Room to grow: agriculture in urban spaces

by Allie Nicodemo

“My goal between now and when I’m no longer here on the planet is to build a local food system that grows enough food to feed Phoenix. And I’m going to do it.”

-- Greg Peterson, professor, Arizona State University School of Sustainability

In recent years, many people have taken an increased interest in finding out where their food comes from. Perhaps that’s because the sources of what we eat aren’t always obvious anymore. Intensive, industrialized farming has allowed us to produce huge amounts of food using less labor, and at lower prices, than ever before. But both literally and figuratively, it has distanced people from their food.

The term “food miles” refers to how far food must travel from where it’s grown or raised to where it is consumed. The average is about 1,500 miles, Peterson says, adding that we ship in four billion pounds of food per year from China. For example, some salmon that’s caught on the coast near Seattle is shipped nearly 6,000 miles to be processed in China, and then shipped back for sale in the U.S.

“Does that speak to sustainability in your mind?” Peterson asks.

In addition to being an ASU professor and alumnus, Peterson is an urban farmer. Much of what he eats can be measured in “food feet” rather than food miles. For the past 39 years, he’s been raising fruits and vegetables (and more recently, chickens) at his home in Phoenix. It’s a 1/3-acre 1940’s style tract home near 16th Street and Bethany Home Road. He calls it the Urban Farm.

Food from afar
Plenty of people in cities all over the world grow and raise their own food, share it with others or sell it at farmers markets. But this is by no means the primary food system of a city. Even in places known for having robust urban food production, it’s unlikely that more than five percent of the available food is raised within city limits. In most cases, it’s less than one percent.

“The real food system of any city right now is Walmart and Target and supermarkets,” says Braden Kay, a sustainability project manager for the city of Orlando, Florida. Kay received his PhD from ASU’s School of Sustainability, where he initiated several local sustainability projects.

As you might have guessed, big chain stores source their food from big farms. These huge operations are a far cry from Peterson’s urban farm. In 2012, the average U.S. farm size was 434 acres, or about 328 football fields. Industrial farms are large and efficient enough to supply an impressive bounty to every grocery store in every city, every day of the year. It’s a formidable system, and we are highly dependent on it.

Source: The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, Economic Research Service/USDASource: The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, Economic Research Service/USDA
As the number of farms and the people required to work them decreases, fewer Americans ever see their food at the source. Source: The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, Economic Research Service/USDAAs the number of farms and the people required to work them decreases, fewer Americans ever see their food at the source. Source: The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, Economic Research Service/USDA

A wicked problem
Imagine that one day, food suddenly stopped coming into the city. How long would people have until there was nothing left to eat?

“We have nine meals of food in most metropolitan areas,” says Peterson. Findings from an American Trucking Associations report entitled, “When Trucks Stop, America Stops,” reveal that there would be significant food shortages within three days.

“That’s the upside,” Peterson says. The downside? Past events like city power outages have shown it would likely be only a matter of hours before grocery store shelves were cleared.

Delivery trucks are just one of many external factors that impact a city food system.

“Our food is very volatile,” says Hallie Eakin, a professor in the School of Sustainability. A multitude of factors can influence—and endanger—our food supply. For example, the price and availability of fossil fuels affect everything from the energy needed to power a farm to the transport of food to its final destination. The weather is another factor. One ASU study predicts that certain food prices will rise substantially due to the current California drought.

Essential resources such as water and land are increasingly scarce. Agricultural activities use about 70 percent of the world’s available freshwater, and about 40 percent of all arable land. And farming has an unparalleled impact on the environment.

“Over time, we’re talking about an activity that has demonstrated the potential to really transform the air we breathe, the soils, our water,” Eakin says. “Both in terms of impacts and need, it’s a wicked problem.”

For example, manmade fertilizers and pesticides allow farms to produce more food than ever before, but at a great cost to the environment. Chemical runoff can taint local rivers and streams, and improper care of land has led to desertification. Animal factory farms help feed the world’s growing appetite for meat, but are responsible for 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

“What we have on this planet is a food system that is heavily financially weighted, moderately socially weighted, and is significantly negatively weighted to the environment,” Peterson says.

Peak food
One June morning at the Urban Farm, Peterson’s girlfriend entered the kitchen carrying something from the backyard. It was their first ear of corn for the season.

“That ear of corn was 10 minutes old. It went 60 feet from where I grew it to me standing there and eating it,” Peterson says. “It was wonderful. It was absolutely wonderful.”

Greg Peterson is pictured at the Urban Farm.Greg Peterson is pictured at the Urban Farm.

It was also at its nutritional peak. While an ear of corn from the Urban Farm might look identical to one found at the grocery store, it probably isn’t.

Large-scale farms aim to provide a bigger fruit or vegetable in a shorter amount of time. The unintentional side effect has proven to be a less nutritionally dense product, due to diminished soil health and a host of other factors. In addition, produce is often picked before peak ripeness so it holds up better in transit.

A store-bought tomato might look and taste fresh, but it was likely picked early, ripened with ethylene gas, and shipped hundreds of miles before reaching our shopping carts. Nutritionally speaking, it’s inferior to a tomato from the local farmers market.

But produce from the grocery store is more nutritious than no produce at all. A major critique of many cities is that they often fail to provide nutritious food to those who need it most.

From bare to bountiful
“Food deserts” are neighborhoods without easy access to fresh, healthy, affordable food. The FDA’s tool for tracking Food Deserts reveals there are 55 in Maricopa County, the most populated county in Phoenix. Where do food deserts tend to be located?

“Low-income communities, areas where there’s been white flight and a degradation of inner cities,” Eakin says. These are the neighborhoods that have historically lacked resources and investment in basic services. Not coincidentally, researchers have found a higher concentration of obesity, diabetes and other health problems in these areas. Now, many people are working to fight that.

When Braden Kay was working toward his PhD, he and some classmates had an idea. Why not turn empty lots in Phoenix into spaces for growing food?

“We started in a class at ASU four or five years ago, and now it’s turned into this whole renaissance of using vacant land for urban agriculture,” Kay says.

Examples of repurposing land can be seen all over the country. A Google search yields about 1,630,000 results, describing successful land conversions in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Oakland and countless other cities. In many cases, this type of urban farming can help address food insecurity in underserved areas of a city.

Farming smart
Asian greens. Egyptian spinach. Sun Leaper tomatoes.

What do these plants have in common? They all thrive in a desert climate.

Drought tolerant fruits and vegetables are the bread and butter of the Hadley Farmship, where Charlie Hadley grows a variety of foods with permaculture techniques and minimal energy use. After purchasing an abandoned home, Hadley converted the garage into a chicken coop and cultivated every available inch of yard space for produce. He is now a regular vendor at the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market.

“For the whole six years I was living there, I would buy as much food from him as possible,” Kay says - from sweet potatoes, melons and squash to more exotic dishes. “I was actually eating mini little loofa boards before they got big.”

Growing food in the desert can be a unique challenge, given that it takes a lot of water - something we don’t have. For this reason, some researchers have claimed it’s actually less environmentally intensive to ship food from California than it would be to grow it all in Arizona.

However, small-scale urban agriculture can be sustainable in the desert, through innovative land use and careful selection of plants.

“Do you know how many desert trees you can plant that make food?” Peterson asks. “Native mesquites, palo verdes and ironwoods are three right off the top. I’ve eaten all three of them. They’re all incredible, they’re all highly drought tolerant and they make great shade.”

Urban farming can fill gaps in our current food system, like bringing healthy produce into food deserts. It also offers benefits that appeal to cultural and social values.

“If we want health, if we want people to have community and connections around food, then growing it and having stories and people attached to foods from a place is important,” Kay says.

The Urban Farm.The Urban Farm.

Changing an established system is rarely easy, but it can be done. It might just look like something we’ve never seen before.

“Urban agriculture is not necessarily about finding 10 or 20 or 30 acres, it’s about what unused spaces do we have here, what underutilized assets do we have that we could actually be converting?” Peterson says.

One extraordinary example is Gotham Greens, an urban farming organization in New York City that builds greenhouses on building rooftops. ASU alumna Jennifer Nelkin Frymark is the chief agriculture officer there. She oversaw a recent installation that placed an organic greenhouse on the rooftop of a Brooklyn Whole Foods.

Industrial agriculture will likely never go away, and it’s certainly not the enemy – indeed, it is what’s feeding us right now. But creating new “mosaics of residences and farming,” Eakin says, could be a way to a better food system, especially as we reconsider what makes a sustainable city.

What about the problem of food waste? Read more in “The flip side of food”


Read more articles in the Sustainable Cities series:
"Sustaining our cities"
"Curbing urban sprawl"