Urban Farmer Backlash? Clash of Public Perception and Current Reality

Posted: November 3rd, 2010 | Author:

There comes a time when all great ideas bandied about in the public forum get lampooned. Urban agriculture seems to have reached that point last week (if not sooner).

Recently, NonaBrooklyn mentioned an article appearing in Daily Candy, “DIY Halloween Costumes” in which suggestion No. 4 was “Urban Farmer.” The article provided a set of dress-up strategies veering to cheeky: “Extra Credit: Talk about the time you ate with Michael Pollan.” Now, Daily Candy is hardly Fox News, having supported urban agrarian events in its pages, such as Farm City (curated by yours truly).

The mocking mention of “Urban Farmer” led me to pause to parse the social significance of this moment for the urban farming movement. I don’t wish to get all heavy and offended, missing the obvious humor here. After all, I am a New Yorker and I like a good yuck.  (And, I must admit that the accompanying video eked out a chuckle from me).  However, I am left wondering about the possible meaning of this satire for those of us that care deeply about the future of urban agriculture.

Daily Candy identified “Urban Farmer” as a three ingredient recipe:  ”1. Same [outfit] as Paul Bunyan but replace the ax with a shovel; 2. Carry a tote bag filled with fresh veggies. and 3. Talk about the importance of eating local.” The treatment given by Daily Candy is hardly a damning indictment of the foibles of urban farming (of which there are many). Yet, this depiction might suggest that “Urban Farmer” is perceived to be a type of person whose style and discourse are clichés that can be mimicked with pithy ease.

Still from the video "DIY Halloween Costume" on Daily Candy.

Overexposure or Underappreciated?

My first reaction was that urban agriculture may be deemed overexposed in the media with recent beauty shots of farms and farmers (NY Magazine, etc.), homages to hyperlocal food (NY Times, etc.) and bromides about ecological damage created by traditional agriculture (Everywhere except Tea Party rallies). I am concerned that the public might begin to associate urban farming more with fashion than function — doomed to be an ephemeral eco-trend rather than the promising future of food.

My fears are not without precedent. We need only peer backwards to the 1970s when the legitimate social and political struggles became co-opted by corporations and mass-consumed as “radical chic” and “hippie couture,” trimmed down to mere fringe on a million leather vests — empty of deeper content and passionate protest.

In my opinion, copious media attention should be continually lavished on farmers. To me, the recent surge in public interest in urban farming is long overdue. After all, these folks are growing the food we all eat.  To be honest, it strikes me as much more odd that — until recently — farm work has been virtually hidden from public view.  Farming has been systematically evicted from cities as smelly, dirty and dangerous to public health. The disconnection between eater and grower factors large in the recent food crisis, causing children to be confused about the origin of their sustenance.

Re-connection of producer and consumer is one of the chief benefits provided by resurgence of urban agriculture.  Urban farmers may not be able to grow all the food that urbanites need to survive.  Yet, urban farms give city dwellers an opportunity to see the process of growing food at close range while also getting to know the farmer as a neighbor — not someone from a distant county rarely — if ever — visited.

Portraying urban farming as a “hip” profession may not be such a bad thing (so long as its not just a “fad” thing). The average age of an American farmer is 57 and New York State along losing 50,000 acres of farmland each year to development. By portraying farmers as cool media darlings — no matter how stereotypical or ideologically misguided that image may be — the press may help capture the attention of young, college-educated folks (not just the flannel-loving ones) who would not normally consider farming as a viable vocation. Repeated media attention on farmers may have yielded some modest change: Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture reports growing numbers of attendees at its annual Young Farmers Conference.

Rev. Robert Ennis Jackson of Bed Stuy Farm. Photo by Kate Glicksberg

Archetype or Stereotype?

Perhaps, I got it wrong with my first reaction?  Maybe the “Urban Farmer” costume announces that urban agriculture has finally succeeded in embedding itself in mainstream consciousness as a profound archetype juxtaposed to others — such as mythical workaholic, Paul Bunyan, and commercial stooge, Brawny paper towel man (variants proposed by Daily Candy using the same get-up of false moustache and flannel shirt). In the 1990s, that same flannel shirt might have been part of a “grunge” rocker costume.

Today, “Urban Farmer” is the cultural reference that immediately comes to mind.  While “Urban Farmer” could just be the most recent wearer of the flannel mantle, it could also mean something deeper.  The costume came accessorized with (slightly) deeper content — healthy comestibles and comments about a central politico-social aspiration in the food movement: eat local. I am hopeful that the message that comes through the “costume” is a loving send-up rather than a something more subconsciously sinister. But then, my mind wanders to ponder more troubling interpretations. . . .

I think the Urban Farmer “costume” raises a potential risk that recent media attention makes urban farmers seem more ubiquitous, more resilient and more uniform than they really are in reality.

Ubiquity? Lately, we hear so much about urban farmers that we might be given to assume that they are everywhere — part of the city fabric.  Alas, that is not really true (yet!). Urban farmers are growing in numbers but they are still few and far between.  In reality, there are only a handful of working farms in a city of 8+ million.  There is a lot of food being grown on windowsills, in backyards, and within community gardens.  An important on-going study, entitled Farming Concrete, is trying to quantify just how much food is grown in NYC. However, there exist only a handful of farms that employ people who could legitimately write “Farmer” as their job title on a tax return.

To be fair, it is not merely the reportage on urban agriculture that could be accused of overstating the scope of urban agriculture.  The term “farm” has come to be used artfully to redefine any place where food is growing in the city –no matter how small — from “window farms” to “micro” farms.  Adding to this terminological confusion, there are several restaurants in Brooklyn that use the word “farm” in their names yet till only an admirable strain of the cultural zeitgeist.

I am sympathetic to the appropriation of terminology of “farm” and “farmer” to transform social consciousness around the possibilities for modest but meaningful contributions to changing the food system.  And, interestingly, even the USDA uses a pretty small threshold when defining farmer as someone who “sells at least one thousand dollars of agricultural commodities.” However, the stretching of common-sense definitions of “farm” and “farmer” may invite a bit of justifiable satirical send-up.

Resilience? Traditionally, a person, profession or idea becomes an object of ridicule when it is perceived as powerful enough to take a licking and keep on ticking. Maybe the “Urban Farmer” is now seen as a substantial social figure — strong enough to withstand mockery and flattery alike — like a politician, celebrity or sports star? The problem with this analogy is that the urban farmer is actually at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole.  So, taking urban farmers “down a notch” would leave them lower than the bottom — basically nowhere.

By focusing on the flannel-clad surfaces and simplest soundbite of their workplace motives, I fear that this caricature may gloss over significant personal risks taken by urban farmers: extremely hard physical labor, uncertain income and seasonal unemployment.  Given the harsh realities of farming anywhere, especially within the city, I have been heartened by the recent trend to depict their efforts as heroic and worthy of note.

Did anyone notice that freak hailstorm on October 11, 2010? Well, the storm was bizarre and scary. For several urban farms, such as Red Hook Community Farm, the dime-sized ice balls destroyed their crops and decimated their anticipated annual revenues. The impact was so severe on the farm that local restaurant (and customer), Good Fork, was moved to hold an emergency fundraiser (tonight). Farming is, by its very nature, a fragile enterprise subject to weather, temperature, insects, fungi, and other environmental factors. And then, there’s economics. If it costs $10 to raise a tomato from seed to fruit in Crown Heights, the farmer can still only charge $5 at the market.

Uniformity? Other than Will Allen of Growing Power, few faces of color appear in press coverage on urban farmers. And, it’s no secret that flannel is the personal covering of choice for mostly-white post-collegiate hipsters.  Not surprisingly, Brawny and Bunyon are white too.

Hence, Daily Candy’s casual clothing reference continues a racial profile that is commonplace yet inaccurate. Despite journalism’s credo of fairness in reporting, I predict that the upcoming Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference will probably get less press coverage than the combined output devoted to the farm at Roberta’s Restaurant, a predominantly-white hipster hangout.

Now, I am not playing the race card here: I think that there is room for all colors of urban farmers, producing food for all types of reasons in every neighborhood. Roberta’s farm isn’t less important because serves locally-grown produce to mostly-white artsy types (myself among them). It’s just that Roberta’s farm is not MORE important than Bed Stuy Farm, serving urban farm fare to 1000 people each month as part of Brooklyn Rescue Mission’s food pantry.  Both farms are worthy of our interest and support.

Yet, the “flannel” goggles worn by the press seem to focus repeated reporting on one type of farmer while ignoring another. When media ignorance breaks down along skin color and class of clientele, then it recapitulates a hegemony and power structure that is not so hip.

Quantity over Quality? Form over Substance?

And then, my worry radar turns to my own bad self. In my defense, I was not attracted to investigate urban agriculture by its fetching costume, although I have been known to wear checked flannel on occasion. I saw urban agriculture as a way to express my desire to build a better city by expanding opportunities to grow the sustainable food economy here. Despite my purported bona fides, I too grow a bit wary of the rapid growth of the topic that has so intrigued me.

The sheer volume of cultural output on urban farming is daunting and hard to follow, ironically, dwarfing the produce from the actual urban farms. The diversity of discourse is a sign of strong sincere interest– artists, thinkers and writers can help create a new cultural context for urban farming that fosters product demand, healthy respect, mutual understanding and new directions.  On the flip side, it seems a tad perverse that some interpreters of urban farming may derive more income from telling and selling “the story of urban farming” than most farmers will ever make from urban farms.

I can well understand some public confusion about how to interpret urban agriculture.  Currently, you are faced with trying to discern a coherent melody amidst the din.  To import an agricultural metaphor: How to separate the wheat from the chaff?  It’s not always obvious. There are contributions to the field of urban agriculture that seem so similar that it may be hard to distinguish a difference.

Whose personal account of urban homesteading should you trust? Should you read the gonzo journalism of My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farmby Manny Howard or peruse the personal memoir Farm City: The Education of An Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter?

Who is the legitimate thought-leader of the urban farming movement? Should you follow the simple homey steps of UrbanFarming.org sponsored explicitly by Trisket or the empowering earth savvy of GrowingPower.org supported in part by GE Foundation?

Whose vision should define the future of urban agriculture? Should you yearn for the dazzling towers of technopolis described in Vertical Farming by Dickson Despommier, plot green plans for Continuous Productive Urban Landscape by Andre Viljoen or organize the grassroots land reclamation outlined in Public Produce by Darrin Nordahl?

What approach to growing food is most sustainable? Should you explore complex systems, such as indoor, year-round inorganic growing invented by Edward Harwood, founder of Aerofarms, or simple approaches, like seasonal soil-bound organic planting schemes advocated by Bill Mollison, founder of The Permaculture Way?

Whose gathering should you attend to learn more?  Should you expensively explore the green of investments at Agriculture 2.0, pursue global policy initiatives at MetroAg Innoversity or affordably invest in community advocacy and urban jobs at Growing Power’s Urban & Small Farm Conference?

This explosive growth and wide span of opinion indicate the excitement and growing importance of urban agriculture right now.  However, it also makes it increasingly difficult to understand who is doing really good work and who is merely working it.  While I am excited by this increasing abundance, I am getting more and more hungry for substance.

Passing Fancy or Lasting Movement?

Bk Farmyards @ H.S. for Public Service. Photo by Kate Glicksberg

Could the torrent of contemporary attention indicate that urban agriculture is a fad hitting its peak moment? Or, is this dialogue the opening volley of food revolution that will be heard round the world?

Urban agriculture is not new  – it is as old as the hanging gardens of Babylon described in the Bible or the floating gardens of Tenochtitlan. And, urban farming is not new to NYC — Victory Gardens sprouted here during World War II and Community Farm Gardens have grown food since at least 1973.

Despite the firm history of urban agriculture in NYC, recently, there has been renewed momentum to expand its scope and influence.  What is new now about urban agriculture is increasing numbers of farmers and widening diversity of experiments motivated by intersecting crises in climate change and in public health.

A majority of urban agriculture projects gaining public attention are less than a few years old.  There are many bold experiments that are untested with farmers who are new to their profession.  So the urban farmer story will begin to evolve from “newness” to a theme of “sustainability.” With so many commentators and communicators recognizing the newfound importance of urban agriculture, I wonder what will happen in this next phase of its development which will be less glamorous, harder to track and thus commanding of less immediately gratifying attention.

There are some strong signs that urban agriculture is not disappearing with the next news cycle. Myriad meetup groups have sprouted up, supporting each others’ mutual learning and doing — from Permaculture practitioners to Beekeepers.  The New School has created a field of Food Studies and spearheaded a whole series of public conversations through December 2010, entitled Living Concrete. My own project, FarmCity.US, continues to evolve, grappling with fresh ways to support the growth of urban agriculture.  There are hundreds of urban agriculture blogs and even an Urban Farm Magazine.  And this Fall, Just Food announced the opening of its Farm School NYC to train a new generation of urban farmers who will learn more than a few superficial attributes of an “Urban Farmer” Halloween costume.  (FYI: Applications due November 15!)

So, I am greatly encouraged that urban agriculture may be growing forceful advocates and knowledgeable farmers who may help shape the evolution of the movement in a sustainable and thoughtful way, resisting identification as mere costumed clichés.

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