Saturday, March 27, 2010

Leaving the Cubicle for the Farm (In The City)

One of the greatest needs of First World society (particularly in the United States) over the next several decades is for a great reskilling, as wealth and concentrated supplies of energy and raw materials dwindle and occupations connected with an energy-intensive society become useless. Farming is a skill that many of us will have to re-learn as the energy required for modern industrial farming becomes unavailable. At present, fewer than two percent of Americans farm for a living. We may be forced to return to a society like that which existed in 1900, in which around 41 percent of Americans were employed in agriculture.

Urban farming is a unique subset of farming in general, and where I live, there is a vibrant community of urban farmers. Urban farming was also on my mind a few weeks ago, as my (now former) office was very slow and I had time on my hands to consider other options for making an honest living. (No worries, I am now working at a different firm.) Thus it was that I found myself calling Josh Volk, urban farming consultant and proprietor of Slow Hand Farm. We got together at Stumptown Coffee in downtown Portland for an exchange of advice about urban farming, and specifically what challenges a person would face in taking up urban farming as a livelihood. Although I recorded the interview, it was very noisy due to the presence of many people and the sound of coffee and espresso makers. Therefore, instead of a podcast, I have only provided a transcript, which I have included below. Today's post is part one of the interview. My questions and comments are in bold type.

What are the first steps for someone who wants to transition into urban farming as a career?

The first thing is to ask what your goals are. In other words, why are you doing this? What do you want to be doing day by day? Second, ask yourself what you need to get out of it, both financially and otherwise. Lastly, there is learning the skills. This depends heavily on how much money and space you have to play with.

When I first started, I met with this guy named Jac Smit, and he had an organization called the Urban Agriculture Network, which I think is still going – he died last year – but he had been working on urban agriculture projects. It turned out that he was not working on things in the United States – there really wasn't much going on in the United States at the time, but in a lot of other countries, they were fairly far along, particularly in a lot of developing countries, partly out of necessity.

He said one of the problems he saw in the United States was that most of the people that were interested in urban agriculture came from an urban background and probably came from a gardening background. They didn't know a whole lot about production, and didn't have the same mindset or skill set as a farmer who is producing goods. They were just growing things for their own consumption. So he said, “If you're really interested in urban agriculture, you should go and you should learn farming – and then bring that back into the urban setting,” because it's an appropriate thing, and that was one of the things that he saw that was working in developing countries – a lot of the people coming into cities were very recent migrants and had an agricultural background already.

So I took that advice and I went and apprenticed on a farm. And I've kind of been stuck in that farming thing for more than ten years now, learning the production end, and I feel like I'm just starting to get back to it [urban farming]. In some ways I'm actually a little less excited about it now, because I know some more of the realities and some of the reasons why it doesn't work as well. But I haven't given up on it, so I'm still looking at it and trying to figure out how I think it fits in best.

It's been about fifteen years since I talked to Jac Smit, and I think in that time period, the landscape has changed a lot, and there are a lot more people who are looking at urban farming, and there are more people coming in and doing urban agriculture projects with a production background, but there are still a lot of people doing it without that background. So that's one place where you could start – go to some production farms, whether in the city or outside the city, and just learn the techniques they're using and try to apply that to a smaller scale.

What were some of the difficulties you encountered that made you less enthusiastic as time passed?

One thing is that I'm excited about growing a lot of different things. If you are trying to do production in an urban environment, land is very expensive – space is very expensive – and water is expensive. There's a very limited subset of crops, I think, that make sense for a limited space. There's a lot of crops that take up a lot of space, so there are some things where I'm not sure how they fit into the urban setting, and I wasn't aware before that there were those differences, or maybe how big those differences were.

For example, the urban agriculture projects that I've seen that have been the most successful generally concentrate on something like salad greens, because you can grow a lot of salad greens in a very small space. And people don't eat as much by pound of salad greens as they eat of something like wheat. In 100 square feet you might be able to get a couple hundred servings of salad greens, whereas with wheat you could get something on the order of ten servings. That's a big difference, and the price of salad greens is probably at least five if not ten or twenty times as high as the price of wheat. So when you think about what you're going to do with an expensive, limited amount of space, there are some limitations there.

What does it take to get access to land in the city? Say Portland, for example?

There's a bunch of different models I see. Some people just outright buy a spot and own it. I have friends who just bought a house that sits on six tenths of an acre. I don't think there's a lot of places like that left in Portland, but there are still places like that. If they really wanted to push it, as a couple, they could certainly make a living off that amount of space. Other people might have a small yard of their own or they might have multiple small yards, and they're bartering that space, either because the people want to see things grown on it, or they want a share of the produce coming from it. And that's questionably legal right now, although the zoning will probably change in the near future to make it legal.

Why is it not quite legal right now?

It's questionable whether the zoning allows you to grow something and sell it on your property. You can probably argue that you can grow it and sell it, but the way that you sell it would have to be off the property. So if you were trying to distribute it directly on the property, that would probably make it illegal. It could probably be argued – although I'm not sure anyone would do this – that it's not even really legal to grow it on your property. Certainly if your neighbors were complaining, they would have a case, although they would probably not win, advocating that you shouldn't be doing what you're doing.

That you shouldn't be growing things on your property?

Not that you shouldn't be growing things, but that you shouldn't be growing them commercially. It's the commercial designation that makes it legal or not legal, because the space is zoned residential; it's not zoned commercial or agricultural. The same thing goes for commercial spaces, because they're zoned for a particular type of commercial use and they're not zoned for agriculture. Contamination is another issue you have to look at, because there are a lot of contaminated soils in urban areas and concentrations of different kinds of chemicals, particularly lead paint.

So another way people get land is more temporary – but land owned by a developer or even publicly owned land has a designated use, yet isn't going to be put to that use for a few years. So the owners may allow that land to be used for a period of time to grow things until they're ready to build their project on the land. I know a few people who are farming on such land; one group in North Portland is doing that with a church property where the church is going to expand, but they're probably not going to do it for another four or five years, so in the interim they're letting folks grow crops on the land.

And the County has a certain amount of tax-foreclosed land, and they make some of that available to organizations that want to do urban agriculture projects. Typically, these are non-profit – but a food production “business” (for lack of a better word) wouldn't necessarily have to be for profit; you could run it in some sense as a non-profit, and in an urban setting, that might actually make more sense, especially as you're not likely to make much of a profit anyway.

How do you find this land? Do you go on real estate websites to find properties like this that people aren't intending to use for a while?

I think one of the things that's an important distinction between urban agriculture and other types of agriculture is that there's a community aspect to it, and I think networking is important. Networking is how those lands and spaces get identified. It's probably more word-of-mouth than anything else. Once you get connected into a community of people that are talking about that and you start putting it out there that you're looking for space or that you have a project you want to do, you start running into people that say, “Oh, I know a spot. You can check with this person,...” or, “I have a spot. How could we work something out?” That's what makes urban agriculture work in a way that rural agriculture isn't working right now.

I think there probably are efforts – I can't recall any off the top of my head – but I think there are people who want to make clearing houses and create lists of available land. There was an effort through the City – I'm forgetting the name – I think it was the “Diggable City” project that tried to identify land a few years ago. But as far as the people I know who are actually doing urban agriculture projects, it's been more word-of-mouth, or people finding each other through existing networks.

You say that rural agriculture is not working that way – is rural agriculture failing in the United States?

In general, I think that it is, because I think what's happened is that the consolidation that's happened in terms of family-scale farms being consolidated into larger and larger industrial corporate factory farms has torn apart the rural community. So there's not a whole lot of “community” in rural communities anymore. That's a big issue, because it has switched the population base in the U.S. from a rural one to an urban population. This has gutted rural communities. It has also disconnected rural communities from urban markets – it has put a couple more layers of distribution systems between the two, because consolidation makes those operations so large that they have to distribute over a wider area in order to make their business work. That has lengthened ties and broken ties in a lot of communities.

If I were to look at the whole picture, I would say that strengthening the rural communities and going back to a rural agriculture that makes more sense is in most ways more important than thinking about how to do urban agriculture appropriately – because there is land there, and it's inexpensive land. If instead of trying to concentrate everybody into a few large urban centers, and figuring out how to make that urban land produce intensively for those people, we could spread those people out more so that the resulting population centers had more of a land base and didn't have to work so intensively, I think that would be ecologically a better model.

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That concludes part one of the interview. Stay tuned for part two, which will be posted next weekend, God willing. And if you want to check out some other sources of information on urban farming, see these links:

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