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New Book Takes a Look at Urban Farms Across the U.S.

It was an overcast but hot and humid Sunday July afternoon when 50 volunteers arrived to clear a sizable lot of land at Phoenix Press in New Haven, Connecticut, underneath their wind turbine, that is soon to become New Haven Farms’ fifth farm site.

As a founding member of New Haven Farms, it is exciting to see our urban farm sites sprout up around the edges of Fair Haven, an historic area of New Haven and one that has been home to immigrant populations for over 100 years. The mission of New Haven Farms is to promote health and community development through urban agriculture and our goal is to establish and cultivate year-round urban farms that produce nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits, in collaboration with community members who are both within 200 percent of the federal poverty level and suffering from diabetes, pre-diabetes, or have at least two risk factors for diabetes. The organization is now partnering with the Fair Haven Community Health Center (FHCHC) to rigorously build farms in the lowest income neighborhoods of New Haven, and investigate the impact of increased exposure and consumption of fresh, local nutrient-dense foods on this underserved community’s health. Its CSA program began the first week of July–called the New Haven Farms Fresh Produce Prescription Program.

Looking at the barren, rocky site at Phoenix Press gave me a rush. It may look desolate now but I can visualize a farm here, and I can imagine all the green and luscious, nutritious produce that will rise forth out of this lot within a year’s time [with the help of a lot of compost!] So when the afternoon was over and the volunteers got back on their bus, I returned home and immediately opened Sarah Rich’s beautiful book, Urban Farms and allowed myself to be inspired and imagine what this new farm site can become. This book chronicles the urban agriculture movement through gorgeous photography and thoughtful essays that would inspire any good urbanite to pick up a shovel and find a nearby community garden. Read more

Detroit: A Tale of Two… Farms?

recent article in The Wall Street Journal celebrated the Hantz Farms project to establish a 10,000 acre private farm in Detroit. The project hinges on a very large land deal offered by financial services magnate John Hantz to buy up over 2,000 empty lots from the city of Detroit. Hantz’s ostensible objective is to establish the world’s largest urban mega-farm.

I say “ostensible” because despite futuristic artists’ renderings of Hantz Farms’ urban greenhouses, presently John Hantz is actually growing trees rather than food. The project website invites us to imagine “high-value trees… in even-spaced rows” on a three-acre pilot site recently cleaned, cleared and planted to hardwood saplings. These trees, it seems, are just a first step in establishing a 200 acre forest and eventually–pending approval by the City Council–the full Hantz megafarm.

In the short run, the purchase by Hantz cleans things up, puts foreclosed lots back on the tax rolls and relieves the city of maintenance responsibilities. If the tree farm expands, it could provide a few jobs. In the long run, however, Hantz hopes his farm will create land scarcity in order to push up property values–property that he will own a lot of. Read more

Moving Toward Self-Sufficiency: The Urban Farm Handbook

You need not live in an urban area for the Urban Farm Handbook to be useful to you. I admit that I did find myself briefly missing Berkeley’s lovely year-round growing season and generous sunshine as I read about the author’s endeavors in the Pacific Northwest, but then I remembered the price of real estate in the Bay Area and how I never could fully adjust to the reality of earthquakes and the feeling (mostly) passed.

The book features excellent hands-on, detailed instructions for how to do things like grind your own grains, raise chickens and goats, make your own cheese, yogurt, kefir and more, start or join a buying club with friends and neighbors to buy in bulk directly from local farmers, start and maintain your own bee colony, establish a year-round garden, slaughter your own animals, make your own soap, salves and lotion, and build a community of like-minded people doing the same stuff to support you in it. Read more

Planting Roots in Abandoned Lots: Mark MacInnis’ Documentary on Detroit’s Urban Farms

Mark MacInnis is a native-born Detroiter who returned in 2009 to document a burgeoning urban farming community that is converting abandoned lots and open spaces into local food production and a sustainable food system. His film, Urban Roots, takes a close look at what happens to a city after a post-industrial collapse and suggests a new type of American Dream – one founded on nourishing community through the creation of a local economy. In a place where 46.6 percent of children live below the poverty line, there is an urgent need for change. Read more

Urban Farming For Profit

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. Read more

Urban Farming Essentials: Authors of a New, Definitive Guide Tell All

After Novella Carpenter’s critically acclaimed memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer came out, she and friend Willow Rosenthal, the founder of West Oakland gardening nonprofit City Slicker Farms, started talking about compiling a manual on urban gardening. “We always got these random emails like, ‘My chickens aren’t laying anymore!’” says Carpenter. So she and Rosenthal joked that they should write a book so they could reply: “Buy the book!”

Three years later, they can. Their new book, The Essential Urban Farmer, is a 500-page nuts-and-bolts guide to farming in the city–complete with sample garden designs, detailed illustrations, and photos of rabbit genitalia. Rosenthal, who is also a Waldorf School teacher and runs a small CSA in Berkeley, wrote the first two sections of the book: “Designing Your Urban Farm” and “Raising City Vegetables and Fruits.” Carpenter wrote the section called “Raising City Animals.” With advice on how to fix a chicken’s prolapsed “vent,” and a detailed how-to on eviscerating a chicken, it’s not for the squeamish. But then, neither is raising livestock.

I talked to Carpenter and Rosenthal recently about the guide, and got some tips about  how to create a thriving urban farm. Read more

Youth Farms Keep New Orleans Teens in School Gardens

Smack in the middle of a half-dozen shipping containers and striding up a mound of gravel, Johanna Gilligan, 31, can’t contain her excitement. “This looks so awesome!” She nods her head at an alcove between two containers, painted the pale color of new celery, with dry sinks attached. “That’s going to be for processing.”

Gilligan, co-director of New Orleans’ Grow Dat Youth Farm, traipses up the mound, which terminates at a deck of sorts and more containers, crowded with architectural students from Tulane University and local urban farm experts. Beyond the deck sits a bayou, lined with trees weeping Spanish moss into the water; the I-610 freeway buzzes along in the background. “I can’t believe how much is done! My office is going to be in a treehouse!”

She has reason to be excited. At four acres, the buildings’ site is just a sliver of City Park, 1,300 acres of green space on New Orleans’ north side. But come February, the buildings will be done, the beds will be ready for planting, and the second class of Grow Dat farmers will commence their work. The goal: one acre planted, 10,000 pounds of food grown, 20 jobs for student workers. Read more

Securing A Food Future In Cities: A Case Study In Repurposing Military Bases

The Alameda Point Collaborative Urban Farm is a one-acre farm growing a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, eggs, honey, and–with the introduction of new aquaculture ponds–will soon offer fish as well. Neat rows of plants are surrounded by olive and stone fruit orchards, but beyond this farm, towering cranes are positioned on the horizon. This farm is in a unique location. Read more

Organic in Cuba: Something from Nothing

There’s a scene in Terry Gilliam’s 1991 movie “The Fisher King” in which a man plucks the discarded wire cage from a champagne bottle off a pile of garbage bags as he walks down a New York City street with a woman he is trying to impress.  He fiddles with the wire in his hands as they walk, eventually holding up what looks like a delicate and beautiful little metal chair, fit for a dollhouse. “You can find some pretty amazing things in the trash,” he says to her.  She is smitten.

That transformation of a piece of trash into a thing of beauty transfixed me then, and still does.  When I traveled to Cuba a few weeks ago, on a food sovereignty study trip with Food First, I had the opportunity to be transfixed again and again. Read more

Faith-Based Urban Farm Opens in Berkeley

Sunday marked the grand opening of Urban Adamah, the first faith-based, modern urban farm in West Berkeley, at 1050 Parker Street near San Pablo Avenue, opposite Fantasy Studios. The one-acre farm with Jewish roots offers a residential fellowship program for young adults, summer camps for kids and teens, and plans to help feed the needy in the community. Read more