Coming Soon to City near You: A Farm

By Daniel B. Wood writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Coming Soon to City near You: A Farm


Daniel B. Wood writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Surrounded by shopping malls and housing tracts, local schoolchildren are tasting the products of what could be the next agricultural revolution.

As they make their way through newly tilled fields, they sample vine-ripened tomatoes and strawberries, and pull onions and carrots from the soil. All just a short distance from some of the most expensive real estate in California.

"This is great, it smells really cool," says Cheyenne Garcia, dangling a fresh leek over her shoulder.

This 12.5-acre plot of land is a model for what many see as the next frontier in food production. Dubbed "urban agriculture" by some, and "regional agriculture" by others, a growing number of farms are appearing where they were once least likely to be: in urban neighborhoods, suburbs, and small towns.

It's a fast-growing global phenomenon: Nearly 20 percent of the world's food now comes from city-based farms. Averaging anywhere from one to 20 acres in the US, these tiny urban farms say they offer local consumers higher quality produce, at many times the yield per acre of bigger, industrial farms. And amid growing concern about genetically modified crops, they represent a clear alternative.

At the same time, these farms are providing many communities with some welcome green space in the midst of urban sprawl, connecting local residents to the land and educating the public about the tradition of farming in America.

"Increasingly, this is what the future of American agriculture is going to look like," says Brian Halweil, of the Washington, D.C.- based Worldwatch Institute. "As fewer and fewer US residents make their full living and livelihood off the traditional farm, these alternatives are moving into the spotlight."

While family farms continue to decline, hit by competition from more profitable industrial farms or swallowed up by encroaching development, smaller, more specialized farms are stepping into the void. In fact, some experts see these farms as the product of urban sprawl. In many newly developed rural areas, they point out, sales at farmers' markets and nurseries have spiked dramatically in recent years.

Then there's the smell

The trend is not without some controversy, however. One obvious problem for these farms is economic viability. Commodity prices typically fluctuate, and in the past year they've hit some of the lowest points in 20 years. That can keep locally grown produce, with less margin for cutting prices, out of the price range of many lower-income families.

Moreover, many urban dwellers object to dust from fields, the sounds of machinery, and the smell of livestock wafting into their neighborhoods.

"As a society, we are still a bit conflicted over the presence of farms next to neighborhoods," says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources at the California Farm Bureau Federation. "We love having the local produce in our midst, but there are many aspects of agricultural production that may be uncomfortable for many people."

The clash has forced urban farmers to become experts in public relations as well as agriculture, garnering support for their efforts by engaging the local community.

A case in point is Fairview Gardens, a small farm near Santa Barbara, Calif. After nearly 40 years of uninterrupted, rural production, the farm found itself in the early 1990s the target of both encroaching developers and angry neighbors. Several years of media spotlight highlighted constant battles over the crow of roosters, the earthy smell of compost, and noisy farm machinery. …

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