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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

Urban Agriculture: Join The Revolution

by Chris Lazarus

"There is a quiet revolution stirring in our food system. It is not happening so much on the distant farms that still provide us with the majority of our food; it is happening in cities, neighborhoods, and towns. It has evolved out of the basic need that every person has to know their food, and to have some sense of control over its safety and its security. It is a revolution that is providing poor people with an important safety net where they can grow some nourishment and income for themselves and their families. And it is providing an oasis for the human spirit where urban people can gather, preserve something of their culture through native seeds and foods, and teach their children about food and the earth. The revolution is taking place in small gardens, under railroad tracks and power lines, on rooftops, at farmers, markets, and in the most unlikely of places. It is a movement that has the potential to address a multitude of issues: economic, environmental, personal health, and cultural.

--Michael Ableman, "the Quiet Revolution," Fatal Harvest1

No other economic development activity has as much appeal to those concerned with sustainability as urban agriculture: city-dwellers connecting with the earth, growing their own healthful food, and often making money doing so; abandoned lots being cleared of debris and transformed into beautiful green public spaces, filled with life, color, and value, in the bleak urban jungle; people of all ages with little or no employment possibilities learning job and life skills working with nature; cities reducing the fuel-burning and air-polluting impact of transporting solid waste and food long distances because organic waste is recycled into compost and food is grown in the neighborhood where it is consumed; and food production moving away from the herbicides, pesticides, and other toxins upon which American agribusiness has become so dependent.

There is an astounding vibrancy and interest in urban agriculture in the United States today, as can be seen by the profiles on these pages. The variety and unique circumstances behind each one make it difficult to generalize and draw conclusions. While a few are large, most are small -- even micro-sized. Many involve non-profit organizations, although there is a growing number of for-profits. And collaboration between several non-profits or between non-profit organization and for-profit entrepreneurs is increasingly common. Non-profits drawn to urban agriculture include community-based organizations, greening or environmental groups, educational and religious institutions, and organizations dedicated to solving homelessness, poverty, or hunger.

Within the scope of urban agriculture are community gardens (some of which have an entrepreneurial element), market gardens, Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSAs), farmers, markets (see Greenmarket Pg. 10), and independent private ventures utilizing those unlikely places Michael Ableman mentions: rooftops, porches, fire escapes, parking lots, backyards, basements, and kitchen counters. Many projects have multiple sites such as these; others have one or more urban sites plus a larger property outside or on the edge of the city.

But Does it Pay--

Urban agriculture has so many beneficial social and environmental impacts there can be no doubt about its value as a community-building tool and desirable end in itself. But is it a viable vehicle for economic development-- The answer depends on how you define economic development.

Almost all of the projects driven by non-profits are far from being financially self-sufficient. They are dependent on grants, donations, and government programs. Although they experiment with entrepreneurial activities, their main mission is to be of social service, and because of this they are less likely to be economically successful as measured in revenues and profits. For some, economic self-sufficiency isn't even a goal.

But hold on. Let's level the playing field and see who is making a living by growing food. Large-scale industrial farms in the U.S. feeding most of the population receive a total of $46 million in subsidies of one kind or another every day. These subsidies do nothing but go into the pockets of individuals.

The truth is that profit margins are often very slim in agriculture, depending on what is grown. Shortening the distribution chain by growing food locally puts more money in the hands of producers while consumers pay the same for fresher, healthier food. As Mary Seton Corboy of Greensgrow in Philadelphia says, "If we sell our lettuce to a produce distribution center, they pay $5 for a 3-lb. case. If we sell to a middleman, he gives us $8.50 a case. If we sell it ourselves to the restaurants here in town, we get $13-15 a case. Part of the trick is to keep expenses to a minimum -- easy to do if you sell to local customers. Even so, Seton Corboy pinches every penny to make ends meet.

The other key to making money in urban agriculture is to grow something that will sell at a high price. Jac Smit of The Urban Agriculture Network (see profile, p.76 ) maintains that high profit margins are possible if a venture uses niche marketing and focuses on high-value crops, such as herbs and hard-to-find specialty produce.

Experts: Recent Studies and Resources

One of the biggest challenges for anyone thinking of starting an urban agriculture project is finding helpful information and guidance. Fortunately, several recent studies are available, and most of them address the issue of economic development potential.

Entrepreneurial Community Gardens: Growing Food, Skills, Jobs and Communities by Gail Feenstra, Sharyl McGrew and David Campbell of the University of California at Davis (1999) provides case studies and analysis of 27 projects across the nation, although most are on the West Coast, Hawaii or Southwest, that are blessed with a year-round growing season. The small scale and weak economic payback, measured in traditional terms, is evident: 87% of these projects had annual revenues of less than $50,000; 79% employed 15 people or fewer; 83% had a "self-sufficiency index (percentage of total program expenses covered through revenues) of 50% or less. This study also includes business development resources for California projects and contacts for community gardening and urban agriculture.

Feasibility Analysis of For-Profit Agricultural Businesses Using Urban Vacant Land prepared by Hope Wohl Associates for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (1999) looks at eight urban agriculture businesses in the Northeast with the purpose of identifying models for future, economically viable Philadelphia-area projects. The study concluded that these projects are marginally viable as businesses, although it recognizes their significant community-building value. The appendices not only provide contacts, but also mini business plans for three different generic types of urban agriculture projects.

Jerry Kaufman and Martin Bailkey of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, began a research project, funded by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, with the title Exploring Opportunities for CDCs Using Inner City Vacant Land for Urban Agriculture. Their research, however, revealed that Community Development Corporations (CDCs) are only one type of community-based non-profit that would benefit from involvement in this arena. The progress report (February 1999) provided valuable information for this article and the final report will be available from the Lincoln Institute in mid-2000. Kaufman and Bailkey interviewed 100 people and describe 40 urban agriculture projects in their final report. They focused on identifying the many challenges facing entrepreneurial urban agriculture and how these might be overcome.

The study selected projects located in older cities with a high percentage of vacant land available. For example, Philadelphia has 30,900 parcels of vacant land within the city limits; Chicago has an estimated 70,000; Detroit 46,000; Milwaukee has 2,500 acres or 4% of the city's total land area. Kaufman and Bailkey conclude that economic development is only one reason to engage in urban agriculture and that urban agriculture is only one possible productive way to use the staggering amount of abandoned property in our cities. They also advocate urban agriculture as a legitimate field of activity for public sector planning.

Although not a study per se, the second edition of a book, Urban Agriculture: Food, Jobs and Sustainable Cities, by Jac Smit, Annu Ratta and Joe Nasr, originally published by the U.N. Development Program in 1996, will be available in September 2000. The second edition will focus on land use issues. A city and regional planner who has researched and helped start economically successful urban agriculture projects in 30 countries, Smit and his colleagues also offer consulting services through their Urban Agriculture Network (UAN). Smit maintains that if run on a for-profit basis, there are many replicable models that can be successfully implemented in the U.S. (See profile p.76)

To counter policy makers and planners who think agriculture can't pay urban land rent, Smit proposed the following: Assume that vacant urban land will only be available for ten to 15 years and plan production around that time frame. Then work out a lease in which rent is a share of production. In addition, calculate the value of having the site maintained or even improved by the project because it is attractive, solid waste is handled, police have less to worry about because people are on the land, and often the entire neighborhood (and property value) is enhanced. The property owner clearly benefits economically from such a project.

Defining Economic Development

Even these experts disagree as to what constitutes economic value and development. Some, like Smit, argue that traditional measures of economic viability (revenues, jobs, profits) must be used, if for no other reason than to attract the attention and support of funders and policy-makers.

Others, like Feenstra, argue persuasively for a more holistic, sustainable definition of economic development, one that takes into account leadership training, community strengthening, and food security. "You can't add it up in dollars and cents, says Feenstra. "How do you value the change that takes place in someone's life when they,ve come to work in a garden after getting out of prison and they see themselves and the world in a new way-- How do you value children learning that it takes time and effort to reap the fruit of their labor, that you can't rush it, that there's essentially no free lunch--

"Kids today see an emphasis on immediate gratification," she continues. "With gardening, they learn what a season is, what a cycle is, that it takes time to go through a season and your own inner development. At the end there is a beautiful fruit, but you have to wait until it's ripe before you pick it. Working with the earth, they begin to see the connection, the analogy to their own life.

Smit acknowledges that when policy makers see urban agriculture not only paying off in economic terms, but bringing with it social and environmental benefits, "they,ll really get on the bandwagon. Feenstra, on the other hand, realizes that funders need some education, perhaps conferences, to appreciate how different urban agriculture is from other economic development activities in terms of the small size of these ventures and their slow and financially modest payback.

The experts agree on two ingredients for success in urban agriculture. The first is that there should be no more than one or two goals. Trying to achieve too many goals, no matter how praiseworthy, can stretch an organization or business -- typically understaffed and undercapitalized -- too thin. The second required ingredient is a tremendous amount of dedication and motivation on the part of the people involved in the project.

What's Needed

Getting the support of policy makers is critical to taking urban agriculture to the next level. Andy Fisher, executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC), responsible for making the Community Food Project program part of the 1996 Farm Bill, outlined the following steps needed to realize the enormous potential urban agriculture has:

- Policy makers and land use planners must recognize that agriculture is a viable economic development activity within cities;

- Non-profit organizations with resources must realize that they should get involved in urban agriculture because it can help solve many of the problems they're working on;

- Local governments must get involved and support urban agriculture both financially and with policies and procedures friendly to urban agriculture use of land;

- Those involved in urban agriculture projects need to focus on building their capacity to produce, provide more jobs, and teach others how to start their own projects;

- Individual communities need to organize to create appropriate urban agriculture projects for their neighborhoods, and involve children, because they are often more receptive than adults. The CFSC dedicated its Fall 1999/Winter 2000 newsletter to the subject of urban agriculture and is preparing a policy paper on urban agriculture, directed toward federal agencies that are in a position to support city farming (such as HUD, USDA, and EPA). Fisher's involvement in the issue of community food security began when he was a student in UCLA's planning school. After the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, he participated in a year-long study of the city's food system, culminating in a report, "Seeds of Change: Strategies for Food Security for the Inner City. In April 1999, Fisher, Smit, and Kaufman led a session on food -- the first ever -- at a meeting of the American Planning Association.

Government help would certainly make a difference. In fact, the U.S. lags behind the developing world in this respect. Urban agriculture is an integral part of city plans throughout Latin America and Asia. Havana, Cuba, now receives 50% of all the vegetables it consumes from local farms and gardens, all with strong government support. The unreliable food distribution system in the developing countries is the main reason urban agriculture is viewed as a necessity there.

Here we have been lulled into accepting an efficient but unsustainable food supply system that divorces consumers from producers and shortchanges low-income neighborhoods in particular. The biggest challenge is showing people how a different, expanded system, embracing urban agriculture, could dramatically improve our health, our environment, and our communities.

As Ableman concludes in "The Quiet Revolution:

"We have come to believe that food for a society comes from distant farms far from the places where most of us now live and work. The models are there to show us that a vibrant and productive urban agriculture with its own connected cottage industries and economies is not a utopian dream but a real and practical possibility. So many components of this possibility, are already in place; what is missing is a national agenda to make our cities the biologically and culturally alive diverse gardens that they could be.

While we may not be able to reverse the migration of the last 50 years away from the land, we can bring something of the land into our cities. This movement does not require the construction of expensive facilities, new roads, or sophisticated transportation. The land and the people and the cultural knowledge already exist to make it happen. All that stands in the way is a clear and focused vision of what could be.2

Contributing Editor, Chris Lazarus, is a principal of A.J. Lazarus and Associates Public Relations in New York City. As a freelance journalist, she writes on environmental and sustainability issues for television, radio, and print media.

1. Opening excerpt is from "The Quiet Revolution; Urban Agriculture -- Feeding the Body, Feeding the Soul in the forthcoming book, Fatal Harvest, by the Institute for Deep Ecology. Michael Ableman is the founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California (see profile of this organic farm on p. 70) where he has farmed since 1981. He has also started market gardens at the Santa Barbara AIDS Hospice, the Midland School, and the Jordan Downs Housing Project in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Ableman is also the author and photographer of two books, From the Good Earth: A Celebration of Growing Food around the World and On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm.

2. Ibid.

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