Adventures in Urban Agriculture

Small Steps away from the Agricultural Industrial Complex

by Barbara Willard

Where does one find finished cow manure in Chicago at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning in late September?   And if she should be so lucky to happen upon this treasure, how does she fit fifteen 40 lb.bags into her 2002 Honda Civic, a fine vehicle for city living but not the best for agricultural use?  These are the type of questions that occupy the mind of one that is trying to execute four season farming in the heart of Chicago.  I have taken on the task, along with 27 students in my Urban Agriculture class,  of trying to establish a four season farm (yes, it can be done), in a falling-down hoop house on a standard  city lot (25’ x 125’) in a food desert in Chicago.  Clearly, we all wanted a challenge.  But we had no idea how much of a challenge we were in for.

The urban agriculture movement has experienced phenomenal growth throughout the U.S. in the past two decades, especially in large Rust Belt cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Milwaukee.  The vacant lots and shuttered factories of these former industrial boomtowns have been transformed into raised bed gardens, hoop houses, and aquaponic barns.  While urban agriculture dates back as far as the gardens of Babylon, its recent renaissance has been a welcome addition to these economically depressed areas and the sustainable agriculture movement.    UA is small, local, and situated close to human populations, consequently, simple technologies are typically used and industrial agriculture is left out of the equation. The modest plots of lands farmed by human hands harkens back to a pastoral past when individuals had  a more direct relationship with the surrounding landscape and their connection to the food supply for their very survival.  Industrial agriculture, as Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson have been warning for years, has disrupted this delicate relationship with the land, and with it, a vital connection we have to our life source.  But it is, ironically, in the city, that many are finding this connection once again.

UA could be part of a larger movement to transform our agricultural industrial complex, one of the most destructive environmental forces that we currently face, into a sustainable agricultural system that is capable of feeding the 7 billion people that now populate this earth.  I am certainly aware that UA alone could not solve the problem but let me state again, it could be part of a larger movement to displace the current system that is most definitively unsustainable as it now exists.  Agriculture is the major source of anthropogenic land transformation on earth, using about 40% of the earth’s land mass if you don’t count Greenland or Antarctica.  Estimates indicate that agriculture has altered 70 percent of the world’s grasslands, 50 percent of the savannas, 45 percent of the temperate deciduous forests and 25 percent of the tropical forests.  It is true that not all of this land transformation can be attributed to the agricultural industrial complex but a great deal of it certainly can be blamed on these intensive farming practices.  But beyond land transformation, there are other environmental damages that are directly caused by industrial farming methods.  The overuse of synthetic fertilizers has resulted in creating hypoxic dead zones in major waterways throughout the world and in our oceans.   According to the EPA’s 2009 Greenhouse Gas Inventory   synthetic fertilizer has also resulted in agriculture as the major source of nitrous oxide emissions, a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 310 times that of carbon dioxide.  The heavy reliance on fossil fuels to keep the machinery of industrial agricultural operating has made agriculture the fourth major source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – contributing 7% of the emissions overall from carbon dioxide (fossil fuel), methane (livestock), and nitrous oxide (synthetic fertilizer).  Clearly, we need a vast array of agricultural alternatives to replace this unsustainable behemoth if we are to feed the billions of people that exist on our planet now and hope to exist in the future.

According to an American Planning Association report published in 2011, Urban Agriculture: Growing Healthy Sustainable Places,  urban agriculture plays a central role in creating sustainable cities and has a number of environmental and social benefits.  The report states that the growth of urban agriculture in major Midwestern cities has already produced environmental and community sustainability benefits and provides examples from a number of U.S. and Canadian cities such as:

  • Strong community-based food systems (Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver);
  • Reusing brownfields for urban agriculture sites (Kansas City, Missouri; Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto);
  • Economic development (Flint, Michigan; Detroit, Chicago);
  • Improving community health and wellness (Seattle/King County, Toronto, Minneapolis

These successes need to be replicated in more areas.  Chicago has an estimated 70,000 – 80,000 vacant lots throughout the city.  These lots are often, at the very least, aesthetically unpleasing, but more significantly for environmental and community concerns often become the sites for illegal dumping and criminal activity.  Research on community gardening and urban agriculture indicates that when these lots are transformed into community gardens or small scale agricultural entrepreneurial pursuits, a number of benefits are experienced by the natural and human community.  Urban farming reconnects humans to the landscape, it reduces our carbon foodprint through less intensive agricultural practices and by shortening the distance between consumers and their food, it creates greenspace in urban areas, and it often makes use of city waste through use of compost and rain barrel and gray water irrigation systems.

Small steps, yes.  But I believe it is in the right direction. My ENV 345 Urban Agriculture class has been taking this small step together at a hoop house on a vacant lot on the south side of Chicago.  We sold our first harvest the other day, on November 1, a crop of organic radishes.  We are doing good honest work and the non-profit that we are farming for, Eden Place Nature Center, has benefitted from the sale.   The former lot where we farm that was once the site of illegal dumping is now producing organic crops (greens, radishes, beets, kohlrabi, carrots) in mushroom compost and organic soil.  We use drip tape irrigation for efficient watering and the sun’s rays to warm the plants in our hoop house (no other source of electricity is necessary).  We don’t need a vast transportation system to get our food to consumers because consumers are all around us. The largest customer base comes from the senior public housing home that is two blocks away.  We can walk the food over to the residents that can’t make the trek.  Small steps.

Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on urban agriculture, food deserts, and the move toward sustainable agriculture on the Environmental Critique blog.  I see it as an essential topic for this blog because, to me, the closest we get to the connection between nature and culture is in agriculture, where the natural world and human bodies become one.  The way we choose to cultivate the land so that we can merge our bodies with nature and its bounty is an essential choice, one that can determine the future of the health of our ecosystems and the species that exist in them, including our own.



Filed under Urban Agriculture

3 responses to “Adventures in Urban Agriculture

  1. Randall Honold

    This is exciting, Barb. Your class is becoming hugely influential to our students.

  2. Pingback: Title: “Toward a Gastronomic Urbanism: Chicken Edition” | environmental critique

  3. Agnes Kalat

    Agnes Kalat. The second I opened the Environmental Critique site I knew right off the bat that my goal was to find your post on Urban Agriculture. I am a senior graduating in March and I really wish I had the opportunity to take your class. I chose this post in particular because of my strong interest in nutrition and environmental health. I wrote in an earlier reflection for my ENV 350 class that I wanted to improve community wellness by promoting sustainable food gardens and this is what your Urban Agriculture class is doing.
    I understand that industrial agriculture poses many environmental impediments, but I would like to focus my response on nutrition. As I was reading your reflection I found a lot of interesting points. I really like the pattern you made in the history of our connection with land. We went from feeling a strong association with land to having a strong disconnect and are now back on a path to a deeper connection. Like you said, I think it is a great idea to use these lots for something better and begin a shift from illegal dumping towards community gardens. On a side note, I know that Evanston Township High School partners with the Talking Farm to provide the community with more knowledge on the importance of locally grown foods. Most importantly, by supporting locally grown foods at farmers’ markets we are taking small steps to help combat global warming. To me this is super exciting because it clearly shows that we are starting to reconnect with the land and environment!

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