Farming Starts in Cities

June 25, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Farm commentators are remarking somewhat in surprise that the new move towards local food production and backyard farming are much more in evidence in and around cities than out where the big tractors lumber over the landscape. But, as most historians and economists have attested, this has always been true. Odd as it seems, agricultural innovation usually begins in cities. My favorite mind-stretcher book, The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs (1969) reviews the historical evidence in favor of this conclusion and it is almost impossible to dispute her, though at first I tried. I didn’t like the idea of those city slickers being agricultural pioneers. But it was all too painfully the truth. “New kinds of farming come out of cities,” Jacobs writes. “The growing of hybrid corn… was not developed on corn farms by farmers but by scientists in plant laboratories, promoted and publicized by plant scientists and editors of agricultural papers, and they had a hard time persuading farmers to try the unprepossessing-looking hybrid seeds.” In another instance she points out that when the wheat farmers of New York realized they could no longer compete with western wheat growers, or thought they couldn’t, and switched to fruit farming, “the change was primarily… by the proprietors of a nursery that first supplied the city people with fruit trees, grape vines and berry bushes and then showed farmers of the Genesee Valley… that orchards and vineyards were economical alternatives.” Likewise, “the fruit and vegetable industries of California did not ‘evolve’ from that state’s older wheat fields and animal pastures. Rather it was organized in San Francisco for supplying fruits to preserving plants and later to vegetable canneries.”

This primacy of urban initiative ruling rural work has been the case as far back in history as we can go. Where stable farming activity once established itself, it was in connection with people coming together to live in towns and cities. People out in the boondocks ate wild animals and plants and after they congregated in cities and couldn’t get enough food that way, they started gardens and livestock farming. Alfalfa was a medicinal garden plant in cities long before it became the hay crop of choice out in the country.

So now we are in the early days of yet another urban innovation in food production. Food farming, as opposed, say, to fuel farming (ethanol), is coming on line as a way to deliver higher quality and fresher food to people willing to pay what the new food is worth and with backyard food mini-farms for those who want to save money or guarantee quality by producing their own. These farms are driven by the chefs of big city restaurants, by city customers who flock to urban farm markets, by concerned consumers desiring food that they consider safer to eat than the commercial food of the present economy, and by nine to fivers yearning for more meaningful and challenging work.

Trying to figure out where this all is headed, I think a lot about so-called demographics— about where people live and don’t live. Seems to me, this local food movement is a reflection of how suburbia and exurbia are spreading all across the land. Driving down the road, it is difficult to tell where urban development ends and farmland begins. Both are becoming more and more mixed together, raising havoc with zoning ordinances and neighborhood relationships— people effing each other over so-called ill-kept lawns, backyard chickens, loose-running dogs, speeding cars, pesticide drift, tractor noise at night and a thousand other little grievances that are marks of cultural merging. The problems could be mostly resolved if everyone understood how cities and farms are parts of a whole, not divisible one from another. Eventually we will realize, as we munch our good food, that the Big Merge not only means a better environment for all, but the end to this silly political anger that colors everything blue or red instead of a lovely productive green.

The merging is of course being driven also by electronic communication. For instance, I have a hard time, out in the boondocks, getting the New York Times, which not too surprisingly has more insightful articles about the new age of farming than traditional farm magazines do. But I can get it handily on a computer or even on a smart phone while I wander through my pasture field.

Gene Logsdon

Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio. Gene is the author of numerous books and magazine articles on farm-related issues, and believes sustainable pastoral farming is the solution for our stressed agricultural system.

Tags: building resilient food systems, local food production, urban agriculture