National Geographic News

Martha M. Hamilton

for National Geographic

Published May 18, 2014

Chickens are coming home to roost in U.S. cities, near pens for goats and hives for bees. In urban yards and on once-vacant lots, planting beds brim with herb plants, pea vines, and the ubiquitous kale.

A new wave of urban agriculture is flourishing because it benefits consumers concerned about sustainably grown food as well as cities with land to spare. It started in 2008, fueled both by economic stress and concerns about nutrition, childhood obesity, and diabetes highlighted by First Lady Michelle Obama.

"There's been tremendous growth in the number of urban farms in cities dealing with an excess of land and not enough people living [there]," said Anne Palmer of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, and in "any city where land is somewhat undervalued."

That's one reason Baltimore and Detroit are hot spots. But beekeepers and community gardens are also proliferating in upscale neighborhoods, where there are long waiting lists of foodies and locavores for garden plots.

Madison, Wisconsin, which last year issued 197 poultry permits, has already issued 178 for this year (with the year half over).

Urban farming by definition keeps food production local. That reduces energy use and other costs of food transport, and brings more healthy, fresh foods to neighborhoods where they historically have been scarce—the so-called food deserts.

"Equal Access"

In Milwaukee, Will Allen founded the nonprofit Growing Power to provide "equal access to high-quality safe and affordable food to people in all communities." Allen, a former professional basketball player and farmer whose parents were sharecroppers, was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2008 for his farming endeavors.

Growing Power grows produce and raises livestock at locations in and near Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago. Its products are sold to local restaurants, at area farmers markets, and at the nonprofit's own café in one of Milwaukee's food deserts. The collective's other ventures include composting—to create the soil it uses—and aquaponics, which uses waste produced by farmed fish to produce nutrients for plants and then reuses the filtered water.

"We grow food," said Growing Power's Tami Hughes, "and we grow farmers."

Healthy Foods for Urbanites

In the nation's capital, the University of the District of Columbia has worked closely with the city government to encourage availability of healthy foods and sustainable food production—growing plants, composting plant waste, and growing more plants with that compost.

Sabine O'Hara, the dean of UDC's College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Science, says the school is now integrating its land-grant and academic programs more closely. (UDC is a land-grant university, a federally established category of colleges and universities created in the 1800s to teach "agriculture and the mechanic arts.")

UDC has a farm in Beltsville, Maryland, near the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Center, with 25 acres under cultivation and plots where, says O'Hara, "we show what can be grown and different growing methods."

Some food is donated to nonprofits for the city's hungry, but the university also has a contract with the Hay-Adams Hotel near the White House.

"We grow food that is high in quality and high in nutrient density," said O'Hara, who has a doctorate in environmental economics and a master's in agricultural economics.

UDC is also trying to bring healthy, fresh food to consumers who may not have had access to it. Two chefs on staff can provide recipes and samples of how to prepare the fresh offerings at the city's farmers markets. And UDC has received a grant from the District's Sustainable D.C. initiative to help finance a food truck, which O'Hara says would be another way to fertilize food deserts.

Another goal is creating jobs, perhaps in growing specialty crops for Washington's many ethnic communities—one of the concepts UDC is demonstrating at its Beltsville farm.

Cash Crops

While urban agriculture is often an individual, family, community, or nonprofit venture, Big City Farms in Baltimore is a business—and it hopes, eventually, to be a profitable one. Chief Executive Dave Bisson said the for-profit venture aims not just to educate the public about food issues, "but also to make a substantial dent in the supply, replacing supplies coming from other parts of the country or other countries."

It also hopes to eventually be 100 percent employee-owned, and to provide year-round, full-time employment for more than its current nine full-time workers.

Big City Farms is farming on a handful of lots as small as half an acre and is using a 40-foot shipping container fitted with sinks and refrigeration to clean and store produce. Its West Baltimore site is a "network farm" with the nonprofit Strength to Love II, which employs an additional three workers.

"Big City Farms supplies the expertise and pledges to purchase everything grown there and prepare it for market," said Bisson.

Hurdles to Clear

Impediments to urban agriculture include contaminated or compacted soil. Sometimes the answer is to import soil from elsewhere. Growers should research a site's history and test the soil, said Johns Hopkins's Palmer. Also, empty lots where growers have spent years building up the soil may suddenly be attractive for other uses. Goodbye, farm.

And those chickens? Although many cities—including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Dallas—allow them, ordinances vary on how far away from neighboring buildings they must be kept, or how often manure has to be cleaned.

But no roosters need intrude on urban sleep: They're necessary only for fertilizing eggs, not for laying them.

Evan Wooderson
Evan Wooderson

There are so many benefits to this beyond food production and embrace resiliency as a whole.  There are urban farms everywhere that are already making money.  The natural evolution of that is vertical farming.  Check out the unprecedented expansion of these farms in Singapore or how they are constantly preparing new ones like Bright Farms in DC 

Sally Edelstein
Sally Edelstein

Long before the locavore movement heated up this growth in urban gardening, there were "victory gardens" the grandaddy of community gardening. In WWII at the urging of Uncle Sam my Brooklyn born and bred mother and her family like millions of first time gardening Americans planted victory gardens

Monica Pastor
Monica Pastor

I agree with Justin Smith, not sure it is "cost effective" but still a great idea for people to learn about food production. The article even indicates Big City Farm hopes to "eventually be profitable." I hope folks in these low income areas are encouraged to look at their full cost to make sure they aren't spending too much of their hard earned money that could be better spent by buying from a local grower at a farmer's market. Of course the issue of where the farmer's market is located could be their hindrance. All of these folks need to understand that a "vacant lot" is owned by someone who is paying property taxes. This article touched the surface but there is much more involved and I would hope National Geographic would do a more in depth study of this food production model. 

Michele Wallace
Michele Wallace

Great article.  They are popping up in Michigan as well.  Our company is an aquaponics company located inside of a warehouse.  The benefit is growing year round.  Great alternative!

Kirill Talalaev
Kirill Talalaev

Interesting article. What authorities do not give permission to organize and create their small vegetable garden outside the house?

Jan Eberts
Jan Eberts

Dayton,Ohio had one of these in an area.  The residents went and asked permission to use this vacant lot for a garden area.  They even built a composting area, and a green house from recycled stuff.  It was really cool!  There were several plots, whoever wanted to grow veggies, could.  And then.. some developer decided that even though there were several vacant buildings around that could be restored, he wanted that parcel of land.  And a fight began.  Even the Dayton Daily News got involved on behalf of the citizens that had turned that nasty vacant lot into something so precious.  The fight is still going on.  Hopefully... money won't win this time.

Anna F.
Anna F.

It should be done in the Projects. They need it in every way.

Liz Zee
Liz Zee

Philadelphia does not allow chicken ownership as of yet.

wayne roberts
wayne roberts

This article is directed to cities that have a surplus of affordable land -- ie land with a commercial value that allows something as unprofitable and low-margin as food to be grown, rather than shopping malls or homes. 

However, I argue in my book, Food for City Building, that urban food production, especially of small livestock, has many other functions besides growing food to eat. Small livestock -- chickens, pigs and fish are most obvious -- can eat food scraps that are otherwise are wasted and have to be hauled away at great expense. Lambs can eat grass in large parks, and save the cost of cutting grass. Livestock also introduce people, especially children, to a variety of animal species, teaching them more about where their food comes from and the varieties of life that make life on the planet possible.

Multifunctionalism is the starting point for intelligent food policy -- looking for added value in many areas. So urban ag should not be dependent on cities having a surplus of land. That would only indicate a lack of surplus when it comes to imagination.  

Michael Corbello
Michael Corbello

Emily DeMoor and Nick Corbello, check this out! Far ahead of your time!!

Justin Smith
Justin Smith

Growing food this way is fun and enjoyable to those involved. There is something magical about planting and growing. Though I doubt seriously this is cost effective but the fun and educational benefits help to even that up. 

Though I certainly hope they all wash their food very well. Cities have lots of dogs which don't mind a lettuce plant substituting for a tree. 

Heidi Draffin
Heidi Draffin

More articles about this.....all across the world.   Help others teach how they have made this work....  Every micro-environment has challenges and benefits.  Highlight the people who make it work...time management, relationship building, farm-to-table networks. 

Fra Rei
Fra Rei

Intelligent use of land.  Grass lawns should be banned.  All land should be used for a variety of agricultural needs.

Will Richards
Will Richards

@Fra Rei Exactly, though perhaps just taking away the HOAs abuse of power instead of more regulations would do the trick?  Allow people the ability to plant productive plants in their yards instead of a mass of grass that require harmful chemicals to be spread on it in the spring, mowed and bagged throughout the year throwing away vital nutrients, and only providing the homeowner with costs and labor hours instead of any real value.  Currently, if you try to plant productive, nourishing plants, many HOAs will come by and fine you for not being as worthless as everyone else in the neighborhood.


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