Wednesday, January 01, 2012
Based on a good deal of research and experience, I believe that Los Angeles is the “Urban Farming Capital of the U.S.”
Los Angeles has a rich agricultural history. Early settlers were lured to the area by promises of homesteads anchored by groves of fruit trees and ample space for annual vegetable cultivation. The citrus industry, meanwhile, was a major draw for those looking to find work in the region’s plentiful orange groves. And, as recently as 1950, Los Angeles County produced enough fruits and vegetables to feed its entire urban population. Los Angeles history is important for more than sentimental reasons; it left behind a robust legacy in the University of California’s agricultural extension.
Southern California’s history of agricultural production is no accident. The area’s temperate Mediterranean climate allows for a year-round growing season that is the envy of urban farmers worldwide. While cities around the U.S. are shuttering for the winter or struggling to extend the growing season with greenhouses, cold frames or hoop houses, Southern Californians are harvesting lettuces, cooking greens, peas, carrots, beets, broccoli and cauliflower. During the summer, our tomatoes and squash never seem to stop yielding.
A plethora of thriving urban farming projects are taking advantage of the city’s spectacular climate. Los Angeles contains more than 70 community gardens that serve 3,900 area families, with many others in places such as Santa Monica, Culver City and West Hollywood. Proyecto Jardin, an urban farm near White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights, used to provide growing space for residents to build community and combat food insecurity.
The number of such projects is constantly growing thanks to the energetic volunteers graduating from the Los Angeles County Extension’s Master Gardener and Grow LA Victory Garden initiatives. Along with our local agricultural extension, the local government is strongly behind the urban farming movement, as evidenced by the nascent Food Policy Council. For a more thorough list of urban farming projects, I would recommend checking out the council’s list of urban ag organizations.
Southern California’s urban farming projects are noteworthy for more than just quantity. LA is home to the South Central Farmers, a group of urban farmers in south Los Angeles that have inspired the nation. Despite their controversial eviction in 2006, some of the urban farmers from this group have continued to grow produce in Bakersfield for CSA distribution while others joined Stanford-Avalon Community Garden. The South Central Farmers’ struggle were the topic of the award-winning 2008 film, The Garden.
In addition to non-profit efforts, a number of small ventures, including Farmscape, work with residents, restaurants, schools and businesses to transform lawn to highly productive annual vegetable cultivation or fruit tree production. At Farmscape alone, we have helped establish nearly 200 urban farming projects and manage more than 100 as part of our weekly farming service.
The history, climate, and culture of Los Angeles are unmatched for urban farming. When we started Farmscape, we saw these immense resources sitting untapped, and we suspected we could put them to better use. Our three years of experience farming the city have confirmed our suspicions. There’s no place we’d rather be growing food.
Of course, Los Angeles isn’t the only home to exciting urban farming projects. Here’s a look at how the other candidates for urban farming capital stack up.
Detroit is certainly the trendy pick right now. The city is abuzz with urban farming activity as residents scoop up cheap, abandoned plots of land and convert them. The most notable undertaking is the creation of Hantz Farms, touted as the world’s largest urban farm. John Hantz, a Detroit-resident and owner of a local financial firm, has put up $30 million to make this vision a reality. Phase I of the project will span 70 acres, yielding a bounty of fruits, vegetables and Christmas trees.
Like Los Angeles, Detroit also stands out for the variety of projects underway. The city is home to 112 community gardens, D-Town Farm, a 2-acre model farm managed by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and Earthworks Urban Farm, a ¾ acre farm managed by a local soup kitchen. These efforts and more were catalogued in the 2011 documentary Urban Roots.
Nevertheless, I believe that LA has two key advantages that warrant its place atop this list: its weather and its agricultural history. Can the country’s urban farming capital have snow on the ground 5 months out of the year?
Portland: The youthful demographic in Portland teased in “Portlandia” means that it probably has more residential yards dedicated to food production and chicken coops than any other city in the U.S. Donna and Robyn at Your Backyard Farmer were inspirations to us when we started Farmscape, and the city supports several other noteworthy projects such as Verdura Gardens.
New York: New York’s high density forces urban farmers to be innovative. My favorite model is BrightFarms, which uses warmth rising off the rooftops of grocery stores to heat greenhouses which produce greens and herbs for sales on-site.
Boston: A number of organizations combine to help Boston post an impressive 180 gardens within the city. Green City Growers are working hard to grow food in Beantown backyards.
Milwaukee: The case for Milwaukee centers around the wonderful work that Will Allen and Growing Power have done over the past two decades. The program provides workshops, internships and training for unemployed and under-employed teens. The organization has ambitious expansion plans and recently received a $1 million grant from Wal-Mart that generated some controversy.
Cleveland: Hantz Farms is not the only enormous urban farming project in the works; Green City Growers in Cleveland is considering a $17M investment in a 10 acre project that would include a 3 acre greenhouse.
San Francisco: While the Bay Area is a definite hub for local food procurement and consumption, it doesn’t rank nearly as highly when it comes to urban agriculture. Density and high land values limit the potential of farming in the city. That doesn’t mean there aren’t exciting projects; “Little City Gardens” and the city’s 35 community garden show that these are challenging but surmountable obstacles.
Earthworks image from Flickr user healthiermi. Creative Commons.