Clive Thompson: Why Urban Farming Isn’t Just for Foodies


Richard Moore

Why Urban Farming Isn’t Just for Foodies

By Clive Thompson

This year, Carol Nissen’s crops include mesclun, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, and assorted herbs. When she sits down to dine, she’s often eating food grown with her own two hands.

But Nissen isn’t tilling the soil on a farm. She’s a Web designer who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey–one of the most cramped, concrete-laden landscapes in the nation. Nissen’s vegetables thrive in pots and boxes crammed into her house and in wee plots in her yard. “I’m a micro-gardener,” she says. “It’s a pretty small townhouse. But it’s amazing what you can do without much space.”

The term for this is urban farming–the art of growing vegetables in cities that otherwise resemble the Baltimore of The Wire.It has become increasingly trendy in recent years, led by health-conscious foodies coveting just-picked produce, as well as hipsters who dig the roll-your-own vibe.

But I think it’s time to kick it up a notch. Our world faces many food-resource problems, and a massive increase in edible gardening could help solve them. The next president should throw down the gauntlet and demand Americans sow victory gardens once again.

Remember the victory garden? During World Wars I and II, the government urged city dwellers and suburbanites to plant food in their yards. It worked: The effort grew roughly 40 percent of the fresh veggies consumed in the US in 1942 and 1943.

These days, we’re fighting different battles. Developing nations are facing wrenching shortages of staples like rice. Here at home, we’re struggling with a wave of obesity, fueled by too much crappy fast food and too little fresh produce, particularly in poorer areas. Our globalized food stream poses environmental hazards, too: The blueberries I had for lunch came from halfway around the world, in the process burning tons of CO2.

Urban farming tackles all three issues. It could relieve strain on the worldwide food supply, potentially driving down prices. The influx of fresh vegetables would help combat obesity. And when you “shop” for dinner ingredients in and around your home, the carbon footprint nearly disappears. Screw the 100-mile diet–consuming only what’s grown within your immediate foodshed–this is the 100-yard diet.

Want to cool cities cheaply? Plant crops on rooftops. This isn’t just liberal hippie fantasy, either. Defense hawks ought to love urban farming, because it would enormously increase our food independence–and achieve it without the market distortions of the benighted farm bill. You don’t need tomatoes from Mexico if you can pluck them from containers on your office roof.

Better yet, urban farming is an excuse to geek out with some awesome tech. Innovations from NASA and garage tinkerers have made food-growing radically more efficient and compact than the victory gardens of yore. “Aeroponics” planters grow vegetables using mist, slashing water requirements; hackers are building home-suitable “aquaponics” rigs that use fish to create a cradle-to-grave ecosystem, generating its own fertilizer (and delicious tilapia, too). Experts have found that cultivating a mere half-acre of urban land with such techniques can yield more than $50,000 worth of crops annually.

But what I love most here is the potential for cultural transformation. Growing our own food again would reconnect us to this country’s languishing frontier spirit.

Once you realize how easy it is to make the concrete jungle bloom, it changes the way you see the world. Urban environments suddenly appear weirdly dead and wasteful. When I walk around New York City now, I see the usual empty lots and balconies and I think, Wait a minute. Why aren’t we growing food here? And here? And here?

In fact, that’s precisely what occurred to me when I came home and looked at the window of my apartment. So now it holds three pots balanced on the ledge: One with herbs, one with lettuce, one with tomatoes.

I should have my first crop in about a month. And I expect my victory salad to taste very sweet indeed.

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