Urban farming may have seemed like a trend a few years ago, when the craze of installing a rooftop garden on every new building first began, but a surge in urbanization and drive for local food means it may be here to stay.
Urban farms, under pressure to feed their communities as an alternative to importing food from thousands of miles away, are trying to immerse themselves in each city’s culture, while negotiating for expensive land.
The Neighborhood Farm Initiative is an urban farming group that gives Washington, D.C. residents plots of land for gardening and offers gardening classes throughout the summer months. Volunteers grow food and learn gardening techniques while donating all the food to organizations like D.C. Central Kitchen and Brainfood.
Cathy Anderton, chair of the NFI, said urban farms face a major challenge of finding land to start and develop a farm, as the population surge in cities makes landowners want to develop land, rather than grow food, the more profitable choice.
Most D.C. farming organizations have reached agreements with landowners to use the land for a certain period of time, Anderton said. While the NFI can be more confident about keeping their 10,000 square-foot farm because it is on land owned by the National Park Service, other farms do not have that same confidence, she said.
The uncertainty of a garden’s future can also be limiting in what is grown there, as farmers cannot grow certain things on land they do not own. The price of land deters farms from buying land, she said.
“Nobody ever got rich off of agriculture,” Anderton said. “The culture is not growing as much as it could if it were easier to find places to grow.”
She added that the urban farming community is, without trying to be, very exclusive, as every community farm in D.C. has a waitlist. Many of those people know little about where their food comes from, she said, pointing to two girls who volunteered at NFI and had never seen carrots in the ground.
Organizations like D.C. Central Kitchen, which prepares meals daily for about one hundred social service agencies, call on community gardens like NFI to supply some of their produce. Amy Bachman, the procurement and sustainability manager at D.C. Central Kitchen, said about 6 percent of their produce comes from NFI and other urban farms.
“It’s a great resource for us. We are trying to provide the healthiest and most nutritious food for our clients and working with local farms makes us really able to make food that is so fresh,” Bachman said.
Urban farms are gaining strength in other cities, also, like Green City Growers, a Boston-based farm led by Jessie Banhazl. Located atop a Whole Foods grocery store, the farm sells its produce in the store, making for zero-cost transportation between the farm and store.
While GCG is the only farm in the Boston area working with a larger institution, they also install raised and rooftop farms for individuals and small businesses. They also developed an agricultural curriculum to teach Bostonians to effectively grow local food.
“Those skills are applicable at home or the next place that you live,” Banhazl said. “It’s something that can carry over, all you really need is a little bit of light and some space.”
The organization has partnerships with local schools to teach farming classes to students, but Banhazl said they are moving for all Boston elementary schools to have gardens.
Anderton said she would also like to see D.C. Public Schools all have gardens, but strict budgets mean it is difficult to fund the projects.
“There’s an educational component,” she said. “People who live in cities really lose sense of what it takes to grow food. They have no idea.”