Urban agriculture is a growing trend, according to a University of Maryland urban agriculture specialist. Neith Little said in a recent webinar that many people think of urban agriculture as high technology, hydroponic or aquaponic farms, but the majority of urban farming is much less technical than that.
“When you read about urban agriculture in the newspaper, it often looks like very innovative technology, but there tends to be much fewer of (those farms) than the diversified vegetable farms,” Little said.
Urban diversified vegetable farms have sprouted in cities all over the country and often use space that was vacated by a demolished building or that makes up homeowners’ backyards.
“Many of these growers started growing vegetables for themselves and then expanded to grow for sale to neighbors. Gradually they have grown more and more and now take their products to farmers’ markets or throughout their neighborhood,” she said.
Other urban farmers started using vacated parking or other city lots for vegetables and other plants because they wanted to do something positive for the revitalization of their neighborhood and have ended up with a successful business.
“One farm I know of used what used to be a parking lot for an auto mechanic. They brought in soil and put it on top of the concrete and built high tunnels on top,” Little said.
Urban agriculture often differs from traditional rural agriculture in the mission and business structure. Some urban farms supplement the owner’s income or come as a second career after retirement. Others are nonprofit with the mission of serving a certain population, like providing work skills for youth or other community members.
“Nonprofit urban farms are fairly common as opposed to in rural agriculture,” Little said. “(For example), one farm’s primary mission is to employ and help people become more work ready who are returning to the community after being incarcerated. Others want to provide healthy food for an affordable price to their neighborhood.”
“Many of these farms are all essentially a diversified vegetable farm that you might see in a rural area, but just shrunk down and intensified to a very small scale,” Little said.
For urban farmers who are looking to go the more high technology routes, Little said it is important to do research and plan how you are going to recoup the high establishment and growing costs.
“People get really excited about this, but I usually have to gently talk with them about how there is a lot of potential with these technologies, but not all the kinks have been worked out yet,” she said.
Besides the more familiar aquaponics and hydroponics setups, Little said some people have been starting farms in shipping containers using hydroponic growing techniques and artificial light.
“It is a very cool way of growing vegetables and it gets people’s attention, but it is a big investment, anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000, to set these up. You also have the added expense of light bulbs and cooling,” she said. “You have to figure out how to make it commercially viable, like growing very high-value crops that you can sell to high-end restaurants, for example, at a high enough price.”
Although much of urban farming is still in its infancy, encouraging more of these populations to get involved in their food production may be the answer to many food insecurity and nutrition questions facing urban populations.