Metro-Agrarians Seek Their Day in the Sun

Post-industrial cities may be proto-agricultural. Cleveland and other urban areas are expanding local gardening efforts, meanwhile changing the urban/rural dynamic.

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Here’s an eye-catching headline: “Cleveland Could Become 100% Self Sufficient in Food Production.”

An Ohio State University researcher suggests that residents of Cleveland and other “post industrial cities” could meet their basic nutritional needs with food grown in the city. Depending on the approach, Cleveland could retain $29 million to $115 million in its local economy, according to the Center for Urban Environment and Economic Development at the Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster.

Researcher Parwinder Grewal found that Cleveland has more than 3,000 acres of vacant lots because of manufacturing job losses, the economic downturn, and home foreclosures. The city also has 2,900 acres of flat rooftops that could be modified for garden space. To reach the high end of the estimate, food would have to be grown on most vacant lots, on some commercial rooftops, and in homeowners’ yards.

Cleveland, like other U.S. cities in a protracted, multigenerational downturn, has been raising food for some time. Grewal says that Cleveland is already a progressive place in terms of urban agriculture, with more than 200 community gardens (about 50 acres) and zoning for beekeeping and small livestock production. Currently, local food production accounts for 1.7 percent ($1.5 million) of the $89 million city residents spend annually on fresh produce and 0.1 percent of total food and beverage expenditures. There is room for increased food production.

USDA reports that about 39 percent of the nation’s farms were in metropolitan counties in 2007. More than two-thirds of farms in the California-Arizona “fruitful rim” were in metro counties. Metro farms accounted for 40 percent of U.S. agricultural production value and tended to produce higher-value crops.

Depending on the geography, this phenomenon demonstrates the economic maxim that the value of farm products tends to increase with higher real estate prices; farmers typically seek to take advantage of urban marketing opportunities and counter higher land prices and taxes that accompany nearby economic growth. Part of the phenomenon is also locational, however. (Certain foods, such as citrus, can only be grown in warmer climates.)

Metropolitan farms may or may not be “urban,” that is, located in cities. Many are located just outside city limits, although farms in outlying areas of metropolitan counties are constantly at risk of disappearing because of pressure to develop acreage for non-agricultural purposes. Property may be sold off when landowners find the right opportunity or succumb to pressures from neighbors who like the view but don’t like the farming, which may be dusty, noisy, and subject to pesticide use.

The geographical position of high-value agriculture in the U.S. West is problematic. For example, according to the American Farmland trust, California’s Central Valley lost about 223,000 acres of high quality farmland during the 1990s, in large part because of urban development. In addition, water shortages because of wider regional urban and rural demands – an irrational conflict if there ever was one – were responsible for the loss of about 79,000 acres of this farmland. People demand more water in cities. It is diverted from rural, food-producing areas that cannot exist without irrigation. Something has to give, and neither path is sustainable.

It is unclear what proportion of the nation’s food is actually produced in cities. A 2011 USDA report says that various channels of local food marketing grossed $4.8 billion in 2008, just 2 percent of U.S. agricultural sales. It seems likely most of this food was produced in rural areas of metropolitan counties, with a small proportion grown in cities.


Krista Hermes cares for eggplants in downtown Cleveland
garden. The city now produces just under 2% of its own fresh
produce.

Whatever the amount of food produced on urban farms, cities have considerable potential to produce more, a historic idea that has re-emerged over several decades. The current trend may have started with community development efforts in the 1970s to start neighborhood gardens, though some studies suggest that urban agriculture dates back more than 10,000 years,
Contemporary urban agriculture has emerged because of the availability of vacant land, high energy costs, neighborhood grocery store closings, and the local food movement. All of these trends fit the larger goals of green, sustainable cities, places that are seeking to redesign themselves in the wake of the same global and national pressures that have decimated many rural communities.

The regional dynamics of growth and development are complex. It is true some cities, or at least parts of them, are growing. But parallel tracks of uneven rural and urban development – characterized by declining and abandoned infrastructure, relative isolation of some social groups, lower education levels, limited nearby job opportunities, lower wages, higher poverty, lack of access to capital, and out-migration – suggest a nasty fragmentation of our nation’s political economy. Call it what you will, market failure, geographic discrimination….

Shifting capital and geographic fortunes are not new in the U.S. Some places prosper, even as others decline. But with globalization, growth and decline can be rapid, unpredictable, and surprising. According to the Census Bureau, some suburbs, once considered the locus of the American Dream, now face rising poverty and falling quality of life. In contrast, some rural areas have, for a number of different reasons, seen quality of life improve over the years.
Several times recently I have been asked: “Does rural matter?”

No one wants a simple “yes” or “no” answer. But explaining why rural matters is increasingly difficult because the nation’s population is almost 85 percent urban. The rural experience – whatever that means – is diverse and far removed from most people’s everyday life. Yet even if urban food production surges, rural does matter. Here are some strong reasons:

•    Unfortunately, urban farming will not likely reach its full potential. New high-rise schemes are too costly. In reclaiming vacant lots, soil may be contaminated, adding to costs. Land will always be at risk of assignment to uses with higher value if other development opportunities emerge.
•    Rural remains the largest land use nationally, with about 75 percent of the land in crops, pasture and forests. Urban places take up only about 3 percent of the country’s land, with only a small fraction available for agriculture.
•    The world population is past 7 billion and growing. Increased food production is an imperative, even as the overall quality of the world’s agricultural soils is declining, according to a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization Report, “State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture,” published last November.
•    Significant issues such as water quality and quantity, along with climate change and global warming, all add credence to the argument that rural areas are important, even if relatively few people live in them. Adequate food and water, alongside a healthy environment, are all components of sustainable national and global security. Rural areas cannot be a weak link in the world’s political economy and ecology.

Farmland in Fresno, California, is disappearing, as residential development creeps farther from city cores.
Beyond food, it is important to point out that agriculture is only part of the U.S. rural economy. According to USDA, the country has about 2 million full and part-time farmers, about 1 percent of the total population and only about 5 percent of the rural population. Large-scale family farms and a relatively few nonfamily farms account for 12 percent of U.S. farms but 84 percent of the value of production. This minority within a minority is a crucial part of a global agribusiness market that includes both food and bioenergy production. Meanwhile, smaller farms are claiming a role in producing crops for more localized and urbanized markets, a good thing for rural fringe areas. These farmers need economic opportunities off of their farms to maintain a decent standard of living.

Just as many rural development advocates have argued for years that rural is not necessarily agricultural, now we need to consider that urban is coming to include more agricultural characteristics. The rise of urban farming and agriculture is good for a world facing food constraints, although it could be interpreted as helping to create an urban peasant class or contributing to the continuing demise of rural areas. Time will tell if parts of urban areas can be continually dedicated to specialized food and energy production.

For those interested in rural development, however, the changing world of rural-urban definitions is taking on another new meaning. Global warming might well make it necessary for cities to produce their own food and energy. From a policy perspective, we will need to understand rural-urban linkages even more deeply without giving ground on the intrinsic ecological importance of rural areas as places where people live and work as part of a larger political economy.
 

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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