Sunday, April 4, 2010

Leaving the Cubicle for the Farm (In The City), Part 2

This post is part 2 of a transcript of an interview I did three weeks ago with Josh Volk, urban farming consultant and proprietor of Slow Hand Farm. Part 1 can be found here. For the sake of continuity, I have included all of Part 1 as part of today's post.

Speaking of Part 1, I noticed that after I published that post, the Energy Bulletin website started churning out articles covering many of the same things discussed in my post, including the idea of cities putting together “diggable databases” of urban plots available for cultivation as the city of Portland has done. I'm glad I could be something of a ghostwriting inspiration to the folks at Energy Bulletin. (Then again, thievery is a form of flattery, isn't it?)

And now for Part 2. As usual, 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.

Let's say someone decides they want to move out to a rural area. They look on “Oregon Lands for Sale” and see a nice property, and they say, “Let's go for it, babe,” and they move out there. What are the financial barriers and pitfalls that might drive them back into the city? I know that you're not going to get rich from farming...

I don't think it's impossible to get rich, but I think you have to be more of a businessperson than just an idealist. You'd really have to concentrate on what it is that you're growing and how you're doing it, and take advantage of the things that a lot of other kinds of businesses take advantage of in order to make the people who own the business wealthy.

To get back to the pitfalls of moving out to a rural place, one is that there is still a general movement – although it's slowing down – toward consolidation in agriculture, and a movement from rural areas to the cities. So finding rural areas where that's not the case so much and trying to start a reversal – that's one challenge, or trying to become part of a movement that is reversing that trend in the particular area that you're moving to. To me that's a really difficult thing to predict – you can try to move to a place and become part of the community there, but it's a bit of a gamble.

I know farming folks, for example, who live on the south coast of Oregon, and they've lived there for their entire lives, and just now those communities are starting to grow again. They've been on a large downward slide for a long time, and now it's starting to come around again to where they have markets that they didn't have before for their produce. Before, they were more focused on exporting stuff and figuring out how to get it to the urban centers, and now they can actually market their goods within the area because of the change in the community.

How does someone secure land without going into debt, or without going deeply into debt? Or is that impossible right now?

I don't know if it's impossible right now – there's actually a blog by a guy named Andy Griffin, and he writes this blog called The Ladybug Letter. The writing is excellent; he doesn't post very often, but when he posts essays, they're really good. One of the last posts that he made was about that question. He's been farming in the Salinas area of California, which is some of the most expensive agricultural land in the country. He doesn't own any of his land.

He frames his essay in the form of a letter to these folks he heard on the radio. So he hears a young business student interviewed on the radio, and this business student is coming out college at a time when the economy is as bad as it's ever been in this person's lifetime. And the interviewer is asking this person how this is going to affect what the person will do once he gets out of business school, and he answers that he has a backup plan – “find some land with a bunch of friends and start a farm.”

So Andy's essay is his advice to this person, and the advice is, “Don't buy land.” There are enough people out there who own land and want something grown on it and are willing to lease it. From a business point of view, it's better to have the flexibility to leave the land if it's not productive in the way that you want it to be productive, and it's less expensive to lease the land than to buy it, and to get all your capital tied up in the land. You need your capital to be available for the operation of your business. His advice – and I think that in a lot of situations, it's very good advice – is to look for other options besides buying.

Try to find good long-term lease situations on good land, but leave things flexible, particularly if you're growing annual crops. It's more difficult to be flexible when you're growing perennials and tree crops. But with annuals, although this is not ideal, you can spend a year or two getting the land into good enough shape to produce profitably, and then pay off your lease in two or three years of crop production. And if the lease terms go longer than that, you're basically just making money. If the terms don't go longer, you haven't lost any money. But if you buy the land, you could get two or three years into working it and realize that the land doesn't produce what you want it to produce, and you'd be stuck with this piece that you have to keep putting excess money into.

Both from a rural and an urban standpoint, is it possible for a person without debts to pay the yearly expenses of life in the United States by farming?

Oh, sure, yeah! But part of it also goes back to that question of “What do you want to be doing from day to day?”, and “What do you want to be growing?” Is it possible in every situation everywhere? No, but farming isn't inherently not profitable. But there are certain segments of farming and ways of farming which are not profitable, yet common.

Ways of farming that are both common and do they survive?

Well, most of them survive through subsidies. And there are all kinds of subsidies – some people subsidize themselves through holding other jobs, and some people are subsidized through the government.

But they're basically doing something that's unsustainable in the long run?

Economically, yeah, unless the subsidies stay there.

That brings up this question: a lot of Western farming is basically mining the soil. How do we “close the loop”? I read The Humanure Handbook and other literature along that line, and it seems like that's what we'll have to go back to if this is going to be viable. And there are podcasts on Deconstructing Dinner where they talk about decreasing concentrations of certain minerals in crops. So how do we close the loop? Is anyone working on that?

I think lots of people are working on it. It's a difficult question – are you familiar with biodynamic farming? Do you know who Rudolf Steiner is?


Rudolf Steiner was a guy who worked on a lot of different things. He was able to understand the complete picture regarding many things. He worked on biodynamic agriculture. One of its primary tenets is that you create the farm as a closed system. He says something important when he says that this is the goal; it's not necessarily something that's going to happen. But if your goal is to always try to work toward the farm as a closed system in itself, so that nutrients aren't leaving the system and you're not having to import nutrients, you'll be creating a better form of agriculture.

So the whole biodynamic community is working on that. There are also a lot of people outside the biodynamic community – in organic agriculture, in particular – that have that same thought process. The people who are trying to do this properly who are at the same time trying to sustain themselves economically are always balancing those two things, because our present economic system basically doesn't reward that in any way. Instead, it rewards the “mining” system.

That's maybe one of the drawbacks of leasing as opposed to owning land, although it's not an intrinsic drawback. But the tendency with leased land would be to take that mining approach, because you won't necessarily see any kind of payback [from restoring the soil] as opposed to working the land for a longer period of time.

The humanure concept is an important one – to understand that anything people eat that's going off the farm – if you're not capturing that waste and putting it back into the system, then it's a loss, basically. You can try to limit the losses in every other area, but if you don't address this loss, you can't recapture it without mining somewhere else to bring nutrients in.

Are there experiments in urban areas in the United States to try humanure composting for urban agriculture?

It's very controversial in organic systems, because, for example, in the Midwest – I can't remember whether it's Wisconsin or Minnesota – they've been pushing sewage sludge as a soil amendment in fields, because it's high in nutrients. But the problem with the municipal waste system – and I think there's some question of the amount of heavy metals in people's diets also – is that you're concentrating heavy metals and other contaminants into that waste. So not only are you getting nutrients onto the fields, but you're also contaminating the fields by using sludge. For those reasons, the organic community has decided that they will not allow any kind of sewage sludge in organic fields. Cleaning up the waste stream has to happen before this waste can be used on a large scale.

On a small scale, the fellow that wrote the Humanure Handbook has a good argument for it and I'm sure there are other people doing humanure composting, but because of all the points he makes in his book, I don't think very many people are willing to talk about it openly. I've met a couple of people who have admitted to trying that system, and I haven't heard of any downsides, but I haven't met a lot of people who admit to it.

* * *

That concludes the main part of my interview with Josh Volk. We talked a bit more afterward about how people can learn farming by visiting urban farms and volunteering to help (along with volunteer etiquette). We also talked about a typical day for an urban farmer (contrary to stereotype, not all farmers work from sunup to sundown, seven days a week), and discussed a few urban farmers in the Portland metro area who transport themselves and their cargo entirely by bicycle. (Obviously, this doesn't work for everyone in every situation.)

One last note: for several months now, urban agriculture has been very much on the radar screen of the mainstream media. Many news articles have focused on key individuals – “movers and shakers”, if you will – with lots of money and influence who are announcing plans to “save” dying cities in the U.S. through the promotion of urban agriculture. The interest, energy and vision of these people is often praised by the media (and by undiscerning members of the blogosphere) as a good thing, a key component of a national return to a more sustainable lifestyle.

I think such a view is totally mistaken. The beauty of urban agriculture and of other strategies of resilience now being adopted by ordinary people is that these offered a way for ordinary people to decouple from a predatory economic system so that these people wouldn't keep getting bled dry by that system. When the “big people” – the rich and influential – also “discovered” these opportunities, they saw them not as a way to live more sustainably, but as an opportunity to cash in by turning a public trend into a growth industry. Therefore, where cities like Detroit were places where people who wanted to decouple from the money economy could go to live simply, cheaply and debt free, Detroit has now been “discovered” by speculators with big plans to “do something good for the city” while making tons of money. Thus one avenue of escape from our predatory money economy has been destroyed. Ordinary people in Detroit are once again in danger of being sucked up into a system whose masters maximize profits by squeezing people to death.

What good is urban agriculture to ordinary people if it takes on all the characteristics of every other form of industrial, consolidated modern agribusiness? What good is it to be an urban farmer in Detroit or Cleveland if urban agriculture there is controlled and run by a handful of rich speculators who have swooped in and bought up all the land and you're just minimum-wage "hired help"? I commented somewhat on the disturbing activities of speculators in depressed areas of our country in two 2009 posts titled, “Is Community Resilience Possible At This Time?” and “Report From The Front Lines - 3-20-09.” More recently, a blogger named Ran Prieur also made the same observations on his blog.

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