SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. — Surrounded by shopping malls and housing tracts, local schoolchildren are tasting the products of what could be the next agricultural revolution.
As they make their way through newly tilled fields, they sample vine-ripened tomatoes and strawberries, and pull onions and carrots from the soil. All just a short distance from some of the most expensive real estate in California.
"This is great, it smells really cool," says Cheyenne Garcia, dangling a fresh leek over her shoulder.
This 12.5-acre plot of land is a model for what many see as the next frontier in food production. Dubbed "urban agriculture" by some, and "regional agriculture" by others, a growing number of farms are appearing where they were once least likely to be: in urban neighborhoods, suburbs, and small towns.
It's a fast-growing global phenomenon: Nearly 20 percent of the world's food now comes from city-based farms. Averaging anywhere from one to 20 acres in the US, these tiny urban farms say they offer local consumers higher quality produce, at many times the yield per acre of bigger, industrial farms. And amid growing concern about genetically modified crops, they represent a clear alternative.
At the same time, these farms are providing many communities with some welcome green space in the midst of urban sprawl, connecting local residents to the land and educating the public about the tradition of farming in America.
"Increasingly, this is what the future of American agriculture is going to look like," says Brian Halweil, of the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute. "As fewer and fewer US residents make their full living and livelihood off the traditional farm, these alternatives are moving into the spotlight."
While family farms continue to decline, hit by competition from more profitable industrial farms or swallowed up by encroaching development, smaller, more specialized farms are stepping into the void. In fact, some experts see these farms as the product of urban sprawl. In many newly developed rural areas, they point out, sales at farmers' markets and nurseries have spiked dramatically in recent years.
Then there's the smell
The trend is not without some controversy, however. One obvious problem for these farms is economic viability. Commodity prices typically fluctuate, and in the past year they've hit some of the lowest points in 20 years. That can keep locally grown produce, with less margin for cutting prices, out of the price range of many lower-income families.
Moreover, many urban dwellers object to dust from fields, the sounds of machinery, and the smell of livestock wafting into their neighborhoods.
"As a society, we are still a bit conflicted over the presence of farms next to neighborhoods," says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources at the California Farm Bureau Federation. "We love having the local produce in our midst, but there are many aspects of agricultural production that may be uncomfortable for many people."
The clash has forced urban farmers to become experts in public relations as well as agriculture, garnering support for their efforts by engaging the local community.
A case in point is Fairview Gardens, a small farm near Santa Barbara, Calif. After nearly 40 years of uninterrupted, rural production, the farm found itself in the early 1990s the target of both encroaching developers and angry neighbors. Several years of media spotlight highlighted constant battles over the crow of roosters, the earthy smell of compost, and noisy farm machinery.
"We were spending an inordinate amount of time defending our right to be," recalls Michael Ableman, the farm's manager and executive director.
So Mr. Ableman set out to win over the local community. His farm began offering agricultural festivals, workshops, tours, and cooking and gardening classes. It put on programs for schools, including lectures by environmental luminaries such as the late David Brower, California cuisine innovator Alice Waters, and environmental essayist Wendell Berry.
At the same time, the spread of strip malls, housing, and franchised food into the area made Fairview Gardens seem increasingly like an oasis in the eyes of many local residents. The farm now produces 100 different fruits and vegetables, feeds 500 local families, and employs 25.
"Over a period of years, Michael basically convinced an entire community that a small, local farm operation can be a very good thing," says Melinda Burns, a reporter for the Santa Barbara News Press, who covered the controversy for several years. "He did it by taking lots of care, being creative, and being a very good educator."
Less travel time for food
One force adding to the popularity of urban farms nationwide is a growing social awareness of their comparative advantages over large, commercial farms in terms of cost, energy, nutrition - and taste.
According to USDA figures, the average distance between food in the field and the dining room where it is eaten is 1,500 miles. Refrigerating, transporting, and storing this food causes an expenditure of energy eight times greater than the value of the food itself. Put in terms of calories, it takes eight calories of energy to produce and deliver one calorie of food 1,500 miles.
Moreover, spinach and other green leafy vegetables can lose as much as 50 percent of their nutrients in five days.
But the biggest advantage of locally grown produce, consumers say, is personal service, a sense of connection to their food, and above all, taste.
"I was never a big vegetable eater, but I have cooked fabulous meals with kale and chard and okra and kohlrabi this year," says Lisa Daniels, one of 120 families who paid $750 at the beginning of the year for weekly shares of fresh food, from pomegranates and leeks to French shelling beans and herbs. "Even my 8- and 11-year-old girls like this stuff."
The taste of fresh local vegetables compared with those transported over long distances is, in fact, a subject of study for some agriculturists. In a several-year study in New Haven, Conn., the number of kids eating vegetables at school soared among all age groups when local fresh veggies were substituted for those purchased at supermarket outlets.
Others tout the importance of keeping young people connected to America's agricultural heritage, and teaching them to love the land.
"It's very funny: Since I give talks on sustainable agriculture all over the country, I am loaded with statistics and information about soil and air quality, nutrition, and all the rest," says Ableman. "But for kids, all you have to do is bring them here and let them feel uneven turf beneath their feet, taste a freshly picked vegetable, plant a seed. They understand instantly and without words."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society