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.

Joseph Rodriguez/News & Record of Greensboro/AP
Bobbe Wright harvests a red okra pod from his garden in Greensboro, N.C.. Mr. Wright has turned most of his yard into a garden.

The strip of manicured lawn adjoining Drexel Road in Greensbor, N.C., is a token to Bobbe Wright's neighbors.

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.

But urban agriculture supporters also say growing food can provide a security net for the poor, preserve open space and habitats, generate jobs, revitalize communities and turn organic wastes into a resource.

Bobbe Wright said one reason he decided to grow vegetables was his concern about the widespread practice of transporting perishable foods around the world and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that pollute soil and water.

Instead of buying tomatoes shipped from thousands of miles away, Wright eats those plucked from his backyard or sold by local farmers.

Guilford County is by no means an urban gardening oasis, but signs are pointing in that direction.

The Guilford County Cooperative Extension, for example, helped create 17 community gardens since 2002, with most beginning this year. County workers installed the latest garden in July on a narrow strip of land at the downtown courthouse. And the Greensboro City Council voted last year to relax requirements for raising bees and backyard chickens.

N.C. Community Garden Partners, a group represented by about 25 nonprofits, government agencies and universities, has so far counted 70 projects across the state, most of them concentrated in Guilford, Wake, Mecklenburg and Orange counties.

Partners created an online social networking site and hopes to offer training to participants.

"There's this huge interest in community gardening, but there seems to be this lack of knowledge between people who want to start community gardens and those who have been doing it for years," said Diane Beth, a state nutritionist who helps lead the partnership.

Even workplaces boast garden beds now. Employees garden at T.S. Designs, a shirt-printing company in Burlington.

And four years ago, Philip Oulton started growing muskmelons, garlic, and other crops on the driveway of a leaky, steel-roofed warehouse in downtown Winston-Salem. He fancies expanding his hobby into a business by renting backyard space from city residents and selling the surplus at farmers' markets.

"There are so many models, but I'm trying to come up with something that will work in Winston-Salem," Oulton said.

Several blocks away, Eric Jackson and Jay Dunbar started a "micro-farm" on East Third Street behind a brick building housing Krankies Coffee and Camino Bakery.

The two removed trash from the site this winter and built garden beds among sprawling Virginia creeper, muscadine grapevines, and other vegetation. They plucked fruit from an ignored mulberry tree, purchased a flock of Rhode Island Red chickens both for their eggs and manure, and planted amaranth, millet, and quinoa to help rebuild the gravelly soil.

"I think there's this quiet revolution going on, and it's going on with food," Dunbar said. "It's really a social and personal decision people are making to be aware of what they're eating and where it's coming from."

Perhaps the most ambitious local food project in Guilford County is a proposal by Urban Harvest to create a farm on six acres in the historic Aycock neighborhood.

The nonprofit group, founded by Daniel Leiker and Justin Leonard, has garnered support from residents, city officials and the Dascalakis family that owns the site valued at more than $2 million.

"This is high-profile," said Linn, a supporter of the project. "This is going to push questions that will push answers. And if it wasn't the right thing to do, it wouldn't have this life that it's got.

"We do need to know as a community how we work through these questions, how do we get along, how do we rent plots and grow food, how do we define these partnerships."

The farm is a long-term vision. Right now, Leiker oversees a first-phase community garden at the site while his partner interns at an urban farm in Milwaukee.

On a hot and sticky June afternoon, Leiker and a crew of volunteers hacked away wisteria vines and built 12 garden beds out of wet cardboard and city compost.

Leiker sees farming as both vocation and spiritual practice. But the future of the project is unclear, as Leiker needs to develop a viable business plan — fewer than half of farms across the country are self-supporting — and resolve the site's residential zoning and tree regulations if he wants to build greenhouses there.

"I hope that one day I won't have to worry about where my rent's coming from each month," said Leiker, who lives in the adjacent Fisher Park neighborhood and rides around downtown on an old one-speed bicycle. "But the cool thing about my job is I'm learning a really cool way to live life."

Many people across the country share Leiker's dream of supplying local residents and restaurants with produce.

A new company called Earthwise in Wake Forest seeks to incorporate farmland into new housing developments near urban areas. And farms exist or have been proposed for cities across the nation, including Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia.

Urban farmers Mary Seton Corboy and Daniel Dermitzel attended a Greensboro conference in June to help convince philanthropists to fund urban agriculture.

"People don't realize that there are people out there who have been building the base for this for a number years," said Corboy, who co-founded Greensgrow in Philadelphia in 1998. "This is not just something that came up last year because somebody wrote an article in 'The New Yorker' about it.

"This is something that has been emerging to fill a real void in our food system and our social structure."

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, check out our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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