Urban farming is booming, but what does it really yield?

The benefits of city-based agriculture go far beyond nutrition.

Editor’s note: This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit investigative news organization.

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In addition to raising vegetables, urban gardens can help families raise kids who enjoy the outdoors. Photo of Rising Pheasant Farms’ Carolyn Leadley and family by Marcin Szczepanski.
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New York City–based Gotham Greens produces more than 300 tons per year of herbs and greens in two hydroponic facilities. Photo by TIA (Flickr/Creative Commons)

As social enterprises, community gardens operate in an alternate financial universe: they don’t sustain themselves with sales, nor do they have to pay employees.

Though they don’t get as much press as for-profit farms and heavily capitalized rooftop operations, community gardens — which are collectively tended by people using individual or shared plots of public or private land, and have been a feature in U.S. cities for well over a century — are the most common form of urban agriculture in the nation, producing far more food and feeding more people, in aggregate, than their commercial counterparts. As social enterprises, community gardens operate in an alternate financial universe: they don’t sustain themselves with sales, nor do they have to pay employees. Instead, they rely on volunteer or cheap youth labor, they pay little or nothing in rent, and they solicit outside aid from government programs and foundations that support their social and environmental missions. These may include job training, health and nutrition education, and increasing the community’s resilience to climate change by absorbing stormwater, counteracting the urban heat island effect and converting food waste into compost.

[I]t’s the microgreens that keep Leadley from joining the ranks of the vast majority of U.S. farmers and taking a second job.

Several years ago, Elizabeth Bee Ayer, who until recently ran a training program for city farmers, took a hard look at the beets growing in her Youth Farm, in the Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. She counted the hand movements involved in harvesting the roots and the minutes it took to wash and prepare them for sale. “Tiny things can make or break a farm,” Ayer notes. “Our beets cost US$2.50 for a bunch of four, and people in the neighborhood loved them. But we were losing 12 cents on every beet.” Ultimately, Ayer decided not to raise the price: “No one would have bought them,” she says. Instead, she doubled down on callaloo, a Caribbean herb that cost less to produce but sold enough to subsidize the beets. “People love it, it grows like a weed, it’s low maintenance and requires very little labor.” In the end, she says, “We are a nonprofit, and we didn’t want to make a profit.”

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Noah Link checks on his bees at Food Field, a commercial farm in Detroit. Photo by Marcin Szczepanski.

[W]ith 25 high-density crops per year, as opposed to a conventional farmer’s five or so, CEA yields are 10 to 20 times higher than the same crop grown outdoors.

FarmedHere, the nation’s largest player in controlled environment agriculture — CEA — pumps out roughly a million pounds (500,000 kg) per year of baby salad greens, basil and mint in its 90,000-square-foot (8,000-square-meter) warehouse on the industrial outskirts of Chicago. Like many hydroponic or aquaponic operations (in which water from fish tanks nourishes plants, which filter the water before it’s returned to the fish), the farm has a futuristic feel — all glowing lights and stainless steel. Employees wear hairnets and nitrile gloves. But without interference from weather, insects or even too many people, the farm quickly and reliably fulfills year-round contracts with local supermarkets, including nearly 50 Whole Foods Markets.

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Urban farming is common in Ghana and other sub-Saharan countries. Photo by Nana Kofi Acquah/IMWI
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Ensia is a solutions-focused nonprofit media outlet reporting on our changing planet.

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