Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review: Urban Farmer

I've recently read a fantastic book about urban farming by Lorraine Johnson. While I hoped for a how-to book about gardening (and thus avoid further Fred-like disasters), I found instead a manifesto and argument for urban farming which is quite persuasive.

Johnson's argument for urban growing focuses on several points:

  1. That land suitable for agriculture in cities is actually more prevalent than imagined.
     Johnson believes that, should lawns, boulevard strips, vacant lots, and even roofs be farmed, many cities could supply their own produce needs. The author is from Canada, so many of her statistics focus on cities there, but one of the studies she cited calculated that, if half of lawns and vacant lots, as well as one tenth of boulevard easements were cultivated, Montreal could provide more than enough to meet the needs of all its citizens using the most conservative estimate of produce needed for the average 4-person family. This still assumes some imports of things such as bananas, coffee, and other exotic imports, but basic needs can be easily met. The author herself maintains a community garden plot, tomatoes on her roof, and a fully-planted backyard; gleans from "ornamental" hawthorn trees, and farms her back patio. In her youth, she planted container gardens on balconies and radishes in cat-litter trays. She has seen beans planted on fire escapes and lettuce in pipes wrapped around balcony rails. Her point: it's doable to garden, no matter what sort of space you have.
  2. That small-scale plots can be effective in agricultural production, at least on the local level. Her statistic was of a demonstration farm that, in a single year on less than an acre of land, produced $65,000 in produce. During World War II, Victory Gardens and backyard cultivation produced 40% of the vegetables in the USA. It is possible to support much of a populace on urban food, though she admits that some places will find it more economical and environmentally efficient to import, based on local weather and resources.
  3. That the production of food can solve many social ills. Children who grow their own food, or participate in the process, are more likely to eat nutrient-rich vegetables and be less picky of eaters. Homegrown food often tastes better because growers need not worry about equal size and ripening time, hardiness, and ability to ship long distances like industrial complexes. Furthermore, many urban communities live in what has been termed as a "food desert" - where access to fresh produce is limited by few grocery stores or lack of transportation to those which exist. Many people are forced to shop at convenience stores, which are not the healthiest places to eat. Because urban farming is often quite cheap, it would also solve the problem of vegetables being too expensive for poverty-stricken families.
  4. That urban farming can have extended benefits beyond simple food production.
    This is a huge part of her book. Johnson argues that cultivation of land, especially vacant land, will help with community-building. It makes "abandoned" land into something valued and for which the community cares, instead of an eyesore. Urban gardeners have also been shown in studies to participate more actively in their community events, take part in beautification projects and trash clean-ups, and give produce away (beyond the bags upon bags of excess zuchinni!). Gardening helps build stronger communities, something which is often lacking in urban society. 
That's only the tip of the iceberg for Johnson's ideas. She also devotes time to guerrilla gardening and urban chicken-keeping. While a bit beyond the average person's abilities and space, they are none the less interesting ideas. The point of her book is that growing food need not be relegated to rural areas and ignored by city-dwellers. Urban residents often have the tools at hand to grow food, even if it's just herbs on a windowsill, and doing so will have definite benefits. 

I highly urge you to read the whole book - it's quite well-written and addresses more problems and concerns than I have space to go into here. If this doesn't inspire you to go plant something, I don't know what will!

Now all I have to do is figure out how not to kill my plants... :)

No comments:

Post a Comment