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Weekly Mulch: Urban farming 'mushrooms' during recession

| July 17, 2009
Americans have picked up some interesting habits thanks to the Great Recession. Online dating is on the rise because it’s cheaper to vet a date online than pay for a night on the town. Interest in urban farming and community gardening has also spiked, but for different reasons: Home-grown foods taste better, cost less and are better for you.

While technology has made online dating easy, urban agriculture has a tradition of mushrooming during the tough times. During World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt inspired millions by planting the first Victory Garden. That tradition continues today: Michelle Obama planted an organic vegetable garden on the White House Lawn.

But urban gardening isn’t just for the movers and shakers. And it’s not always easy to get a garden in the ground, no matter how clear-cut the benefits are. As Todd Heywood of the Michigan Messenger reports, residents of Flint, Michigan are appropriating abandoned lots as community gardens, but are running into some big problems in the process. Flint has no zoning laws that allow for urban agriculture, which makes the legality of these guerrilla gardens questionable at best. The city council will review proposals to update zoning ordinances in September, but Flint’s troubles are a good example of how, even if urban agriculture seems like a practical solution, it’s not always feasible.

In contrast to Flint, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has ordered all city departments to audit unused land that could be utilized for urban farming. City officials have also spent the last year preparing approximately 15 sites for growing produce, according to Mother Jones’ Josh Harkinson. As part of an initiative to encourage the spread and consumption of locally-grown foods, a colorful quarter-acre victory garden was planted in front of San Francisco’s city hall. Newsom’s other creative gardening plans including planting strawberry patches atop bus shelters and fruit trees in street medians.

While Newsom’s goals are intended to be in the best public interest, there are legitimate concerns: Contaminated soil, city pollution and vandalism could make the food unfit to eat. And his proposal to require jails, hospitals and homeless shelters to only serve high-quality, sustainable fare might not work in other metropolitan areas.

In an interview with Grist, food writer and urban farmer Novella Carpenter defines urban farming as ‘growing enough food to trade or sell for added income. Food security and financial savings are big motivators to plant a plot of land, even if it’s just to feed one household.

The popularity of community gardens will likely fall when the economy rebounds, Carpenter says, much like the 20 million World War II victory gardens that disappeared after the troops returned home and convenience foods because ubiquitous. That’s because sustaining a, well, sustainable land plot takes a lot of energy, planning and dedication.

But attempting to eat locally and seasonally can be frustrating if you live in a climate with a short growing season. Finding locally-grown tomatoes during a North Dakota winter is out of the question. But Tom Philpott offers a solution: Investing in technology and infrastructure “can dramatically extend growing seasons in almost any climate.” (Scroll down for link.)

Appropriate technology doesn’t mean complicated or expensive. Chelsea Green’s Brad Lancaster writes about how his mentor, Russ Buhrow, has defied dry climate conditions since the 1980s by harvesting rainwater to irrigate his crops. Without money for extraneous equipment or fertilizers, Burhrow’s sole significant investment was his time.

Deciding which issue to dedicate time and resources to can be overwhelming: Hard times make plenty of big problems to go around. But urban agriculture has the power to alleviate problems related to both healthcare and the recession, which makes it worthwhile despite political, technological or social difficulties.

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