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.
Keith R Mastenbrook
What about you? What does urban farming mean to you?