Essentially, I teach about urban and peri-urban food production. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines peri-urban agriculture as "agriculture practices within and around cities which compete for resources (land, water, energy, labor) that could also serve other purposes to satisfy the requirements of the urban population." The FAO is an excellent source for data and publications for research. The data urban and peri-urban farmers/gardeners need is either not produced in the the United States, or, when produced is frequently no more than an advertisement for chemical fertilizer and chemical weed mitigation.
The FAO, in “Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture” offers the challenge of supplying nutritionally adequate and safe food to city dwellers is substantial. Accomplishing this task under conditions of growth and congestion demands that policy-makers seize opportunities for integrating resource management and planning efforts, understanding potential linkages between rural and urban areas, and anticipating the changing needs of a country's citizens - both rural and urban. Part of the reason for the observed growth in UPA is due to its adaptability and mobility compared with rural agriculture. As cities expand physically, the frontiers between urban, peri-urban and rural activity blur and merge, presenting opportunities for beneficial linkages.
These gardens/agriculture land, in the peri-urban setting are often in competition for other projects as bits and pieces of open land, not already in use, comprise a diminishing percentage of the urban landscape. Peri-urban land, falls in the continuum between rural and urban, having varying similarities and differences along that continuum.
Peri-urban is that agricultural production that is closest to urban centers and more distant from rural tracts. While offering the chance to eat fresh vegetables and fruits, it is more difficult to grow and without the cooperation of the community around the growing area, can make growing healthy food impossible. Yet, the lure of having locally produced vegetables and fruit offers many advantages to the urban population in terms of taste and nutrition by virtue of the freshness of the produce.
Peri-urban gardening may be complimented with chickens and their eggs or goats and their milk, but the introduction of animals into the urban landscape can often bring a host of problems that are not found in a plant based operation. One of the biggest challenges in the coming years will be how can we grow sufficient amounts of food for the central city at a price that is affordable and yet high enough to support the farmer and the farmer's family. The face of a gardener/farmer, worldwide, is the face of a woman, so these questions are formed knowing that wage discrimination against women workers has been a constant problem in our culture and will need to be addressed as our food production changes in the coming years.
The concept of the peri-urban garden – and the urban garden, though at a more limited level – can only prove to be beneficial if these issues are confronted and solved:
- Water supplies are not contaminated by the urban/peri-urban farms, especially, but not limited to, those growing animals in addition to vegetables and fruit.
- Remediation of water supplies on site to clean the water to certifiable standards.
- Air quality is not compromised by dust or smell.
- Garden waste remains on site to be composted.
- Gardens take in plant waste for composting.
- Gardeners learn how to deal with vermin in a socially accepted manner or a wholesale change in society's concept of acceptable vermin damage.
- Inner city gardens might make a better contribution by growing mushrooms.
- Food will be fresher allowing for more nutrition and food security providing producers keep food properly until sold, by observing sanitation best practices. If not followed, the close proximity of people, animals and microbial presence will make this much more of a challenge in the future.
- Farmers are allowed to have multi-year leases – or, better yet, ownership – of the land they farm on, giving them the impetus to keep the garden clean from diseases and infestations.
The inner city, with skyscrapers, presents the most challenge for farmers. As one moves towards the outer city, with fewer floors between the garden and the sun, growing food generally becomes easier. It is probably not a stretch to assume that, as one moves further and further from the central city that gardens can be more productive – however, one can also speculate that the further you get from city center, the number of buyers close at hand diminishes as well.
Farmers already are producing and selling their goods along this line. They harvest their products for sale and spend Wednesdays or some other day at a farmers' market, direct selling their goods to consumers. Of course this is out in the urban, if not rural lands. These farmers' markets are the start of this decentralization of our food production and have proven successful and desirable for consumers and cities alike.
All these farms, from the urban and peri-urban areas are more likely to be smaller than the farms we have today while production levels must remain constant or increase. In addition, these farms, will specialize in certain products and diversify the goods they bring to market. Like
- Aquaculture – growing fish for market, using their waste for fertilizer for vegetables etc.
- Urban beekeeping, supplementing honey, wax and pollination services.
- and mycology – growing mushrooms which will be in a greater demand as science shows us all the benefits of different varities.
While our food supply will strain to provide enough calories for the populace at the same time it will provide a variety of foods that are uncommon today. Farmers all along the continuum will strive to find products they can feature and draw in customers in addition to the common products easily found in the market.
The positive effects that can be gained from an urban and/or peri-urban food supply include the following:
- providing green spaces throughout the city, even to the inner downtown city
- green space preservation will also enhance carbon sequestration – all food production done correctly sequesters carbon
- reduce the heat island effect that is common in our cities already
- recycling of gray water conserving water and reduce waste
At the same time, unwanted inputs will need to be dealt with, including:
- chemical and physical of roadway exhaust
- heavy metal residues
- soil and water pollution including industrial chemicals, antibiotics and heavy-metals. Among others.
Obviously, inner city farmers, more than others, will be faced with a variety of waste material that is not common today. All waste products that can be safely used in composting and other natural breakdown of material, will be in abundance, however, the same can be said about materials we don't want which may be just as ubiquitous.
In addition to those growers striving to make an income, there will be average citizens that will still wish to grow there own. From the 1890's growing some of your own food in the city has been a part of the American life style. The modest beginning in 1890's, in the wake of the 1890's Depression that a formal community garden emerged, native to the United States. It was in Detroit, using vacant lots, the city government gave the laid off workers a chance to feed their families.
In that same era, in the 1890's, community gardens were created in San Francisco and Boston – both still active gardening cities to this date. New York had its first gardens in the early 1900's. And it too has remained a gardening city!
In World War 1, at the behest of the Wilson administration, Americans began to build their “Liberty Gardens” using their front lawns and other unused land to grow a 24% share of the food grown in the US, creating a tradition of growing your own food close to home. The term "community garden" came into use to describe collectively grown gardens and gardens with individual plots during World War I. The gardens opened the idea of city gardens/community gardens and the concept has been a part of the woof and warp of American life since that time.
The Roosevelt administration in WW2 wanted the food growing to stay in the hands of professionals and discouraged amateurs from planting their “Victory Gardens.” The populace would not have it and went about putting in driveway gardens, front yard gardens and parkway gardens and finally the Roosevelt administration succumbed and thew in with the people and Victory Gardens became a part of the American legend of the World Wars. These gardens were successful in producing healthy food for consumption for the folks at home – freeing up the traditional supplies of vegetables for shipping to the front. By May 1943 (we didn't go to war until December 1942), there were 18 million gardens producing food, which, along with rationing, allowed the US to ship food out to the war zones where many farms had been destroyed by bombing or other acts of war removing the farmers from the war zone and eliminating their ability to feed the populations in the conflict zone.
These Victory Gardens were a step towards urban gardens. Harking back to the community plots of 1890s, cities began to look for unused land to allow citizens to grow their own food for a nominal rental fee that paid for water use and sometimes fencing. Los Angeles has something more than 90 active community gardens, most started during the administration of Mayor Tom Bradley, showcasing LA's diverse cultures and culinary traditions.
Los Angeles' demand for community gardens has far outpaced the demand. In the 1980's, when I got my first community garden, the wait list was about two weeks and they gave me 4 plots to work in! Nowadays, I hear of people waiting years for a plot.
In the community gardens in Los Angeles, you pay an annual fee and are required to do a set number of community work hours in the garden. When I got my first plot in Ocean View Farms, plots were about 14 feet square and laid out on a slope facing the ocean, which is a few miles away, providing full sun exposure to almost all the plots. In conjunction with the Master Gardener program, UC Davis has written a beginning gardener's curriculum which is taught multiple times all over the LA Area – I teach two per year (Spring and Fall) for a nominal fee, to get people off on the right start in the community garden experience.