Archive for January, 2008

It took a crisis in Cuba for urban agriculture to take over.  The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 cut off nearly all agricultural imports to Cuba, including pesticides, fertilizers, farming equipment, and food.  Not only did organic farming increase, by necessity, but Cubans began cultivating a significant percentage of their food in urban areas.  The government encouraged them to do so.  And in 1998, the city farms in Havana alone produced an estimated 541,000 tons of food for local consumption.  These included 8,000 officially recognized production units cultivated by over 30,000 people.  The population of Havana is 2.2 million.  Today, some neighborhoods in the city produce 30 percent of their own subsistence needs.[1] 


A significant growth in urban agriculture in the US is worth considering for several reasons.  For one thing, such cultivation would be small-scale, and thus would encourage local consumption (the most local, from one’s own garden).  But urban food production would also contribute to community food security, would rescue biodiversity, provide local jobs, create a complete cycle of nutrients and waste, aesthetically improve urban spaces, and increase the freshness and variety of the ingredients in the urban diet.  Increasing a community’s food security would ultimately mean creating a strong, regionally based food system that wouldn’t rely upon imports, or foods that could be prevented from reaching people in times of war or crisis.  Plant biodiversity would thrive as people learned to grow the specific varieties of foods native to their land, varieties that are everywhere disappearing as cities expand and farms consolidate.  Such biodiversity would mean too a greater variety of foods and nutrients, which would contribute immensely to the health of those who ate them.  The complete recycling of nutrients and waste within single households would have an immense, positive environmental impact on food-producing communities.  And, urban spaces could be so much more beautiful!

The next question then is how we in the US might cause a bit of an agricultural revolution in our country akin to that which the end of trade with the Soviet Union caused in Cuba. 

pict5585.jpgWorking at Added Value’s Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn has been a personal (tiny) contribution of mine to the growth of urban agriculture in New York.  The hundreds of community gardens throughout the five boroughs are consistently inspirational.  Just Food trains community members to start up “City Farms” throughout the New York area.  And the people working them, and eating the produce they’ve grown themselves, understand the value and joy of providing even a small portion of their own daily sustenance. 

As for California, I’m gradually acquainting myself with the various organizations at work to increase food production in the Bay Area.  Spiral Gardens runs a Community Farm in South Berkeley, producing food for volunteers as well as low-income seniors in a nearby housing complex.  City Slicker Farms helps low-income West Oakland residents build and maintain backyard vegetable gardens.  Beyond supporting and operating four productive gardens in North and West Oakland, People’s Grocery is collaborating with the Sustainable Agriculture Education Center (SAGE) to increase food cultivation in their recently opened 15-acre Agriculture Park in Sunol, which will grow fresh produce for West Oakland residents.  SAGE has developed an “Agricultural Parks Toolkit” as a “comprehensive guide for public and private landowners who want to establish agriculture as a valued urban-edge amenity.”  UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development has been working with SAGE to develop a policy framework for “New Ruralism,” a concept meant to strengthen the emerging synergy between the new urbanism/smart growth movement and the sustainable agriculture/regional food systems movement.  The Alemany Farm cultivates food on four and a half productive acres, right in the city of San Francisco. 

pict5591.jpgFor a personal take on these efforts…your author here is still a student.  So for the moment, three UC Berkeley courses are contributing to the urban ag vision.  Land Use Controls” is supplying an understanding of the complex laws and organization behind zoning, subdividing, property taxation, and the influences of infrastructure on land use.  Cartographic Representation” is providing skills with which to artistically, persuasively map out what could really happen on urban territory.  And “Urban Forestry” is lending a little more hands-on knowledge about what urban growth actually requires.  Meanwhile, I’ll be eating foods every day that are all grown quite nearby.  Altogether, that’s a personal start.

And this is personal stuff, urbanites.  It’s your property, your garden, your hands in the dirt.  You yourself might never grow enough to supply even an entire meal, but you can contribute to a change in the food system, one that would immensely benefit your community and it’s local health, economy, and security.  Call me crazy, but I believe those are the areas that currently concern our population the most.


Also, my friend Adam Brock recently wrote a (more detailed, less Annie-style-sentimental) four-part series entitled “Why Cityfarming?”  Check it out.


[1] Murphy, Catherine.  Development Report No.12: Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis.  1999. 

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Brooklyn to Berkeley

My first afternoon here, on Shattuck and Telegraph Avenues, I might have been in any white, liberal town of the US.  Like Asheville, North Carolina, or Northampton, Mass.  Places I happen to love, where people check out my grandfather’s hat, youthful eyes curiously question my sexual orientation, and the source of my coffee cup represents a certain style, ideology, and economic standing.  Surprisingly, the exclusive edginess of alternative culture failed to appear as it might have, and often does, snaking through dreadlocks, coating café tables, and hanging in hand-rolled cigarette smoke.  But Berkeley begged for another day of first impressions.  I felt like I could have been anywhere.

Twenty-four hours later, there was no more confusion.

ferrybuilding.jpgIn the morning, accidentally, I came upon a (somehow familiar) community of growers and buyers of locally consumed food, who made for the best welcome a Brooklynite could have received.  They connected the coasts.  The woman selling Cultured raw sauerkraut at the Berkeley Farmers Market knows and admires Hawthorne Valley Farm in New York.  The guy selling Happy Girl Kitchen pickles outside the Ferry Building has personally met Rick of Rick’s Picks.  Nathan, inside the Ferry Building, informed me that his Stonehouse Olive Oil is sold near South Street Seaport in Manhattan.  And despite mental recognition that it’s not remotely local, I was somewhat proud to see Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue at Cowgirl Creamery, as well as Meadow Creek Dairy Grayson.  

Not only was I cheerfully welcomed to California and stuffed with each farmers’ product at every stand, but there were details of the market we just haven’t made happen in the East: “Cheap” crates of particularly ripe fruit ($0.75/lb persimmons, and $1/lb apples), compost bins beside the recycling and regular trash, coffee stands with fair trade, organic beans brewed fresh for the market shoppers, boxes of used brown bags (for anyone to add to or take from), various voter registration stands within just one block, and samples, of everything, everywhere, at all times.

This really might have been enough.  But of course it also appears that buckwheat might be the only thing that doesn’t grow in California soil.  At the Berkeley market, tangerines piled up on various tables, and pecans and pistachios, almonds and walnuts, oranges, lemons, mandarins, persimmons, and dates (six kinds, all of which I tasted).  Local olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  Legal raw milk.  And all the roots and fruits and greens we have back East.  “No my dear, buckwheat doesn’t grow here,” the lady at the honey stand told me.  I made a mental note of one New York perk.

And I recognized that this is not Asheville, nor Northampton.  It’s not like anywhere I’ve been since coming of age.  I’ve already been warmly welcomed to look around Chez Panisse; no one objected to my copying down notes from the The Cheeseboard Collective Works on a busy Friday night at the pizza collective; and I’ve been reminded to visit each of the three farmers’ markets in my neighborhood alone.  To the East: I love you and I will come home.  But there is much to observe here, and to learn from and enjoy.  Basically, stay tuned….there will be much written on this place.

About what I’m doing here…

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pollanquote.jpgLast week I attended two events featuring journalist, author, and professor Michael Pollan.  He joined chef and restaurant owner Dan Barber on Tuesday evening in a lecture hall of the 92nd Street Y, and Wednesday he spoke at a Just Food fundraiser, in a beautiful Flatiron District apartment.  Prompted by the queries of Joan Gussow at both events, Pollan had to address the “elitist” question with which he’s become familiar.  Aren’t you (and your ideologies) a little out of touch with the average American eater?  How can the average American afford the foods you recommend we eat?  And she wasn’t talking a meal at Barber’s restaurant Blue Hill.  It’s the farmers markets with $4 tomatoes, and mixed greens at $6 per ¼ pound. 

Barber is finally admitting he’s an elitist.  And, he added, a day at Stone Barns (including enjoyment of the grounds, hiking trails, farm facilities, and food) still costs less than a day at Disney World. 


pollan2.jpg Pollan responded that the prices of local products will go down as demand goes up.  He also pointed out that Americans currently spend 10% of our income on food in America, while “when he was a boy,” we spent 18%.  Meanwhile, while we once spent 5% of our income on health care, we now spend 15%.  According to Pollan, there’s a direct correlation: factory farmed, processed foods lead to diabetes, obesity, and heart problems.  Add the costs together, and we may think (industrial) food today is wonderfully cheap, but our expenditure on food and health care has risen from 15% to 25% in about the last thirty years.

Amidst my Pollan-event-hopping, flush with a Christmas check, and increasingly nervous at the prospect of leaving an apartment in Brooklyn and friends I love (for Berkeley, California), I decided to prepare a farewell feast that would be as local as possible.  Fifteen people, lots of money: it would be a final splurge. After working at Saxelby Cheesemongers for two months, it seemed about time I bought a significant poundage of local cheeses.  Plus, I’d been waiting for a reason to try Karen’s lamb from Three Corner Field Farm. A search for less-than-$12/lb. local honey took me to Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg.  And I bought apples and pears from Migliorelli Farm, to dip in whipped heavy cream from Evan’s Farmhouse Creamery.  I prepared an elitist meal, by all accounts.

As far as I’m concerned, the meal for a party of fifteen cost about the same as one pair of jeans from Seven.  It’s a lot for food, but the evening was worth more than any clothes I’ve ever owned.  Granted, most people can’t afford Seven jeans, and they can’t afford the dinner I served.  The meal essentially spoke to Pollan’s point on the expenditure of our income.  We need to learn to spend more on food.  We will be healthier people.  As Joan Gussow pointed out, we don’t want the prices of local, organic, family-farm products to go down too far with the market demand, because there is a bottom-line cost of production for the types of food we want to support.  For small farmers to stay in business, they must make a profit.  Real food costs something.  What we actually need to work on is the other side of the equation: minimum wage should be enough that people can afford real food.

There is something else to be said, however.  If market demand won’t take care of affordability, and if we agree that minimum wage isn’t anywhere close to paying for $4 tomatoes, we must look elsewhere to defend our local food movement from the damning critique of elitism. 

The connection between health care and what we eat is a pretty good hint at some other solutions.  Medical centers can establish nearby farmers’ markets and source their institutional food locally.  Their patients might get healthier than they do now, eating from nearby falafel and hot dog stands.  The government could increase the allotment of food stamp funding to the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs.  Medicaid costs would go down.  Health insurance programs could support clients who purchase CSAs.  Emergency food organizations, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters can coordinate with local farmers and restaurants that source their food locally, and through donation, receive fresh produce, meats, and dairy products much more healthy for their eaters than the canned and processed surplus foods they are normally given.  Pollan didn’t particularly expand on these possibilities, essential to the movement he has come to represent, even while he spoke for Just Food, a leader of food justice efforts in New York.  But he did say: we need to vote with our votes, not just with our forks.  Those who can afford farmers market prices must learn to accept them.  But we also need to support policies that recognize the correlation between our health and our diet, and that recognize the (financial, and hedonistic) prudence of spending government money to support the production and consumption of real food.  


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