In our latest story, “Urban Farming Is Booming, But What Does It Really Yield,” Elizabeth Royte explores the current boom in urban farming and whether community gardens and rooftop farms can really play a role in feeding our burgeoning population. With the help of leading researchers and growers across the country, she scrutinizes the challenges facing urban farms as they try to take a “bite out of long-distance food chains.” The story is online today with our media partner, Ensia.
“Despite their relatively small size, urban farms grow a surprising amount of food, with yields that often surpass those of their rural cousins,” writes Royte. City farms can be planted more densely and they have fewer natural pests and urban farmers can “walk their plots within minutes, rather than hours,” Royte notes, cultivating crops at their peak and “micromanag[ing]” with more frequent “applications of water and fertilizer.”
Worldwide, 20 percent of our food is currently grown in cities. In the U.S., Detroit produced nearly 400,000 pounds of food– enough to feed more than 600 people– with about 1,300 gardens in 2014, Royte reports. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, many urban farms also provide health-and-nutrition education, community building, and job training.
But Royte explains that most urban farms don’t operate year-round, and they aren’t large enough to compete with the overall rural harvest. For now, there isn’t much financial incentive for urban farmers to scale up. Carolyn Dimitri, an applied economist who studies food systems and food policy at New York University, told Royte, “Urban farms are like small farms in rural areas. They have the same set of problems: people don’t want to pay a lot for their food, and labor is expensive. So they have to sell high-value products and do some agritourism.”
Urban ag “isn’t going to make a dent in the food supply,” Dimitri told Royte. “And it’s completely inefficient, economically. Urban farmers can’t charge what they should, and they’re too small to take advantage of economies of scale and use their resources more efficiently.”
But the story isn’t that simple. As Domenic Vitiello, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, told Royte: “In poor communities where households earn very little income, a few thousand dollars’ worth of vegetables and fruit grown in the garden makes a much bigger difference than for more affluent households.”
Royte points out that many urban farms are not interested in making money, writing: “Whether these gardens ultimately produce more food or more knowledge about food—where it comes from, what it takes to produce it, how to prepare and eat it—they still have enormous value as gathering places and classrooms, as conduits between people and nature.”