Forefront Excerpt: Betting the Farm

An introductory excerpt from this week’s Forefront.

Credit: Lauren Adolfsen

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As major urban farms gain new facilities, employees and glowing media attention, most have not yet figured out how to yield enough profit to become self-sustaining businesses. Exploring large farming operations in three different cities in this week’s Forefront, Chicago journalist David Lepeska asks the question: With all this demand and no sure way to scale, is urban agriculture facing an imminent bubble?

In October, the Community Innovators’ Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology held a Twitter brainstorming session focused on financing today’s urban farms, most of which are non-profit. In a steady stream of 140-character survival stories, commenters tweeted about relying on crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter, grants, public funds and free labor from volunteers and Americorps workers.

“All these great orgs doing such cool stuff: educating, feeding, building resilience in communities in self-sustaining ways, but struggle to pay a single full-time employee a livable wage to manage all the programs and partnerships,” wrote Ann Beman, a Washington, D.C.-based urban farming advocate, in a two-tweet comment.

So what can urban farms do? Proponents say they improve local health and cut dietary diseases. But analyzing the local health outcomes of an urban farm is practically impossible. Others say urban farms reduce pollution. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City, disagrees. “Farm land within a metropolitan area decreases density levels and pushes us apart,” Glaeser wrote in the Boston Globe in 2011, “and carbon emissions rise dramatically as density falls.”

Urban farms can improve food access locally, but their ability to boost the food security of a metropolitan region is unproven. R. Ford Denison, a professor of ecology and plant biology at the University of Minnesota and author of Darwinian Agriculture, calculates that growing enough food for the residents of greater New York City would require a farm almost the size of the state of Connecticut. “Rooftop gardens or skyscrapers full of hydroponics are not going to make a significant contribution to food security,” he said.

Cutting stormwater runoff, slightly reducing violent crime and providing youth recreation and health education, meanwhile, are all good things. But municipal officials might just as easily achieve them with green infrastructure and a new park or arts center. That leaves job creation and local revitalization.

“Economic development outcomes are the ‘least documented aspect of urban agriculture,‘” University of Pennsylvania professors Laura Wolf-Powers and Domenic Vitiello write in their forthcoming study of urban farms’ potential as job creation engines. “Skeptics doubt the sector’s potential to reach scale or create family-supporting jobs.”

That didn’t keep Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel from praising urban farming as a “job creator and a revenue creator” when his city passed an ordinance supporting food production businesses in 2011. Many Chicagoans, including Ken Dunn, hope to prove the mayor right. Dunn has been running City Farm since the early 1990s and believes he has built a model for revitalizing ailing communities.

“One thing about sustainability is that you have to sustain it,” said Dunn, the founding director of the Resource Center, a Chicago-based environmental organization that oversees City Farm. “You ought to be able to run independently without government or other help. I started doing this a couple decades ago, and we’re pretty much there.”

Relying on volunteers, interns and compost collected from area restaurants, City Farm generates about $140,000 worth of annual produce — enough for four full-time jobs — from its one-acre site on Chicago’s North Side. Right now, City Farm receives close to 15 percent of its budget from private donors, but Dunn says that more acreage would tilt the numbers in his favor. Chicago has high unemployment and tens of thousands of vacant plots of land.

This spring, City Farm began building out a 1.5-acre, city-owned space in Washington Park, a poor South Side neighborhood. Perry Street Farm, as it’s called, is a partnership with the Department of Housing and Economic Development and the Washington Park Consortium, a community organization. By the time it’s fully operational next spring, Dunn expects six locals to be working there full-time.

But this model has its limits. Dunn admits there aren’t enough high-end restaurants or CSA customers willing to pay a premium for the produce generated by 10 or 20 one-acre farms, much less 10,000. He’s looking for alternative buyers, such as hospitals or schools, but has yet to hit on a scalable option.

A few miles away from Perry Street Farm, a non-profit called Growing Home runs a 14-week urban agriculture training program for the hard-to-employ with a 70 percent success rate. Yet it receives 90 percent of its budget from the city, the state and donors like Boeing and the Chicago Community Trust. Despite very real accomplishments in Chicago’s rough Englewood neighborhood, Growing Home would fail without considerable external support. It more closely resembles a publicly funded job-creation program than a thriving urban farm.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Growing Power is running a three-year program to create 150 full-time jobs for low-income city residents, funded by $425,000 from the city. In the program’s first year, the non-profit created more than 40 full-time positions, training men to erect and maintain hoophouses across the city. Yet Allen has found that one hoophouse cannot generate enough income for a living-wage position, and the program may be unable to create all those jobs without additional funding.

These scenarios match the findings of Wolf-Powers and Vitiello, who write that urban farming in low-income communities works not as a tool for job creation and economic revitalization, but “as a strategy for supplemental income generation and workforce development, and as a tool for community building, poverty alleviation and improvements in health and nutrition.”

Still, officials and entrepreneurs continue to search for the key to unlock the economic potential of urban farms. “You go a hundred miles outside of Chicago, we have some of the richest soil on the planet,” said Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner at the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development. “How do you compete with that in the inner city, where the land needs significant investment to be made ready for farming, where there’s a lack of capable farmers who can just jump right in, and somehow produce enough product to make it a viable commercial operation? I don’t think there is a formula yet. Hopefully, the commercial sector can step in and find their niche to make it profitable.”

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Tags: chicagoeconomic developmenturban farmingmilwaukeerahm emanuel

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