Urban agriculture – a hobby grows into a cause
Interest in growing local food isn't new but it's taking on a new dimension this time.
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Three years ago, Wright started rescuing his front and backyards from what he considered a dull and useless grassy existence.
In its place he planted myriad fruits, vegetables and herbs: pear, peach, and cherry trees; rosemary and lemon balm; cold-hardy kiwi, grapes, and blackberries; sweet potatoes and bitter creasy greens.
"It's just a waste to grow all this grass when you can grow food," said Wright, a graphic artist living with his wife, Gratia, in northeast Greensboro.
"It's much healthier for you. You know where it comes from; you know who handles it. You don't have to worry about E. coli coming from Mexico."
Many social and economic forces have converged in recent years to heighten interest in local agriculture, particularly existing rural farms.
But cities and suburbs stand to become sizable food producers as more people such as Wright rethink the purpose of yards and other urban spaces.
Look around the houses, offices, parks and churches of Greensboro and other Triad communities and you might detect the germinating seeds of urban agriculture.
Suddenly, your eyes register the tomato plants growing upside-down out of buckets on a neighbor's patio. You overhear a co-worker offering to sell surplus honey from his backyard beehives. Or perhaps your child tells you over dinner about the cucumbers growing at her day care center or school.
Widespread concern about the economy and conventional agriculture's vulnerabilities has elevated a hobby into a cause for many people.
Although backyard vegetable growers and farmers' markets are nothing new — interest has swelled around previous recessions — this time sustainable agriculture supporters are pushing for a way of growing food that prioritizes healthy human and ecological relationships over cheap food, corporate profits, and convenience.
The most idealistic of advocates envision cities and towns that burst with food, be it from skyscraper roofs, apartment balconies, back alleys or repurposed plastic tubs. In this world, people plan their meals around what's in season, relegating supermarket trips to coffee, wheat, and other staples they can't get within the region.
"We can't say that all the food we eat in Guilford County is grown in Guilford County if we don't see food everywhere," said John Linn, a Jamestown, N.C., architect and organic vegetable gardener. "We're moving in that direction on many levels. Not that we'll ever get there any more than industrialism will go away — but it's moving."
Consider this: The US Department of Agriculture estimates demand for locally grown food will rise from a $4 billion market in 2002 to $7 billion in 2012.
Farmers' markets, which sell mostly local products, increased nationally from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,800 this year. And programs that allow customers to buy shares of a farmer's harvest grew from an estimated 60 operations in 1990 to about 2,800 this year.
The National Gardening Association estimates that 37 percent of American households will grow vegetables this year, compared with 31 percent in 2008. Culinary preferences, food safety and lower grocery bills motivate gardeners the most, according to the group's survey.