Just What is Urban Farming?

A reporter posed this question to me last week and I was essentially at a loss for an answer.  Not because I couldn’t think of anything to say, in fact because I could think of too much to say.  Like so many other phrases in the last five years (green, eco-friendly, carbon footprint, sustainability), urban farming feels so commonplace and overused. So much so that some practicing urban farmers poke fun at themselves and others are busy trying to creating backlash against the movement.

But just what is this movement?  Is it extreme gardening?  Or keeping livestock?  Or simply preserving seasonal, local foods?   Maybe it’s just one , or maybe it’s all of these things.  Just when does a garden become farm or a vegetable stand become a farmer’s market?  Is it possible to homestead in the city, or do we even want to be associated with that phrase?

Maybe we don’t even need to define urban farming because the phrase has become so mainstream that we each have our own individual definition of it.  That got me to wondering just how others defined urban farming so I posted that question on a forum.  I’m sharing my favorite response with you.  It’s from Keith Mastenbrook, one of the most committed members of Sustainable NE Seattle and they have some amazingly committed members. He’s a Permaculture wielding, lawn hating understated fellow and his response is characteristically thoughtful and on point.

The question you pose fascinates me, I think because it is critical to the sustainability movement. The world population is becoming urban, leaving the farm behind, with the rural landscape to some extent being handed over to industrial agriculture. Life in the city may be just too alluring, but that’s a discussion for another day. It’s significance to your question, I think, is the contradictory terms urban and farm.

Definitions are central to any discussion of urban farming. What is urban, what is a farm? The mystic of being an urban farmer may be more alluring than the reality that we are, in my estimation, suburban farmers. Most of us live within the city limits, but don’t really live in the urban core. We enjoy certain luxuries with our ample city lots, and I say ample by comparison with the Asian landscape. For example, in Farmers of Forty Centuries, there is documentation of the productivity generated on parcels of land often much smaller than our city properties. Productivity seems to me to be the key. As urban farmers we are striving to make our small patch of the planet more productive, to meet the real needs of our families. To the extent we achieve this production, we lessen the burden (our ecological footprint) on other parts of the planet to support us.

Our expectations, however, often don’t fall in line with our reality. I think we enjoy the best of all world, for most of us are able to engage our urban farmer attitude more like the hobby farmer or gentleperson farmer. Part of our luxury is the power of our fall-back position: we can always go back to the store. We can afford, provided we have income, to dabble in farming.

I’m expressing these opinions far less as a criticism of others, but since you asked the question, these are the issues I ask of myself as I measure my successes and failures with my own practice of gardening. Sometimes I feel hopelessly inadequate in the face of the dilemma that faces us. I’m constantly having to reassure myself that what I do matters. That somehow we can share the message broadly enough to make a real difference. And then I lapse back into….

No, I’m not going there! To those whom much is given, much is expected. Is urban farming mainstream? Maybe suburban hobby farming is mainstream, but productive, where do the calories I consume everyday, what is my ecological footprint, is there social justice in the world, urban farming has a long way to go. When I move through the landscape of Seattle I see change, but not nearly enough that it makes a huge difference, at least that’s my opinion. I like the comparison made to the Victory Garden of recent history. Although I can’t help but think that the concept of shared sacrifice plays a role in understanding how that movement and the solution to today’s problems compare. Currently society is anything but sharing the sacrifice, the examples are too numerous and obvious. Perhaps our age has assessed the problems that face us, the endless barrage of bad news, and opted for each man for themselves? Perhaps it is because there seems to be no clear end to the troubles, no “victory” in sight, that we won’t abandon our lifestyle of consumption. Does anyone know how many seasons passed before the Victory Gardens were mainly a thing of the past?

The Urban Farmer is the ideal model for the countercultural human. Productive rather than merely consumptive, stewards rather than owners, social rather then isolated. Unfortunately life is far to complex for simple solutions anymore, but the paradigm of the Urban Farmer is worthwhile pursuing. It is the future, in my opinion, of an egalitarian world where all life is respected and supported. But it must be clear to all that taking responsibility for our place in universe requires that we get dirt under our fingernails.

Green wishes,

Keith R Mastenbrook

What about you?  What does urban farming mean to you?

20 Responses to Just What is Urban Farming?

  1. Pingback: Just What is Urban Farming? | Sustainable Eats & the Dancing Goat … – Green Living Off The Land

  2. Wow, I really love that last paragraph there. In reading it, it’s almost funny to think that it’s a definition of an urban farmer because it’s how I believe we should live as stewards of this earth. Wish more people believed that!

  3. I guess when I think of the term it is as mixed up and confusing for me to define it in a clear simple answer.
    When I look back at the years I spent in DC, getting rid of 95% of the green lawn I had on my postage stamp lot and planting veggies and other things that I might be farming. It would have been a shock.
    The first time I came upon the term, that I remember, was in describing how someone in one of the NE larger cities was making use of all areas of their yard and lot, including the median strip by the sidewalk to grow veggies and sell them at the local Farmer’s Market to feed their family. A few others had joined them and it was now a block wide effort. They split crops, traded to feed their families and sold the remainder to help the household.
    More than anything I would love to see the food ‘deserts’ to go away, even if only one day a week in a neighborhood with a local Farmer’s Market.
    That anyone who has even a tad bit of time and the desire can grow a portion of their food, even the evening’s salad from a pot on the porch.
    Our kids learn again where their food comes from and are excited about trying new fresh things.
    If even a simple majority of us are involved in this effort I have to think our other decisions on food we buy, laws we want passed and programs for others will reflect the change in focus.
    For me supporting anyone in my little part of the world that wants to grow something will get support and encouragement from me:-)

    • Annette Cottrell

      Victoria how cool to imagine an entire block growing food! What a dream. I agree. If we each just touch one or two other people and the chain keeps happening we will get there one day. Thanks for supporting and encouraging others!

  4. This one: “Maybe we don’t even need to define urban farming because the phrase has become so mainstream that we each have our own individual definition of it. ”

    I see it as a sign that urban farming is gaining traction that it is attracting criticism as well. Who cares what they say? And why does everything have to have a label/name? It’s just putting food on the table…

    The critics who always seem to find reasons why to NOT accomplish things always make the most noise. They don’t want their wasteful consumption to be the focus, so they shift the focus to urban farming failures and fly-by-nights.

    Your healthy, non industrial food will speak for itself… and if you’re still doing it 15, 20 years from now, well you’ve proven this is a lifestyle not a passing fancy. Those dabblers risk the opportunity for everyone – don’t let shoddy husbandry and slovenly compost piles attract justified negativity to the movement and spoil it for everyone.

    I love countercultural human – I want to be one when I grow up!

    • Annette Cottrell

      Jackie I agree. I can’t stand contrarians. If even one person was discouraged because of that article I hope that writer has to eat genetically modified food the rest of her life – and her kids too. I can’t imagine ever feeling comfortable eating industrial food again. Even a few months into my initial challenge I went on strike and tried to buy prepared foods. I just couldn’t do it! It lasted but a few days. Much to the chagrin of my kids. :) Don’t ever grow up, unless it’s to become a countercultural human.

  5. I am not urban but more suburban – but the issues are the same. I view my large working food production garden as a mini vegetable (and to a lesser extent fruit) farm that feeds one family (mine!). It’s just another form of acquiring food – only it is more satisying and sustaining than my alternatives of buying things from others. I believe the modern victory garden is a wayt o decentralize and really go local with part of our food production. Rather than megascale production – it is inidividualized production.

    • Annette Cottrell

      Laura they absolutely are. You are such an inspiration! Thank you for plugging along and showing us all how to do it!

      • The best part was the almost hidden plug for Lauras website…which was great! He says:

        I like the comparison made to the Victory Garden of recent history. Although I can’t help but think that the concept of shared sacrifice plays a role in understanding how that movement and the solution to today’s problems compare.


  6. Been in a community garden for 15 years. Several years ago turned most of the space in our own small urban yard over to mostly food save a few bee friendly perennials and herbs. Start seeds, save seeds, compost, use hoops and coldframes, even grow food in containers on the roof, porch steps..any surface I can squeeze it in.

    But, I would never consider myself an urban farmer, know a few of those and they’re busting their butts on projects to bring produce to folks in the city who don’t have access. While I do love growing food, what we don’t eat and preserve, we share with neighbors/friends rather than sell so I don’t rely on it for a living. I think farmers are people who make a living growing food.

    It would be fun to consider myself counter-cultural, but I think the non-farm urban food growing movement is more retro-cultural. Growing food in the city is what folks did when our parents were young or for some when their grandparents were young. It’s less rebellion and more a revival of a tradition born of necessity for poor ethnic immigrants that populated the urban centers long ago. A hundred years ago people keeping chickens in our city was normal…two years ago they just made it legal to do so again.

    • Annette Cottrell

      Cleveland Chick that is wonderful! And great that you can have chickens there again. Fashions come back around, why not food?

  7. Just wanted to let you know that you are our Featured Blogger on BlogHer.com’s Green home page starting today. Should stay up for a week or so.



    • Annette Cottrell

      Heather, I am completely honored. And wish I had found the time to work on my blog template! I guess pictures of the goats will have to suffice. :) Thank you!

  8. I have a small plot of land that I raise chickens on and grow a number of fruits and vegetables. I haven’t labeled myself one type of farmer or another, but merely enjoy the process of providing some of the food for my family, being a steward of my small corner of the world and sharing the company of friends and family over a good meal.

    Growing food is a thoughtful endeavor and I think the “urban farmers” are usually concerned about the well being of their families, connection to the land and building community with something that has real tangibility.

  9. I wonder if the term urban farmer is scary to some? I wouldn’t even call my garden adventures “farming” and I know that so many of my friends are intimidated by my yard and what I produce. Really to me it is just the way to eat. I grew up eatting so many fresh vegtables from the yard and canned or frozen excess that I didn’t know anything else and therefore it just seems right to carry that on for my kids. If only we can inspire more people to try without burdening them with too much expectation, perhaps we can make more change in how people view food.

    • Annette Cottrell

      Joanna I think that is it. I also think people don’t want to know how easy it can be because they don’t want to change their lives. Your quiet demonstration will further the cause more than anything, I believe.

  10. urban farming is peace of mind, Self pride and better health.

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