Urban Farmers and Their Frightening Ideas

“U.S. urban agriculture communities need to support a massive program of land redistribution in urban and rural areas in the U.S. and abroad. Stolen land must be reoccupied and farmed or restored to habitat; indeed, we must practice the principle that farms can be re-made as habitat.”

The above is a quote from a response to an article that I wrote basically questioning the urban farming movement’s claim that they were an alternative to conventional farming.  My argument was that there was not the urban land base capable of producing the quantities of food that the movement claimed. I also went out of my way to praise the movement for the food that they do produce and the benefits of gardeming – just that they seemed to be over promising and underdelivering. The abuse I received for even questioning the movement was astounding.

First, here is the link to my article:

 http://www.agprofessional.com/news/Urban-farming-is-an-urban-myth–163861346.html?ref=346

Now the link to the response (one of many that can be read on the Ag. Professional website) that included the above quote.

http://www.goodfoodworld.com/2012/07/urban-farms-or-urban-myths/

And finally my response to the above.

Dr. Peña,

Thanks for the time you spent reviewing my article which was drawn from my book, “Demystifying Food from Farm to Fork”.  I seem to have insights that are new to you.

My article was a challenge to your movement to go beyond describing the very real enthusiasm and dedication of those involved in what I agree is a wonderful initiative and to move on and demonstrate with clarity how you can realistically provide significant quantities of food.

For example, according to the Seattle Department of Neighborhood’s website (chosen because you live there) there are 75 community gardens, totaling 23 acres, serving 4,400 gardeners who each spent an average of four hours per year growing food.  The city budget for the program is $2 million annually. For illustrative purposes let us assume that the yield in Seattle matches that of the rather famous Dervaes family in Pasadena, CA. (As an aside, too bad that they hijacked the term Urban Homesteader moniker which nicely captures what your movement is all about.)  They maintain that they produce three tons of food per year from 1/5 of an acre. This would mean a yield of a total of 345 tons (700,000 pounds) from the 23 acres.  Seattle proper has a population of slightly over 600,000 so this amounts to an average of a little over a pound per citizen per year at a cost to the taxpayer of about a $3.00 per pound. By comparison, using the same analysis, New York City comes up with less than a half pound of produce per inhabitant per year from their community gardens. Given that a typical combination of vegetables averages 200 calories per pound, the community gardens in Seattle would feed the overall population for about two hours total.

 My challenge to you is that I doubt if your movement can even supply one percent of the nation’s food. For Seattle, this means that to provide the calories to feed 600 thousand people for 3.6 days (1% of the year) you would require about 43 times the amount dedicated to community gardens or almost 1000 acres (1.6 square miles). Furthermore, the area of Seattle proper is 84 square miles so even if it was all one big productive field it would feed the inhabitants only for 51 days.

The above mentioned Dervaes family gets by on 1/5 of an acre (8712 square feet) so this would require perhaps up to 5,000 urban farmers to plant, care for, and harvest an area equal a thousand football fields in Seattle proper.  For the greater metropolitan area with five times the population, the requirement would be 5000 football fields (eight square miles) and perhaps 25,000 participants to produce only 1% of the community’s caloric requirements.

Moving on to the national scale, greater Seattle has almost exactly one percent of the Nation’s population,  so the US as a whole would require 2.5 million urban farmers to produce one percent of the food while the remaining 99% would be from the efforts of  the 2 million folks currently engaged in conventional farming.

North Americans are notorious for shirking farm work, particularly when it comes to growing fruit and vegetables which often cannot be fully mechanized. Unlike Cuba or Russia, we require legions of foreign workers so I maintain that the human element of your movement is even more of a challenge than the lack of viable land in the urban setting.

I fully agree that urban farmers have developed all sorts of nifty approaches to producing food. However, are they relevant in the larger arena of conventional agriculture where any technology that requires more foreign workers or increases the cost of producing food will be a challenge to introduce? Your followers seem willing to toil for the love of growing things which is highly admirable but commercial farming is a business and unless there is a reasonable return on labor and capital, the system becomes dysfunctional as is so evident in North Korea where they reap more famine than food.

I stand by my statement that urban farming is a myth that does not have the available land or human involvement to produce more than what amounts to a rounding error in the nation’s overall food production statistics.  I invite you to prove me wrong.

You may be asking why I am taking the trouble to “rain on your parade” when I fully agree that those such as myself who are engaged with raising food in cities provide so many benefits including improving the dynamics of our urban communities.  It is the likes of the following from your essay disagreeing with my article that gives me concern.

 “U.S. urban agriculture communities need to support a massive program of land redistribution in urban and rural areas in the U.S. and abroad. Stolen land must be reoccupied and farmed or restored to habitat; indeed, we must practice the principle that farms can be re-made as habitat.”

Yes, conventional farming has a lot of best practices that are waiting to be adopted but nevertheless North America not only produces ample food for their own populations but has lots left over to feed the world. Land redistribution has been attempted in the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, and elsewhere with disastrous results resulting outright famine.  Any movement that wishes to influence the dynamics of farming on a national and international sale should at least demonstrate that they actually have the wherewithal to reliably produce significant quantities of food.

 Maurice Hladik

Author of “Demystifying Food from Farm to Fork”

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2 thoughts on “Urban Farmers and Their Frightening Ideas

  1. Good points Mr. Anderson. I am all in favor of urban gardens and spend much of my summer in mine and also exchange plants, seeds, and tips with fellow enthusiasts.. It is a wonderful activity for those involved for the reasons that you described and more. What bothers me is that some of the movement’s most vocal supporters contend that urban farming is the future of food and go out of their way to discredit conventional agriculture which, for better or worse, continues to provide 99% of the food required to keep domestic food insecurity at bay for the majority of folks and still have lots left over for a hungry world. It is important that urban farming’s potential be understood by the those involved with developing policy regarding how the nation goes about feeding itself.

    No matter how dedicated the movement, the available land in urban centers today simply does not have the capacity live up to the hype. I challenge someone to prove me wrong.

  2. Dr. Hladik, you’re evidently too young to remember Victory Gardens. I’m old enough to remember them. In WWII millions of people managed to raise their own vegetables, if not a full food supply for everyone. All it took was the government motivating them (war effort!) and providing really good manuals–the best manuals on gardening that I have ever seen. All those lazy Americans who are so lazy that they make immigrants do all the work managed to get out and work their tails off, and this in addition to their regular jobs. There are several successful programs now–an old friend of mine runs one in Houston that has totally transformed the city–to train and find land for urban poor without land or skills. The difference in nutrition is fantastic, even if no more total calories are produced. I can’t see why you wax so emotional opposing something that really does make a huge positive difference without any significant cost to anyone.

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