Urban Farming: A Tough Row to Hoe

In his Urban Notebook column last month, Governing managing editor Chris Swope explored the idea of urban farming -- the concept of utilizing vacant properties ...
by | September 18, 2009

In his Urban Notebook column last month, Governing managing editor Chris Swope explored the idea of urban farming -- the concept of utilizing vacant properties within a city to raise and sell crops.

Chris suggested the concept could be a saving grace for blighted cities such as Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland. "There is something odd about creating farmland in the city even as developers gobble it up in the country," he wrote. "But for a place in as bad a shape as Detroit is, it's hard to see what else there is to do."

Personally, I think it's a very cool concept -- microfarming (or "subacre" agriculture) has the potential to renew disused lots, create jobs, bring healthful produce into urban food deserts and help restore community pride.

With that in mind, I trekked to New York yesterday to sit in on a conference aimed at fostering growth in sustainable farmers. At the first-ever Agriculture 2.0 conference, sustainable-ag entrepreneurs gathered to pitch their ideas to investors.  (If you're interested, check out tweets from the conference.)

The attendees came from all parts of the ag industry, from Kansas farm co-ops to soil chemists to off-shore aquaculture firms.

Urban agriculture itself wasn't a big topic, but there were some rumblings. For starters, the conference had been co-organized by Roxanne Christensen of SPIN Farming, a group that's pushing for small-plot city farming. ("SPIN" stands for "Small-plot intensive" farming.)

Christensen extolled the virtues of subacre farming to the conference attendees. She noted that, because it's so much easier to devote attention to, say, a half-acre of land than a thousand-acre commercial farm, small-plot farming can be much more productive than large-scale agriculture. In fact, she said, urban farms could be 100 times more productive per square foot.

"Cities can encourage SPIN farming," Christensen told me. "They've got the land, they've got the money, they've got the infrastructure. And most importantly, they've got the market."

Right now, though, Christensen says she's more interested in matching agriculture entrepreneurs with capital investment. "If you ask any of the people interested in this, they'll tell you that the best thing cities could do is just to get out of the way."

At this point, the idea of urban farming is so nascent, so novel, that it's still waiting to gain real traction. There was one public employee at the conference, a woman from the New York City economic development office. She told me she was very interested in the potential of urban farming and that it would likely fit in with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's approach to urban renewal. 

One of the agriculture investors was asked how many pitches he'd gotten from small-scale urban farmers. "Out of 500 proposals," he said, "we've seen zero."

So it's gonna be a while before you see corn rows in downtown Cleveland. But at least the seeds of the idea are being sown.

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