We often read about the environmental damage and unsustainable practices of modern agriculture.  Some people have proposed urban gardens and small farms as a pathway to food resiliency; repairing environmental damage, reducing fossil fuel use, and improving our health and well-being.  Others conclude that it takes too much effort; people aren’t going to change; no one wants to slave away in the garden, kitchen, or on the farm; it can’t be done in every country;  small farms and gardens can’t feed the world’s population.  All these arguments have some merit, but I have found the reality of growing local food becomes quite different once the transformation begins.

I have always believed that wherever climate and conditions favor it, local food production on small farms, in backyards, community gardens, and empty urban lots will become an increasingly important source of fresh food.  And if one uses season extension or poly covered tunnels and drip irrigation we can expand the growing area to much wider climate conditions.  It’s nice to read scientific research that confirms my thinking, that there are positive benefits and potential from urban agriculture. A news brief recently published by the Earth and Space Science News describes how expanding agriculture into cities could improve food security, ecosystem health, and more.  “With more than half of the world’s population currently living in cities, and that percentage expected to increase significantly by 2050, production of food in urban areas may become a necessity and certainly should be considered essential for local resilience.”

Researchers from several universities in the US and China collaborated on the project to measure potential benefits of urban agriculture (UA).  They used data collected from satellite imagery (Landsat 5 Collection 1 archive) and compiled results of several variables using Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) computed from a cloud-free median composite of 3 years (2009–2011).  They assessed global aggregate ecosystem services from existing vegetation in cities and calculated the potential of UA based on estimates of urban morphology and vacant land.   They concluded that “there is the potential of annual food production of 100-180 million tonnes, energy savings ranging from 14 to 15 billion kilowatt hours, nitrogen sequestration between 100,000 and 170,000 tonnes, and avoided storm water runoff between 45 and 57 billion cubic meters annually.  The value of these ecosystem services could be as much as $80 to 160 billion, but there will be significant differences in country-to-country variability.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2013 the US produced 773,919 tons of fresh vegetables, exported 207,497 tons, and imported 295,801 tons.  We also imported 643,376 tons of frozen vegetables bringing our annual vegetable consumption to approximately 1.5 million tons.  US farms grew vegetables on 28,899 acres (11,695 hectares). How might UA be utilized to offset US farm production and make fresh food available locally, especially in places already suffering from lack of economically available fresh vegetables?

Approximately 80% of US citizens live in urban areas, higher than the global average but it varies by state.  The average percentage of vacant land in cities was 15% or 12,367 acres (about 40% the size the of farm land used to grow vegetables).  In addition to vacant lots there are 40 million acres of lawn in the US.   If even a small portion of this land were converted into urban gardens the U.S. could produce all of the vegetables we currently consume, which is far less than we should be eating to maintain health.

In very large cities most abandoned property is found in low socioeconomic neighborhoods, where food deserts are most commonly found.  A study of New York City found the locations of food deserts, “unhealthy food environments, correspond to areas with the highest proportions of African-American/Black residents, a population suffering from higher rates of many chronic conditions, including obesity and diabetes.”   Bringing fresh, high quality food to these neighborhoods has been a challenge because businesses don’t see it as profitable.  Abandoned urban land is spread out across the county in places that need fresh food, have high unemployment, and low family incomes.  These areas might be ideal locations for UA and indeed, this is already happening in Chicago and New York City.

I have witnessed in my own Indiana community a steady increase in UA; community gardens, back yard gardens, and more recently sharing gardens (a new twist on community gardening).  The idea of sharing gardens began as  churches, schools, neighborhoods and other organizations started developing small raised bed gardens.  Eventually a group of people interested in community gardens joined several of them together into a network called GrowlocalTM  with a mission statement that says it all.

“Support and encourage urban gardening through action, education, and organization enhancing community and quality of life. A network of gardeners devoted to building, nourishing, and nurturing community through urban gardens.”

More than a dozen sharing gardens have been created thus far and provide access to fresh food for much of the downtown community, accessible by walking and bike paths.  Everyone is welcome to pick vegetables at the sharing gardens, no registration or signup required.  “Pick a Veggie.  Pull a Weed.”  You are not required to work in the garden, but many people do.  No one worries about what or how often you pick.  Any excess is donated to local food pantries.  The free fresh food is helping address food deserts in our community.  Responsibility for each garden falls on a small but dedicated group of garden managers who plant and maintain them, meeting regularly to share ideas and resources.

The City of Lafayette, the Tippecanoe County Master Gardeners and the Purdue County Extension office have also been involved, providing education and expert advice, as well as running a farmer’s market, a successful demonstration garden and several acres of a highly popular community gardens.  The Tippecanoe County Demonstration garden donates many tons of fresh, organic food to local food pantries and the food bank.

In addition to urban gardens in both Lafayette and West Lafayette, Purdue University has also gotten involved in sustainable agriculture.  I met Dr. Steve Hallett many years ago when he asked me to give a presentation to his class.  Dr. Hallett is a Professor of Horticulture in the Purdue University Department of Botany and Plant Pathology and author of several books including Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future.

He has been an inspiration and motivating force behind his department’s Sustainable Food and Farming Systems at Purdue, helping develop the educational curriculum and the Purdue Student Farm.  The Student Farm provides hands-on experience for students hoping to  someday start their own small farm.  I got to know Rachel who was hired as the first Student Farm’s full time manger (seen with Dr. Hallett in the photo above).  She has now married and moved back to the community where she grew up and has started a small farm with her husband. Last summer we visited her and her husband and toured the 5 acres of farmland they recently purchased, ate a wonderful home cooked meal made with fresh veggies from the farm.

The Botany and Plant Pathology Department has partnered with the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) expanding educational opportunities for Purdue students interested in using local food.  Dr. Hallett and Chef Ambarish Lulay have worked together to bring fresh food from the Student Farm into the HTM restaurant, cafe and catering service.  They created a Farm-to-Fork class where students from both departments work together planting and harvesting crops at the Student Farm and then preparing delicious meals in the HTM teaching kitchens.  Working together helps students from both departments understand the entire process of growing fresh food, preparing delicious meals, and marketing their products and services.

It has been truly inspiring to watch this develop, sharing meals at the farm with excited students dreaming big dreams of small farms and restaurants.  Programs such as these provide education and experience for students interested in sustainable farming, or Farm-to-Fork restaurants, or perhaps a business with both.  La Scala is a popular chef and family owned restaurant in Lafayette that grows fresh produce on their family farm as well as featuring food in their restaurant from other local producers.  Kirsten Serrano, mother, farmer, and co-owner of La Scala now teaches classes on healthy eating and shopping for fresh food.

Over the years I’ve sold (and donated) many yards of compost, soil, and mulch to local farms, homes, churches, schools, and community gardens.  I’ve helped develop and teach cooking classes using fresh vegetables.  The Student Farm as well as other market farmers, such as Longhouse Farm a local CSA, have  purchased many dump truck loads of compost and organic garden mulch from my business, Soilmaker.

I enjoy talking with customers who are starting their first raised bed vegetable garden, or when they come back the next year for more compost or mulch and tell me of their success.  I love making and selling compost, the circle of life starting with local yard waste, animal bedding, and other organics; blending compost into soil for vegetable gardens that produce healthy food for families. For example there is a local craft brewery, the People’s Brewing Company, who brings its brewing wastes to Soilmaker for composting and I buy their beer!    People’s Brewing buys some of its hops from HopKnoxious Farm who bought compost and mulch from Soilmaker when they first started their hop vines.

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of something special in my community.  I’ve given talks and tours, shared good food and conversations about local food.  While running my business over the last 16 years I’ve watched small farmers struggle to start their farms, find a market, and keep their business afloat.  I’ve watched small farms grow from small beginnings to robust farms with full-time growers; community gardens grow into a network of sharing gardens; a University program teaching sustainable small farming grow to be a student farm that produces year round fresh food for campus dining centers and restaurants.  I’ve seen students excited about opening restaurants that will buy from local farms.  It’s impossible to point at one person or one idea that explains how this transformation has taken place in my community because it really has grown “organically”.

It has certainly involved individuals who contributed hard work and inspiration, but overall it seems to feed off the energy and enthusiasm of hundreds of people throughout our community; on campus, in town, in backyards across the city, and on farms and gardens in the surrounding county.  Innovative ideas spread and business opportunities feed off each other.  This happens here and that happens there and urban food production grows along with small businesses such as my own.  And there are many other ecosystem benefits; the capture of rain water, improvement of habitat for pollinators, and reduced food insecurity for hundreds of families in our community.

We are often discouraged by the absence of leadership in government, the seemingly insurmountable difficulties our world faces.  But when I look around at my community I find hope because I see that positive change can happen almost spontaneously, like an emergent behavior, in the absence of government intervention.  There are many global issues that are beyond our ability to influence; global climate change, refugees from failed states, autocrats and dictators threatening war, corporate take overs, and inequality driven by wealth concentration.   But I believe food is an issue we can actually do something about and in the process create positive feedback.  The potential is here but it’s up to each of us to decide how and if we want to participate.

There will be many reasons we fail, but the worst reason is because we didn’t try.  Rather than worry about how to feed 8 or 9 billion people think about how to feed yourself, how to improve your community’s access to fresh food.  Get to know the small farmers nearby and support them by buying their products.   Eat at local restaurants that feature local food suppliers.  Start a garden in your back yard or find someone with whom to share garden space.  Discover how wonderful fresh food tastes; the well-being you create from eating it and sharing it with family, neighbors and friends.  Get involved in community or sharing gardens.  Food from urban gardens can have a positive impact on every community’s health and well-being, making cities and their inhabitants more resilient in the face of declining industrial agriculture, energy depletion, and climate change.  Perhaps it’s time to become part of the “urban” agricultural revolution!