of food production (industrial farming) and distribution (globalized trade) are being opposed more and more by communities around the globe. Urban agriculturists—with their claim for a viable alternative to the broken food system—seem to have at this moment a certain cultural cachet.

This is reflected in the attention urban farmers have garnered in the New York Times, Washington Post, and many other media outlets. It can be seen in the plethora of food movement documentaries like Food, Inc., Edible City, and Growing Cities. The idea of farming as a viable city activity has been further bolstered by initiatives like the White House garden. The founder of urban farming organization Growing Power, Will Allen, was even given the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 2008, in what some might pinpoint as the point of arrival for urban agriculture as a social force in the United States.

But there is an aspect of urban agriculture (UA) that is often overlooked: Economic and social class dynamics. Read more

New Urban Ag Law Paves the Way for Growers in San Francisco

Last month urban agriculture advocates in San Francisco got another piece of legislation to celebrate. City government once again came out to support the growing of food within this dense city, this time by mandating that an “urban agriculture program” be organized. The program will help coordinate existing programs within and between city agencies that touch food production (including the Recreation and Parks Department’s community gardens, the Department of the Environment’s urban orchard work, and the Public Utilities Commission’s water-saving education efforts), as well as look into new ways to expand and improve urban agriculture opportunities (including an audit of city-owned rooftops with potential for gardens or beekeeping; the development of incentives for private landowners to lease undeveloped land to urban ag projects; and–perhaps most importantly–the creation of materials resource centers, where urban agriculturists of all sorts can find the compost, mulch, and materials needed to successfully grow more food).

As a co-coordinator for the SF Urban Agriculture Alliance, a grassroots volunteer group supporting local urban agriculture projects and their respective goals, I am happy that we not only achieved the passage of such legislation, but achieved a more difficult goal: funding for the program. In these days of austerity and endless cuts, our members’ advocacy, and the support of particular city Supervisors (in particular, David Chiu, the legislation’s sponsor, and John Avalos, chair of the Budget committee) were crucial to ensuring that the program would not just exist on paper. The budgeting process is a complex and mystifying beast, but we tamed it, and came out with $120,000 for implementation of the program in the coming fiscal year. Read more

Occupy the Farm: A Model of Resistance

We all know that “Every Day is Earth Day” and many environmentalists feel that their eating habits are their daily affirmation of a commitment to the planet. But what does it look like to take action for the environment, beyond the fork? There are many options, of course, but one particularly inspirational tactic manifested this past Earth Day in Albany, CA.

On April 22, a week after the International Day of Peasant Struggle, hundreds of Bay Area food sovereignty activists and community members broke the locks on a huge piece of urban agricultural land, tore up mustard weeds, and planted veggies. “Occupy the Farm” was organized as an occupy-style protest, including tent encampments and a “farmers assembly,” but with one very meaningful difference: This act of “moral obedience” (AKA civil disobedience) was the direct outgrowth of years of neighborhood organizing around the piece of land in question. Read more

On The Prince’s Speech: Further Notes on The Future of Food

The content of “On The Future of Food” (a speech given in May of 2011 by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales at Georgetown University and recently published by Rodale Press) shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the Prince or sustainable agriculture. The two have been connected since at least 1985, when HRH converted his farmland to organic, wildlife-friendly practices. In contrast to other monarchs and heads of state, the Prince has also been an advocate of sustainable practices for commercial operations and has long stood out as a critic of industrial agriculture. That he is so personally knowledgeable on the subject—as well as being in a position to influence discourse and policy at such a high level—gives him some clout to tell us what is wrong in the food system and what can be done about it.

The newly published version of his speech is a good book for someone who hasn’t yet heard: Our current industrial food system is failing us and the planet. The Prince shows the irony that “an industrialized system, deeply dependent on fossil fuels and chemical treatment, is promoted as viable, while a much less damaging one is rubbished and condemned as unfit.” He also addresses the irony of obesity and hunger, two sides of the same dysfunction. He makes the usual case for the depth of the problem and the urgency of change and shares some reasonable solutions. Read more

To Profit or Not to Profit on the Food Movement?

My friend Tree runs the Free Farm Stand, a weekly give-away of left over farmers’ market produce, plus “hecka-local” produce gleaned and grown in San Francisco. Working the line between charity and community building, the Free Farm Stand allows people to provide for each other without requiring proof-of-poverty–which for many hungry people can be stigmatizing. People line up at the stand every Sunday, get food, share food, interact, and enjoy.

Recently, Tree and I discussed the recently-passed legislation which officially legalized urban agriculture in the San Francisco. His project is primarily concerned with food access for low-income communities and creating collaborative, non-commercial projects. Tree does not see a benefit in gaining the legal right to sell city-grown food because he wants food to be free. How, Tree asked, is the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (SFUAA–the main civic group pushing for the passage of the legislation) going to work for those who want to see volunteer-based, collective, and non-commodified forms of urban agriculture?

As mentioned in my previous post, the SFUAA worked on this new legislation out of a need expressed by one of our members, Little City Gardens, and an opportunity presented by members of city government. But my conversation with Tree has brought to my attention a rift forming in the San Francisco urban farming scene. Read more

San Francisco Passes Progressive Urban Agriculture Policy

This week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed one of the most progressive pieces of legislation for urban agriculture in the nation. The new legislation has amended the zoning code to allow agricultural activities in all parts of the city, as well as defining the parameters by which urban agriculturists can sell their products. It doesn’t address the touchier subjects of animal husbandry or marijuana cultivation, but has created opportunities for and the legitimacy of urban fruit and vegetable cultivation.

The legislation was the result of a rare combined and cooperative effort between city officials and urban agriculture practitioners and advocates. This was accomplished mainly through the work of the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (SFUAA), an organization of which I am a member, which formed nearly a year ago to coalesce the various efforts and projects focusing on local food and agriculture into a cohesive political voice. The coalition is made up of over 300 individual and 40 organizational members, and its formation turned out to be very well timed. Read more