Urban Farms Sprout Across the Nation

Hundreds of thousands of plants grow in 1.2 million pounds of soil covering more than 20,000 linear feet of green roofing material on Brooklyn Grange Farm in Queens, New York. Photo by Cyrus Dowlatshahi.

Gray asphalt and abandoned lots in cities across the country are being turned into farms as city dwellers grow fruits and vegetables in the shadow of skyscrapers. In a story I wrote for the current issue of Audubon, people who plant, promote, and cook explain why growing in a metropolis makes sense:

Red peppers dangle from staked plants, and rows of spinach burst from black earth. Ripe tomatoes weigh heavily on vines, as plump purple tomatillos sway in the wind. While this bounty could be growing nearly anywhere, the backdrop is unmistakable: the Manhattan skyline, which thrusts up behind the lush rows of this one-acre plot on a warehouse roof in Queens, New York.

Inspecting his crops, Ben Flanner, the 30-year-old head farmer at Brooklyn Grange Farm, takes hold of a bunch of greens and tugs, pulling up a bright-orange carrot. The dirt-streaked vegetable, like the rest of his produce, will make its way to a local restaurant or a farmers’ market. “I think it really makes sense to grow food close to where it’s consumed,” he says as he picks a spinach leaf, balls it up, and pops it into his mouth. The former E-Trade employee considered leaving New York to pursue his dream of becoming a farmer, but he didn’t really want to move. Instead, in 2009, he started Eagle Street Farm in Brooklyn, managing it for a year before planting his rooftop crops with a new team at Brooklyn Grange Farm. “There’s really nothing negative to say about urban farming. For me personally, this allows me to farm close to my community without having to leave the city.”

Similar farmsteads ranging from less than one acre to tens of acres are breaking ground in metropolises nationwide. On a one-acre lot in the heart of Chicago, 83 types of vegetables are growing; they include beets, arugula, kale, carrots, potatoes, and 30 tomato varieties. Detroit residents are getting their hands dirty in community gardens and market gardens, reclaiming the city’s many abandoned lots. A Philadelphia cooperative is sprouting produce that it sells at a nearby grocery store, and farm animals are running around yards in Oakland, California. Such operations may provide fresh local food to underserved communities, or sell veggies to tony restaurants. Although they don’t produce nearly as much food as their industrial counterparts, these urban farms do provide significant benefits: They reduce the miles food travels from farm to plate, cut down on rainwater runoff, and provide oases for insects, birds, and other wildlife. On top of that, they revitalize vacant lots, greening properties abandoned in the wake of industrial decay.

The trend harks back to World War II, when the federal government called on citizens to cultivate Victory Gardens in backyards and public spaces. Americans embraced the cause and planted 20 million plots. Today’s advocates argue that gardens next to large population centers make more sense than growing crops in large monoculture fields. “Cities are where the waste is, and that’s where the nutrition is. The food system can take the lead in a sustainability movement,” says Ken Dunn, who runs the nonprofit Resource Center and one of its programs, City Farm, a one-acre plot surrounded by busy Chicago streets. “The surge of urban agriculture can help us get back to our roots and find a healthy food system. It should sell food in the community and welcome school groups, not just be another industry that provides jobs.”

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