Food Production in the American City

I’ve preached and been preached the local food gospel, and overall I’d say I’m a believer. But as urban agriculture becomes more prominent in North America,  particularly in the nonprofit world and especially in empty rust belt cities like Buffalo, Detroit, and beyond, the question-of-the-moment burning in my brain is this: is food production an economically and environmentally viable use of empty urban space?

Others seem to think so. Locavore was 2007’s word of the year. The number of active farmers’ markets across the U.S has almost tripled since 2000. A surge of interest in concepts like food-miles, farm-to-table market structures, and urban agriculture has influenced the food choices and shopping habits of many, marking a movement toward the Local.  I’ve been bright-eyed about the movement – in theory – because it has always seemed to me an absolute good: less energy wasted in transportation, improved taste and nutrition of produce, more money circulating in-town, and supporting smaller-scale farms with more environmentally benign practices than the larger agricultural operations that supply most of the global market’s produce.

Though when I face my checkbook and my desire to save up for other tangibles (a house? a trip abroad? who knows), I almost always choose conventionally-grown vegetables at Price Right or another mega-mart over alternatives at the farmers’ market.

I cling to food-related ideals in other ways: forgoing animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy helps keep my grocery tab low, my eco impact smaller, and my diet nutrient-dense. I’ve also kept a personal vegetable garden since high school, a garden whose scope has been bumped up from “snobby-hobby” to “BFD” since cohabiting with a handsome agri nerd.  The photos below illustrate some life choices that seem to promote locavorism: managing a farmers’ market, starting a farm, and coordinating a network of community gardens… but in the real world, when it comes to stocking my own fridge and cupboards, I’m a globavore as thrifty as they come.

Small vineyard behind the triplex I called home for 2 years in Montreal

A Farmers’ Market I coordinated in 2010 in Winnemucca, NV

We tried out farming life on 3/4 of an acre during the summer of 2011 in Albuquerque, NM – with (stupidly) no tilling machinery and (smartly) only our bicycles to transport the produce to farmers’ markets.

While living in Rochester MN, we dug up every square inch of our front yard and planted it with vegetables and sunflowers.

In hope of reconciling this lapse between my ideals and behavior, I’ve sought to learn more about the problems (environmental, economic, social) that can arise when local food self-sufficiency is pursued as an end unto itself – some of which I’ve been introduced to through The Locavore’s Dilemma: In praise of the 10,000-mile diet. I enjoyed the book not only for its piercing (though not always evidence-supported) counterpoints to the local argument, but also for its mockery of local foodies (whom I identify with) as oblivious/privileged/nostalgic bi-coastal urban agri-intelluctuals. I enjoyed this mockery, as I enjoy mockery in general, because I find my mixed emotional response of indignation, amusement, and shame to be satisfyingly cathartic. But anyway.

Among critics of the locavore movement, the role of agriculture in cities is especially contentious. There can be a large opportunity cost in diverting urban land to agricultural production, and farming rather than developing land tends to keep population densities low, and therefore car dependence and energy usage high. Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser criticizes urban ag precisely because it counteracts density:

If just a twentieth of an acre of metropolitan farm land per person could (implausibly) eliminate half of food delivery emissions, this would typically be associated with 41 more gallons of gas per household [due to lower urban densities]. Those driving-related greenhouse gas increases would be 2.4 times higher than the emissions savings from reduced food transport.”

However, in urban areas where densities are already low and vacancies high, and where there is little demand for redevelopment of housing or commercial space, urban agriculture may prove a viable long-term use of land that revamps a neighborhood with activity and commerce. This is especially true in de-industrialized places like Buffalo, which is shrinking in population and growing in open space, as the city demolishes blighted properties without much method or forethought. Agriculture in private yards and collective specialized farms is identified as an important innovation in adapting vacant suburban spaces in the book Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. If urban agriculture is zoned for with a mixture of strategy (concentrating into corridors or areas at the edge of the city) and opportunity (where vacant, open space happens to be available), it seems to me that the density-lowering effects of urban agriculture need not compromise walkability.

To what extent has new (or post-local food frenzy) agriculture infiltrated cities?
I wanted to gain a better understanding of this through mapping. Many online mapping applications already illuminate the geography of local food systems. Local Dirt is an online forum that connects buyers and sellers of local food, and featuring an interactive map of farms, farmers’ markets, coops, and other businesses. Local Harvest is another map directory type resource. The website Grown in the City has interactive maps showing the number of counties within U.S states that have adopted legislation related to food sovereignty, urban agriculture zoning, and food policy councils. The USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) also has a great interactive map tool called CropScape (<–this is really awesome. Check it out) that allows you to analyze acreage within an area of interest devoted to over 100 categories of crops and land use, every year from 1997 through 2011. You can download datafiles, upload your own, and run queries. It is truly a fantastic tool!

To get a general sense of how food production in cities has changed since the 90’s, we can look at data on the number of farm operations and number of acres farmed by county, which is available from the National Agricultural Census. To get an idea of the (relatively recent) status quo, the map below shows the land area devoted to farming in 2003, by U.S County. The Middle of the country, North and South, takes the cake.

From 1997-2003, farming (in acres farmed and # of farms) has declined overall but particularly in cities. The chart below summarizes this info for the U.S, and for urban counties classified as metropolitan areas. As expected, farms in metro areas tend to be smaller, and tend to take up a smaller proportion of a county’s total land area (because presumably more is allocated to urban development). Furthermore, both the number and acreage of farms has declined more dramatically in cities compared to average rates across the country. The geography of these changes is mapped out by county in the two maps below the chart.

Changes in Farm Acreage and Number of Operations: Averages for Total U.S and Metro Areas
Urban codes classifications for U.S County obtained from

Data sources: (# of farm operations and acres farmed per county) (urban / rural continuum codes)


About katosulliv

Transportation, mapping, and cities enthusiast.
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