Introduction to Urban Agriculture

compiled by Jack Kittredge from writings by Tom Philpott in Grist, Dr. Caroline Goodson, Jane Jacobs, the Guardian, Brette Jackson, Tammy LaGorce and Winnie Hu in the New York Times, and others

A reconstruction of ninth-century gardens in the Forum of Caesar, Rome. On the right are rows of vegetables, on the left and center are grapevines, vegetables and fruit trees.

Urban agriculture, according to most definitions, is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city. That locational aspect is crucial to distinguishing urban agriculture from generic agriculture, which most people associate with taking place in rural areas. Urban agriculture projects include: community gardens established on vacant land that’s cultivated and maintained within an urban neighborhood; school gardens cultivated and maintained on school grounds, and factor into the curriculum; entrepreneurial gardens that grow produce and flowers for profit; backyard gardens, windowsill gardens, and rooftop gardens that provide vegetables, herbs, and flowers to individuals and/or small families.

Prehistoric Origins

But the rural association with farming has not always been the case argues Jane Jacobs in her classic 1970 book “The Economy of Cities”. In work more recently confirmed by scholars such as Danish economist Ester Boserup, Jacobs says that the prehistoric importance to human survival of trade meant densely populated sites focused on exchange formed even earlier than agriculture was adopted. Materials like obsidian for making tools for hunting were involved in a robust economy that only later included items like edible seeds and young animals – the keys to domestication and agriculture.

When organized agriculture began to flourish, these ‘exchange sites’ grew dramatically, both in population and complexity. Eventually some agricultural work migrated to land surrounding these emerging cities but much agricultural work remained within cities over the millennia.

In what is now modern Mexico and Central America, for instance, the precursors to the Aztec Empire were supported by urban garden plots as early as the 14th century BC.

In medieval Italy the real marker of political power was control of food resources. According to Dr. Caroline Goodson at the University of Cambridge, more than military force, legislative authority, or religious ceremony, the ability to secure food supplies meant wealth, social status, and legitimacy. Much productive land was actually urban and these lands were highly valuable and carefully controlled. Households farmed lands within city-walls and there is little evidence for commercial food markets of rural produce. Charters documenting property transfers of urban cultivated land — including domestic vegetable patches, independent fields within the city-walls, and orchards and vineyards between houses — appear in documents of the late sixth century, rising in frequency up to the late eleventh or twelfth centuries, when population pressures meant that most farming moved outside the city.

Kitchen gardens and fruit tree groves were sited within walled cities in Europe during the Middle Ages. Such areas were often established by monasteries to help feed the monks living within. Produce was also sold in local markets to supplement the monasteries’ incomes.  The plants and herbs they cultivated served both as food and medicine to their cities’ populations.

Cities Spawned CAFOs and Hothouses

Swill Milk

Coming into modern times, in 19th-century New York City dairy farming proliferated. According to the University of California at Santa Cruz sociologist and food-studies scholar E. Melanie Dupuis:

“By the mid-19th century, “swill” milk stables attached to the numerous in-city breweries and distilleries provided [New York City] with most of its milk. There, cows ate the brewers’ grain mush that remained after distillation and fermentation … As many as two thousand cows were located in one stable. According to one contemporary account, the visitor to one of these barns “will nose the dairy a mile off … Inside, he will see numerous low, flat pens, in which more than 500 milch cows owned by different persons are closely huddled together amid confined air and the stench of their own excrements.”

Here we find evidence that today’s concentrated-animal feedlot operation originated in cities.

Of course cities didn’t just innovate techniques that would later become associated with large-scale, chemical-dependent agriculture, they also incubated sustainable ones. The so-called “French-intensive” method of growing vegetables — in which large amounts of compost are added annually to densely planted raised beds — is one of the most productive and sustainable forms of organic agriculture used today. And guess what? It developed not in the countryside, but rather within the crowded arrondissements of 19th century Paris.


The French-intensive method hinges on a principle identified by Jane Jacobs, one that modern-day city residents (and planners) should take to heart: that cities are fantastic reservoirs of waste resources waiting to be “mined.” Like all cities of its time, 19th-century Paris bristled with horses, the main transportation vehicle of the age. And where there are lots of horses, there are vast piles of horse manure. The city’s market gardeners turned that fetid problem into a precious resource by composting it for food production and using it in beds and under large glass “clotches” to heat and fertilize vegetables. This recycling of the “transportation wastes” of the day was so successful and so extensive that the soil increased in fertility from year to year despite the high level of production. Paris’s market gardeners supplied the entire metropolis with vegetables for most of the year — and even had excess to export to England.

At the same time, in this country, farmers from all over the midwest would haul their hogs and cows to Chicago’s vast slaughterhouses, where they would be fed in pens while awaiting their fate. Operating for over a century, starting in the mid-1800s and not closing for good until 1971, this vast meatpacking enterprise at its height dominated the city. More meat was packed each day here than anywhere else in the world. According to the Chicago Historical Society, by 1900 the stockyards “employed more than 25,000 people and produced 82 percent of the meat consumed in the United States.” Started and owned by a group of railroad companies, the yards were where well-known meat-packing giants like Armour and Swift got their start.

Vacant Lot Gardens

1896 the Detroit Plan among the potatotes

The first community gardens in the United States were vacant lot gardens started during the economic recession of the 1890s. Detroit was the first city in the United States to create an extensive municipally sponsored urban gardening program using vacant lots in the city. Mayor Hazen Pingree started the program in response to the economic recession that began in 1893, which left many of the city’s industrial laborers, particularly recent Polish and German immigrants, unemployed and hungry.

Pingree developed a program to substitute labor for charity. He arranged for landowners to lend their properties to the local government, which were utilized by 945 families as gardens for produce—primarily, potatoes. The City invested $3,000 in “Pingree’s Potato Patches,” and showed a $12,000 profit a year later. Gardening became compulsory for those receiving government assistance. Soon cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York subsidized similar gardening programs.

In 1891, Boston inaugurated the nation’s first school gardening program. Children were taught agrarian skills for work deemed less draconian than earning wages in factories. Incorporating gardening in the curriculum was believed to instill a strong work ethic, and teach “appropriate social behavior to immigrants, delinquents, and the infirm”.

Women work in a World War I garden, 1918

At the start of World War I, Europe was in the midst of catastrophic food shortages and the need for food became the primary motivation for cultivating community gardens. Once the U.S. entered the war large tracts of land were prioritized for food to be exported overseas. To supplement food domestically Herbert Hoover, Director of the U.S. Food Administration, established a national gardening campaign. Americans enthusiastically plowed backyards, vacant lots, and municipal land. Slogans such as “Sow the Seeds of Victory,” rallied 5 million gardeners to produce an unprecedented $520 million worth of food. Gardening became a patriotic act.

The nature of community gardening changed with the onslaught of the Great Depression. Like vacant lot cultivation during the 1890s, the subsistence gardens in American cities during the 1930s were created in response to an economic crisis and intended to help meet residents’ immediate need for food.  They were often supported through partnerships between municipal government and community organizations. By 1934, 2.3 million subsistence farmers produced more than $36 million worth of food. In 1939 Roosevelt’s New Deal Program essentially exchanged federally supported gardens for USDA food stamps, regarded as a more “efficient” system to feed the hungry.

Victory Gardens

 First food stamp

First food stamp

When the United Sates entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many Americans participated in a grassroots effort begun to rekindle the patriotic liberty gardens of WWI.  At first the federal government was skeptical of supporting these efforts like they had before. Officials thought large-scale agriculture was more efficient. Citing the health, recreational, and morale-boosting effects of gardening, however, the government again supported a national gardening campaign during World War II.

After World War II — during which town and city gardens provided some 40 percent of vegetables consumed in the United States — city residents no longer needed to garden for their sustenance. The easy fertility provided by synthetic nitrogen fertilizer made the kind of nutrient recycling performed by Paris’s urban farmers seem obsolete and backwards at the same time that the rise of fossil fuel-powered transportation banished the horse from cities, taking away a key source of nutrients.

Food production became a “low value,” marginal urban enterprise, and planners banished it from their schemes. Supermarkets, stocked year-round with produce from around the world and a wealth of processed food, more than filled the void.

In urban communities throughout the nation, segregation laws placed a chasm between African American and white neighborhoods. The economic boom of the 1950s was the catalyst for “white flight,” as white urbanites retreated to the comfort and prestige of new suburbs. White urban communities shrank exponentially while African American communities swelled, eventually extending into abandoned white neighborhoods that were once off limits. Services in these areas, such as supermarkets, followed the White dollar, leaving only small grocery stores, offering a poor selection of produce, liquor stores, and fast food chains.

Across the country, the postwar urban manufacturing base began to melt away in the 1970s, as factories fled to the union-hostile South, and later to Mexico and Asia. Meanwhile, the highway system and new development drew millions of white families to the leafy lawns of the exurban periphery. As the jobs and whites left the cities, so did the economic base sustaining the private food system.

The importance of gardens and food production in inner cities was highlighted as grocery stores slowly abandoned those areas. The exodus of grocery stores from African American urban neighborhoods dates from the 1960s and ‘70s, when increasing violence and decreasing population prompted many businesses to flee. In the District of Columbia, for example, the number of chain grocery stores dropped from 91 in 1968 to less than three dozen in the 1990s. University of Connecticut agricultural economist Ronald W. Cotterill, who headed a 1995 study of the phenomenon, described the result of this process:

Youngstown depression garden

Youngstown depression garden

“…poor Americans often must shop in small corner stores that charge as much as 40 percent more and offer a meager selection of fresh food. The “grocery gap” examined in the District and 20 other cities also has policy implications: Food stamps and other federal nutrition programs buy much less than they would in more affluent neighborhoods where supermarkets offer less expensive, fresher products. In many of these cities we have two food distribution systems: one for people who have access to suburban outlets and one for those that don’t.”

Urban African Americans and Latins of low socioeconomic status thus live in areas that lack sufficient sources of healthful foods. These communities, known as food deserts, are defined as areas where residents have limited access to healthy fresh nutriments, particularly if they are poor and have limited mobility.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “low fruit and vegetable intake is among the top ten risk factors related to [disease] and mortality”. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that African Americans have a fifty-one percent higher instance of obesity than Caucasians, with Latinx following at twenty-one percent; both communities are also predisposed to type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, however, people and grassroots organizations have also come together to build community gardens that promote environmental stewardship and revitalize urban neighborhoods affected by disinvestment.

Gardens of Soul Food

Urban food production had been slowly taken up by a population of new residents who had come to the city during and after the World Wars, seeking economic and personal opportunity. Six million African Americans, part of one of the largest internal migrations in history, left the rural South and moved into Midwest and Northern cities between 1916 and 1970, with the largest flows occurring during and after World War Two.

These residents changed the character of northern cities, bringing in a new immigrant population with rural backgrounds and tastes in food. It did not take long for urban land to again sprout gardens, this time filled with “soul” food.

Adrian E. Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Suprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time”, explains:

“As people left the South, they did what any other immigrant group does: They tried to re-create home. If you think about immigrant food in this country, it’s usually the celebration of food of the old country. It’s not the day-in-and-day-out stuff, it’s usually the stuff they ate on special occasions that, now that they’re more prosperous here, they eat more regularly. That’s the story of soul food.”

In the Eight Mile-Wyoming area of Detroit, for instance, residents often raised chickens among their vegetable gardens. Corn was a common sight in the neighborhood, along with an informal system of community gardening. As one resident told a visitor, they had no trouble with people stealing from their garden because, “we just plant a little more than we need each year to take care of that.”  Alternately, “if we run low, we just get a few [ears of corn] off of somebody else’s. We all know that. We don’t care. We’re friends out here!”

Turning Spoiled Food into Compost

Will Allen atop a Growing Power compost pile

Will Allen atop a Growing Power compost pile

But titanic amounts of the food that enters cities each year leaves as garbage headed to the landfill — a massive waste of a resource that could be composted into rich soil amendments, as Paris’ 19th-century farmers did with horse manure. According to the EPA, fully one-quarter of the food bought in America ends up in the waste stream — 32 million tons per year. Of that, less than 3 percent gets composted. The rest, landfilled, slowly rots and emits methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The EPA reports that wasted food in landfills accounts for a fifth of U.S. methane emissions: the second largest human-related source of methane in the United States.

In 1993, a former professional basketball player and corporate marketer named Will Allen purchased a tract of land on the economically troubled North Side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Allen hoped to use the space to open a market that would sell vegetables he grew on his farm outside Milwaukee. But then, working with unemployed youth from the city’s largest housing project, nearby Westlawn Homes, Allen soon began growing food right in Milwaukee.

Eventually, that effort would morph into Growing Power, now the nation’s most celebrated urban-farming project. Milwaukee’s Growing Power has turned the urban waste stream into a powerful engine for growing food. Most urban agriculture operations today are net importers of soil fertility — they bring in topsoil and compost from outside to amend poor urban soils. Growing Power has become a net exporter. In 2008, as the New York Times Magazine reported in a profile of founder Will Allen, Growing Power converted 6 million pounds of spoiled food into 300,000 pounds of compost. The organization used a quarter of it to grow enough food to feed 10,000 Milwaukee residents — and sold the rest to city gardeners.

Growth of Community Gardens

In many urban neighborhoods around the country, community gardens have fiercely loyal protectors who have mobilized in recent years as their city has targeted gardens as sites for affordable housing, and private developers have also eyed them for high end development.

In 2017 the New York City Parks Department’s Green Thumb program — the nation’s largest community garden program — grew to 553 gardens, up from 501 in 2009. Most of the gardens sit on city-owned or other public property, and are maintained by community groups and a dedicated corps of 20,000 volunteer gardeners.

Global Urban Agriculture

Urban gardening in Havana

About 3.2 million New Yorkers, or 38 percent of the city’s population of 8.5 million, were born in other countries, according to an analysis of census data by Queens College. About half of those immigrants came from the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

A large percentage of the people involved in urban agriculture are the urban poor. Contrary to general belief they are often not recent immigrants from rural areas (since the urban farmer needs time to get access to urban land, water and other productive resources). Women constitute an important part of urban farmers, since agriculture and related processing and selling activities, among others, can often be more easily combined with their other tasks in the household. It is however more difficult to combine it with urban jobs that require travelling to the town centre, industrial areas or to the houses of the rich.

In much of the world urban populations who work in agriculture are significantly better nourished than their counterparts in non-farming households. In Kampala, where urban producers obtain 40 to 60 percent or more of their household food needs from their own urban gardens, children aged five years or less in low-income farming households were found to be significantly less stunted than children in non-farming families.

It is estimated by the UN that worldwide 200 million urban residents provide food for the market and 800 million urban dwellers are actively engaged in urban agriculture in one way or another. These urban farmers produce substantial amounts of food for urban consumers. A global estimate is that 15-20% of the world’s food is produced in urban areas.

Research on specific cities and products yield data like the following: in Hanoi, 80% of fresh vegetables, 50% of pork, poultry and fresh water fish, as well as 40% of eggs, originate from urban and peri-urban areas; in the urban and peri-urban area of Shanghai, 60% of the city’s vegetables, 100% of the milk, 90% of the eggs, and 50% of the pork and poultry meat is produced; in Java, home gardens provide for 18% of caloric consumption and 14% of proteins of the urban population; Dakar produces 60% of the national vegetable consumption whilst urban poultry production amounts to 65% of the national demand. Sixty percent of the milk consumed in Dakar is produced in/around the city; and in Accra, 90% of the city’s fresh vegetable consumption is from production within the city.

Over 26,000 popular gardens cover 2438.7 hectares in Havana and produce 25,000 tons of food each year; a total of 299 square kilometres of urban agriculture produces 113,525 tons/year. Urban agriculture to a large extent complements rural agriculture and increases the efficiency of the national food system in that it provides products that rural agriculture cannot supply easily (e.g. perishable products, products that require rapid delivery upon harvest), that can substitute for food imports and can release rural lands for export production of commodities.

From its beginnings in prehistoric time, agriculture has been a part of city living. It has its own set of problems and opportunities, distinct from those of rural agriculture. And in the United States often its practitioners are women, the poor, marginalized populations and immigrants. Yet the quest to provide for yourself, to experience the mystery of life that farming requires, and to create healthy, tasty, nutritious food for your community and your family are the same no matter what kind of growing you do.



Urban Farming and Cities

Editorial La Finquita Community Garden in Holyoke

Editorial La Finquita Community Garden in Holyoke

The growth of community gardens, educational farms, school greenhouses, college plots, backyard growers, rooftop gardens and container operations in urban areas of the US indicates the current breadth of interest in producing food by city residents. Such a flowering has not been seen in many years. The history of agriculture in cities, however, goes back thousands of years and may surprise some readers. We have traced that history here.

There are of course clear difficulties with such growing in contemporary America, especially issues of soil toxicity and access to land, on both of which we have articles in this issue. The larger strengths and weaknesses of urban agriculture are also addressed here from an agro-ecological perspective.

One of the most striking features of this phenomenon, of course, is how heavily it is the work of people of color, primarily African-American but also Latinx communities. The demographics of marginalized groups in American farming are traced in another article, as well as their contributions to the science, technology, and business aspects of agricultural success.

Our features, one on urban farming in a historically African-American community in Brooklyn and one on a CSA focusing on front-line communities and racial justice activists in Providence and Boston, both illustrate the realities of raising food for urban residents with a special concern for being led by, and serving, people of color.

Many NOFA farmers and homesteaders, of course, are white and primarily rural. Even our gardening and landscaping members are far more suburban than inner city residents. Yet the realities of our work with soil, seeds, tools and weather are closely aligned, wherever we farm. The issues of toxic chemicals, food safety, market regulation, economic viability, crop quality, even succession are very much the same.

It is our hope that with this issue urban, suburban, and rural growers will all see the common features that unite us. Such a consciousness, we feel, can help us forge an alliance in the work we need to do together to address the myriad ills of today’s food system.

Commercial Farmland Access in Urban Settings

by Johanna Rosen, Equity Trust and Kathryn Ruhf, Land For Goodc with contributions from Bob Wagner, consultant, Land For Good

Dorchester Community Garden

Dorchester Community Garden
photo by EcoPhotography

Urban agriculture is a broad topic with a range of issues. Here, the focus is on how farmers get and hold land for commercial farming in urban areas. An “urban area” is typically a densely built environment. Most urban areas are within city boundaries, but cities can include more suburban settings with significant open spaces. For example, Urban Edge Farm (UEF) is within the City of Cranston, Rhode Island. It occupies 20 acres, surrounded by scattered rural residences. While farms like UEF are subject to city ordinances, many of the other issues discussed here would not apply to UEF.

There are many types of urban agriculture. This article does not go into educational farms or training programs, community gardens, or backyard “self-provisioning” gardens. Operations that are not land-based, such as rooftop, controlled environment, and hydroponic businesses have different considerations, not covered here. Commercial farms are operated as businesses, typically by private entities. A commercial farming enterprise could be under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization that also engages in educational or other charitable programs.  In fact, nonprofit urban farms appear to be more common than private commercial operations.

Urban agriculture of all kinds offers many social, health, environmental, and economic benefits—all of which have been widely discussed.  Among the most substantial benefits are the positive impacts on community well-being, and expanding awareness of and engagement with food production and healthy food.

For commercial producers, urban settings can offer highly accessible and diverse markets, rewarding interactions with customers and neighbors, options for ancillary services such as educational programming, and an opportunity for urban dwellers to realize their farming goals. Commercial urban farms can range from small backyard plots to 10 acres or more.

Farming in urban settings presents some challenges distinct from rural farming. It requires sensitivity to the historical and current racial, socioeconomic, geographical, and cultural dynamics, often in complex, highly diverse areas. Other challenges are similar to those in non-urban settings, but with a different wrinkle. These can include soil quality concerns such as toxic contamination and rubble, theft and vandalism, and lack or cost of infrastructure such as water, fencing, and buildings. Urban farmers might also be concerned about air quality, equipment storage, and parking, depending on their location. Establishing a viable commercial urban farm requires creativity, determination, and diplomacy.

Land access is a common barrier for beginning and other farmers, and is uniquely challenging within urban settings. Availability, cost, parcel size limitations, specific location (e.g., proximity to markets or residence, neighborhood acceptance), and competing uses make secure tenure on appropriate urban parcels difficult. In general, most urban land is not affordable to purchase for most farm operations. And what’s affordable may not be suitable for farming. As with their rural counterparts, many urban farmers seek alternatives to buying land, such as leasing.

What are these land access and tenure challenges in urban settings? How can you as a commercial farmer get onto and hold land? What innovations mitigate these challenges and promote access to land for urban farming?

Finding land

Land availability varies greatly by city, depending in part on its history, current conditions, and density of development. Who owns the land will impact its availability to farmers and any resulting use agreement. Often, vacant lots are seen as attractive for urban agriculture. But what is a “vacant” or empty lot?

Technically, a vacant lot is a parcel of land that has no buildings on it. Often, it is a neglected or abandoned parcel that may have had a building on it at one time. Lots that have been repurposed for community gardens or play space may still be considered “vacant” if these open space uses are not recognized. In many neighborhoods, informal uses are important to residents, and pocket open spaces might not be available for production. In addition to vacant lots, suitable open spaces for production could be found as part of a larger parcel containing buildings, recreation areas, and/or other activities. Critical to the farmer’s tenure is who owns the parcel.

Land ownership can be divided into two main categories: private and public. Public land-holding entities can include municipal redevelopment authorities, housing authorities, parks departments, school departments, public utilities and transportation agencies, as well as state and federal agencies. Publicly owned land can also include historic sites, and land held by land banks.

Privately owned urban land may be held by individuals, investors, for-profit corporations, churches and other religious organizations, banks, private institutions such as some schools, colleges, and hospitals, and other charitable or educational nonprofits. There are also private utility and transportation companies that own urban land.

Finding available parcels and identifying their ownership may require a bit of effort. Some cities have land inventories that can be accessed online. For example, New York City maintains an inventory of city-owned land that is updated every two years. It identifies, among other variables, whether it is suitable for urban agriculture (of all kinds). Cleveland, Ohio has a Vacant Land Inventory for Urban Agriculture. Although they tend to be more community oriented than farm business oriented, support organizations in many cities, part of the Land Access Advocacy Network, have online tools for identifying vacant land, such as Lots to Love in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Grounded in Philly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and 596 Acres’ Living Lots NYC.

Farmers can call the city’s planning or zoning department to determine ownership, as well as to see if there are any easements or other liens on a parcel. Tax or property records will give you the owner’s name and possibly phone number and address. Most such records are online, but you may have to visit the appropriate office. Some private owners of vacant parcels may be absentee, and tracking them down may present a challenge. Consider asking neighbors for information.

Some cities have a land bank—a public or private entity that holds and disburses parcels, typically for future development. These are often vacant, abandoned, tax delinquent, or foreclosed properties. Many land banks are interested in selling properties they hold, sometimes at bargain rates. And while most land banks’ primary purpose is not related to agricultural uses, it may be possible to access property through a land bank for agriculture, possibly even with a dwelling and enough land for small-scale production.  For example, a couple in Lansing, Michigan rents a residential parcel from the Ingham County Land Bank. They raise crops and bees on this land. They’ve expressed interest in purchasing the property, but the land bank does not currently have a process for such a transfer.

In addition to land bank disposition, cities often sell tax delinquent property through a sheriff sale or auction. Some cities have side-yard programs to make it easier for residents to acquire vacant lots adjacent to their homes.

Locating a suitable parcel requires more than a drive-by and finding the owner. Zoning and other city ordinances will determine what is possible onsite. Not all municipalities or neighborhoods are receptive to agriculture. Read below for more information about regulations.

Holding land

Urban commercial farmers face many of the same land tenure issues as producers in rural and suburban areas. Can you afford to purchase the land you want to farm? If not, can you obtain an adequately secure and affordable rental agreement? Municipal ordinances may determine the kind of tenure available and under what terms.  As with rural farming, insecure tenure limits a farmer’s ability to make physical improvements, and puts farms at risk of losing not just access to the land itself, but also investments made in building relationships with neighbors, customers, and suppliers, improving soils, and installing infrastructure.  The two main categories of tenure are ownership and tenancy.

Ownership: Most public land-owning entities can sell land they hold, but the process can be cumbersome and regulations control what a specific entity is allowed to do regarding disposition of real estate. In most states, disposing of state-owned land involves a state agency declaring a property in its jurisdiction “surplus.”  This triggers a sequence of actions, starting with making the surplus property available to other state agencies, then county and town authorities, before it might be disposed of via a competitive bid process or public auction. This process can be lengthy. Similar procedures or other barriers may be involved at the municipal level. For example, in Philadelphia there’s “councilmanic prerogative,” which gives city council members the ability to make land use decisions, including disposition of public land, in their district, while in Detroit, Michigan, the city council must approve purchases over 10 acres. These practices give city council members power of discretion and may put farmers without political influence at a disadvantage.

Sanctuary Herbs of Providence at Urban Edge by Hmong farmers

Sanctuary Herbs of Providence at Urban Edge by Hmong farmers

In Boston, Massaschusetts, We Grow Microgreens submitted an application through the City’s RFP process to buy city-owned land in the Hyde Park area to build a greenhouse, a high tunnel, and raised beds. They are awaiting a response, and the long process has delayed the business’ plans to expand.

As mentioned, private land ownership by the farmer is less common in an urban context, but there are some examples. Urbavore Farm raises produce and poultry on 13 acres purchased by the farmers within Kansas City, Missouri. Karen Fresh Garden grows in the large backyard of the house the farmer’s family bought in Kansas City, Kansas.

Tenancy:  As an alternative to purchasing land, urban farmers can rent public or private land. With rented land, success depends on the lease or other use agreement, hinging on what is allowed, rent and other fees, and landlord-tenant relations. Baltimore, Maryland’s Land Leasing Initiative, for instance, provides for 5-year leases on pre-approved city lots. Eligibility is contingent in part on having at least one year of experience and demonstrating that the operation will be “profitable.” The lots, however, are for sale, so the lease can be terminated if the lot is sold.

As with most rental situations, it is strongly advised to get a written agreement when possible. Most of the terms in a general farm lease will pertain in urban settings. See Elements of a Good Farm Lease and other resources from Land For Good.  A short-term (1-3 years) lease offers flexibility and a trial period, but not a lot of security. Longer-term leases are more secure, but may not be an option with some landowners. Certain clauses may need customized consideration for an urban setting to accommodate the close proximity of neighbors, urban zoning specifics (e.g., prohibited uses), determination of fair rent, site maintenance, water or sewer charges, public access, or soil contamination, for example.

Some cities offer licenses or permits, rather than leases, for short-term use of public land. A license or permit is permission to use the property, rather than an actual leasehold interest in the premises. These are less secure for farmers, but may be the only legal or practical option. In a non-urban example, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ State-Owned Farmland Licensing Program makes state land available to farmers under 5-year licenses. These go out to bid, and are renewable.

Innovative models: Several innovative arrangements have been developed or hold promise to help urban farmers achieve secure land tenure. This is an emerging field; there are not a lot of examples and each effort is unique. These often involve nonprofit organizations. A nonprofit organization must have a charitable or educational purpose, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t engage in money-making activities such as selling farm products or collecting land rent.

For example, a nonprofit group can raise products that the organization sells commercially, along with its educational and training programs, food donations, gardens, and/or other activities. While this model doesn’t provide land tenure for a farmer, farmers could—and do—get experience and income from employment in these settings.

A nonprofit organization could acquire urban property for various charitable purposes and rent some or all of its land to one or more commercial farmers. One of the main advantages for the farmer is that the nonprofit is a “friendly” landlord. The farmer might also be involved with the organization’s educational activities or might benefit from the nonprofit’s clientele, marketing, and relationships with the neighborhood or city officials.

The Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont is a nonprofit that leases land to nine small to medium-sized organic farms, both mentor farms and incubator farms, which operate independently and benefit from the shared site.

A nonprofit could also act as an interim owner while a plan for the farmer to purchase the land is developed. Lewiston, Maine’s New Roots Cooperative Farm was founded by four graduates of Cultivating Community’s New American Sustainable Agriculture Program with support from the Cooperative Development Institute. Maine Farmland Trust purchased a 30-acre farm property within the city limits of Lewiston on behalf of the New Roots farmers, with a plan to develop an agreement with the farmers that will allow them to purchase the land at a future date and maintain secure access to the property in the meantime through a lease developed with support from Land For Good.

As an intermediary, a nonprofit can rent land from a public entity for its nonprofit purposes, and then sub-lease to a commercial farmer. In this way, the nonprofit is a buffer between the landowner and the farmer. It can, for example, negotiate the master lease, create supportive subleases (provided they are consistent with the master lease), and facilitate sharing among multiple site users.

The Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) has a 10-year ground lease from the State of Rhode Island on a 20-acre farm in Cranston. As the intermediary, SCLT subleases plots to several start-up commercial farmers at nominal rates. Cranston is a city, but the parcel is in a more rural setting. One attractive feature of this arrangement is that the farmers share equipment and infrastructure. Another is that they get support from SCLT.

Historically, community land trusts (CLTs) have focused on affordable housing, often by acquiring property and offering ground leases to homeowners. In a ground lease, the tenant rents a parcel of land and owns the home and/or other buildings upon it. While there aren’t yet examples of a CLT leasing directly to a commercial farmer in an urban setting, there are examples of CLTs providing access to land for nonprofits with commercial farm enterprises.

In Boston, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s (DSNI) CLT provides access to both affordable housing and land for food production. It leases land that it owns to The Food Project, a nonprofit with a commercial enterprise, for farm and greenhouse space. DSNI is also developing an additional farm site, mainly for farmer training, in partnership with Trust for Public Land and the Urban Farming Institute.

The Madison Area Land Trust (MALT) in Wisconsin is a CLT that also owns residential and agricultural land. In this example, MALT leases land to Community Groundworks, a non-profit that manages a commercial CSA.

In Olympia, Washington, South of the South Community Farm Land Trust purchased land and tailored their ground lease model for GRuB (Garden-Raised Bounty), a nonprofit with a commercial enterprise.

Two nonprofits in Pittsburgh, Grow Pittsburgh and Allegheny Land Trust recently launched a joint venture, Three Rivers Agricultural Land Initiative, using the CLT model to “provide long-term security for existing community gardens and urban farms, and ensure that future urban agricultural expansion will be planned and conducted on protected land.”

There are also examples of nonprofits that are not CLTs, but have related missions and can play a similar role in protecting land and making it available to farmers. These nonprofits own land in rural areas or less dense areas within city limits, and provide ground leases to the farmland with farmers owning the infrastructure.

Grow Food Northampton and North Amherst Community Farm, both in western Massachusetts, created new nonprofits to hold farmland and make it available to commercial farm businesses using long-term ground leases. Equity Trust assisted with these and other agricultural ground lease projects, some involving conservation land trusts.


City zoning and other ordinances govern what land uses are allowed and where. Until recently, agriculture was not even contemplated as a land use in most cities, so regulations may be vague or unfriendly to farming. Increasingly, urban agriculture is welcomed by cities, and laws are changing. For the most part, the changes pertain to educational and community gardening endeavors, rather than commercial agriculture. That said, more and more cities are seeking ways to foster urban agriculture, including commercial farms. For example, the Conservation Law Foundation has worked with Portland, Maine, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Central Falls, Rhode Island on ordinance revisions to support urban farming.

City zoning codes might prohibit certain farming activities such as keeping livestock or bees. They might limit the type, size, or location of farm-related buildings, signage, fencing, and compost piles, for example. They might allow commercial agriculture only in certain zones or areas of the city. For example, Boston’s Urban Agriculture Code, Article 89, allows all land-based farms up to one acre in any zone (i.e. residential, commercial, industrial) in the city, while land-based farms larger than one acre are allowed by right only in industrial areas and are conditional in all other areas.

Special permits or conditions might be required for certain farm-related activities such as product sales. The Somerville, Massachusetts Urban Agriculture Zoning Ordinance requires soil testing (with the results of the soil test clearly posted at the point of sale) for product sales, and only fresh, uncut, and unprocessed produce grown on the premises can be sold. In addition to municipal regulations, state laws related to water, agricultural nutrient management, and other relevant concerns also could impact urban land uses for farming.

Land protection

Removing the rights to develop farmland through a conservation easement or restriction has been an important tool in areas where good farmland is threatened with development. Conservation easements are less likely to be used in urban areas where the parcels tend to be small, and not a high priority for easement programs.  Nonetheless, they have been used in some urban agriculture projects. In urban areas, agriculture is often considered an interim use, and even in cases where the “highest and best use” of a parcel is not redevelopment, it may be necessary to find ways to protect the land for long-term agricultural use.

To protect the 12.5-acre Fairview Gardens, an innovative agricultural conservation easement was granted to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County at the time of the purchase that ensures active use as a working organic farm and educational programs under the nonprofit organization, the Center for Urban Agriculture. Fairview Gardens was a farm long before the area developed around it and the City of Goleta, California was established.

Another historic farm, Five Fridges Farm, located just outside Denver in the City of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, is privately owned by the farmer. Through a conservation easement held by Colorado Open Lands, the farm is protected for agriculture use forever: it cannot be subdivided or further developed.

Urban land also may be protected through outright (fee) ownership by a nonprofit land trust such as Neighborhood Gardens Association in Philadelphia (where the focus is on community gardens).

Site considerations

Infrastructure: Like their rural peers, urban farmers must consider their needs for water, storage, season extension, fencing, etc. Are these available on a parcel of interest? Can they be installed, and at whose cost? Are there any regulations that would hamper installation or use of infrastructure? What about parking and storage? Some municipalities, such as San Francisco, California and Philadelphia, offer a discounted water use rate for urban farms or waivers for storm water fees. Farms in these cities have received assistance to subsidize or cover the cost of hooking up to the municipal water supply for farm use. Other cities, such as Detroit, provide permits to access water via fire hydrants.

Soil quality: Soil quality in urban settings is one of the most critical considerations. It’s important to ensure that the soil is not contaminated on the farm site. Contaminants can include lead from pipes and paint, leaks from underground fuel storage tanks, and other pollutants from previous uses. There may be rubble from old buildings buried on the lot. Depending on the type of contaminant, remediation may or may not be possible. Some urban farmers cap the ground and use raised beds with imported clean soil. Innovative remediation methods include planting sunflowers or growing mushrooms. With that method, the toxic residue must be safely removed from the site.

There are many resources that address urban soil quality issues, including the Soil Safety Resource Guide for Urban Food Growers from The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Guidelines on testing and remediation can be found at www.urbanaglaw.org/soil or through your Extension service.

Housing: In urban settings, farmers are more likely to live off-farm unless they have a backyard farm. Affordable urban housing is addressed by many groups, programs, and policies, but access to affordable housing near the farm may be an issue for urban farmers. Living off-farm (for any farmer) may make emergency tasks, protection from theft and vandalism, and managing animals more challenging.

Scale and scaling up

NOFA RI holds workshop at Sidewalk Ends Farm

NOFA RI holds workshop at Sidewalk Ends Farm

Once urban growers are established, they may face a choice to stay at the same scale, expand within their urban setting or migrate to peri-urban or rural land. Seeking a larger lot within the city may present similar challenges as those experienced the first time around, only more so because larger parcels tend to be even harder to find. Farming on multiple parcels is another option that comes with its own set of logistical and other complications.

Farmers who want to move from tenancy to ownership, or onto ground independent of an intermediary organization will need to go through all the requisite research and negotiations.

Moving out of the city creates new considerations. Farmers who have been successful on urban plots will likely have to consider changes in their production practices, plant varieties, types of products, markets, equipment, and even residence. It may feel like starting over, with an additional learning curve. And obtaining land—and a new support system—outside of cities presents fresh challenges.

Sidewalk Ends Farm, based in Providence, Rhode Island, was founded on a 5,000 square foot lot through a handshake agreement with a private absentee landowner. After the first year, the farmers were unable to reach the landowner to explore protecting the land and increasing their security. They leased additional small, private urban and peri-urban parcels nearby. Farming multiple insecure urban lots proved frustrating to the farmers. After 3 years, they signed a 5-year lease for a small hayfield in nearby Seekonk, Massachusetts. This allows them to more confidently build soil and infrastructure, and grow more food for more markets.

Race, equity, and urban land access

Due to discrimination and structural racism, people of color and immigrant farmers may confront additional barriers to land access. Many communities are eager to welcome urban agriculture, but the dynamics can play out very differently based on who seeks to farm there, and who serves as gatekeeper. Racism underpins many interactions in our society, often below levels of awareness. White privilege, language privilege, and familiarity with vocabularies of development or gentrification can open doors for prospective white urban farmers that may remain firmly closed for farmers of color. The ability to communicate and earn trust within a community is crucial in establishing any urban farm; good relationships with neighbors and elected officials can mean more flexibility as a farm tries to get established and build out its vision.

As with rural farming, urban agriculture often operates through informal agreements and handshake deals, where land opportunities arise through social networks. Farmers with limited proficiency with English or comprehension of local norms find it more difficult to move through the process of accessing land without outside support from a relevant organization or champion. Thus barriers to land access are higher for people without language facility, the ability to “code-switch” in defense of their projects, or the social connections to make requests of authority figures.

Urban farming sometimes can lead to unintended and unconsidered consequences including gentrification. Urban agriculture is more likely to emerge in places with open and undervalued land such as post-industrial cities, poor/disinvested neighborhoods, and environmentally degraded urban landscapes. While properties in these areas might be more accessible, and farms might be an initial asset to the community, they can also be (in some cases unwitting) agents of gentrification. Such transformation can lead to the displacement of residents the farm purports to serve by raising property values, and stimulating competing interests for land. Gentrification may also eventually displace urban farms in favor of “higher use” development options.


Adequate land tenure is essential to the success and expansion of urban agriculture. Despite some unique challenges, commercial farming in urban settings can offer multiple benefits to farmers as well as urban communities. Public and private landowners can be important partners in creative and mutually rewarding transactions to make urban land available for farming. The examples in this article provide models to those who seek to farm in urban settings.

Bed-Stuy’s Hattie Carthan Community Garden

City sign hangs on the fence surrounding the garden

photo by Jack Kittredge City sign hangs on the fence surrounding the garden

The Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of the borough of Brooklyn in New York City is composed of about 150,000 souls. Dutch farmers were the original European settlers, but the region slowly developed from farms to villages to towns to a city because of closeness to Manhattan. By the 1870s rowhouses began to be constructed here and the neighborhood adopted its current look.

After the completion of the Fulton Street IND transportation line in 1936, many people left an overcrowded Harlem for better housing options among Bed-Stuy’s historic brownstones. During World War Two a large influx of southern African Americans came to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and a resulting largely successful effort at ‘blockbusting’ by real estate agents and speculators to drive out whites left the neighborhood with a 85% black population by 1960. Over time it has become a center for Brooklyn’s African American culture.

By the early 2000s the area’s large stock of substantial rowhouses on tree-lined streets began attracting an ethnically diverse population of Afro-Caribbeans and foreign-born people, as well as gentrifying whites. According to the American Community survey in 2013, the population was 56% Black, 22% White, 19% Latinx, and 2% Asian.

Carthan Community Garden.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Neighborhood residents maintain many beds at the Hattie Carthan Community Garden.

Perhaps this eclectic and cosmopolitan population base explains the look and feel of Bed-Stuy’s Hattie Carthan Community Garden and Farmer’s Market when I visited in October. The Community Garden is on the end of a block of brownstones and contains numerous plots for individual gardens as well as quiet public areas, picnic tables, and stretches of trees. It has been in existence since 1981. The Farmer’s Market, established in 2009, is on a narrow strip of land adjacent to the Garden. It serves as a site for community members to gather, buy and sell food, and take part in educational, spiritual, musical, artistic and cultural programming.

Perhaps the two pieces of land represent the needs of the community at the time they were established.

The community garden is like so many other such facilities in densely populated American cities – a site from which private housing had disappeared and which residents, often from rural backgrounds, began using for growing food. Ultimately this activity became so popular that the city, having taken title for non-payment of taxes, allowed it to be formalized for that purpose and supplies such basic necessities as water.

The farmer’s market is a much more up-to-date space, once an abandoned lot where trash was dumped, now it is filled with murals, chicken coops, demonstration plantings, free libraries of kids books, composting spaces, display tables, rows of raw and processed produce for sale, live and recorded music, and costumed people.

Or perhaps the two spaces have taken on the character of the two strong black women who established them.

Hattie Carthan (1900 – 1984) was a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident who loved trees. Mrs. Carthan led the charge to preserve a particular Southern magnolia tree, brought on a ship from North Carolina in 1885, that became a symbol of the neighborhood. The tree, rare in the northeast but protected from killing frosts by adjacent buildings and probably heat from the nearby subway, had grown to 40 feet in height. Carthan not only succeeded in having a wall built to protect this tree but also spearheaded the successful attempt to designate it an official city landmark in 1970. Noticing natural conditions in her neighborhood beginning to deteriorate, Mrs. Carthan began replanting trees there. She started the Neighborhood Tree Corps in 1971 as a way to teach young people how to care for trees, and the Green Guerillas, a force behind the resurgence of the community garden movement. The organization began informally in 1974 with tactics as simple as throwing water balloons filled with seeds into abandoned lots; the positive response showed the overwhelming need for more green space in the inner city. In May 1998, the garden was named in honor of Mrs. Carthan.

photo by Quincy Ledbetter, courtesy Yes! Magazine Yonnette Fleming holds one of the hens at the Hattie Carthan Community GardenYonnette Fleming is another natural community leader. Born in Guyana, she came to the US at 15 years of age. She had grown up living on large family sugar, rice, and coconut plantations, and with a grandmother who still grew food and baked bread. But upon coming to America she got caught up in the dream of success for a time and worked as a financial broker on Wall Street. Since 2003, however, she has been active in urban gardening and farming. Currently vice president of the Hattie Carthan Community Garden farm, she is a raphaologist, ordained minister, plant and sound medicine practitioner, reiki master, healing circle facilitator, and herbal Wysewoman. She teaches a Food Justice course for the Farm School in NYC and is a member of the Farm School’s advisory board, considering herself a ‘social change activist’.

When I first met Yonnette she, along with others helping with the market, was wearing a flaming orange and black face mask.

“This is the Day of the Dead for us”, she explained. “We have altars that were set up this morning. We are introducing children to their dead. My grandmother’s body is on that altar. She died at 106!” (She shows me the urn with her ashes in it). “So the majority of the world is celebrating this time with All Souls, All Saints, everyone is celebrating. So we make a concerted effort to pay attention to this. We have land, so we have to have the ancestors, all the old gardeners who have spent 40 years of their lives here, you have to have them in memory. That is what we are doing today. Almost all of the world celebrates their dead now. Yeah! But you would never know it from where we are in this country – Halloween costumes, trick or treats, candy…”“All of these beautiful tablescapes,” she continues, “were created by me and the children this morning. The craftings conjure up memories. Here we have our juniper berries, our amaranth that reminds us of where we are from. Here is an amaranth that is from Guyana, all of the beautiful things that we have prepared for our dead. This in itself speaks a volume about culture and us. Over on this table, what we asked our community to do is either bring pictures or a representation of their culture for our dead table. If they have nothing, we encourage them to write notes. What we know about the dead realms is that the way is paved by the heart. In other words thinking, standing still, remembering. So that is what we are doing. And this is going to be built up all afternoon, and our ritual ends with the drums and a whole celebration and eating.”

Yonnette is proud that the Hattie Carthan Garden is known for its spirituality, not just its beauty and practicality. Other activities that illustrate this are:

• the Menstruation Hut — a place for HER to celebrate the mystery of women’s blood and for cultivating and affirming life bearing abilities. (First Sunday of each month)

• Healing Circles — weekly percussion circles that teach team work and cooperation through musical entrainment. (Sundays)

• Medicine making workshops. (Quarterly)

• Earth Day seed starting workshops free to the community. Each person leaves with plant starts. (April)

• Annual Plant Sale — local gardeners, schools, block associations pickup plants for their gardens.

• Foods of the diaspora – a culinary festival celebrating the foods and music of the African diaspora, attracts hundreds of people into the garden space. (June)

Veronica (dressed for the Day of the Dead) tends Jasper as he finishes his art work

photo by Jack Kittredge
Veronica (dressed for the Day of the Dead) tends Jasper as he finishes his art work at the festival’s arts and crafts table

• Southern food festival — community gathers on lawn to celebrate Southern culture and blues band performs good old bayou blues classics to heal the broken hearted. (September)

• Labor Day Spirits come out to mambo — Afro Caribbean cuisine and west African drum and dance class is emphasized in market. Intergenerational conga line, costumes and youth carnival. Masquerade history demystified. (Labor Day)

• Bread baking classes — community gathers around Cobb oven in 3-week bread making series to mill vegetable and seed flours as a healthy alternative to wheat flour overconsumption. (October)

• Life and Death celebration — community gathers to remember Death traditions and to cultivate ancestral bonds through deep reflections, art and music. (Late October)

• Farmy Folks soiree — large hyperlocal dinner, demonstrating nourishing traditions to acknowledge the work and dedication of our supporters. Visioning with stakeholders and sharing lessons from the season. Failures alongside successes and aspirations. (Late November)

Of course the Community Garden and Market also run many education programs appropriate to raising food in the city.

Hattie Carthan

photo courtesy Yonnette Fleming
Hattie Carthan, founder of the Garden

“We have some composting systems behind the chicken coop,” Yonnette points out. “When the market is open we are also taking in compost from within a quarter mile radius. When people come to pick up their CSA basket of food, if they can’t compost in the home they can freeze the waste and bring it back here. We turn it over and it goes back to the soil. That is part of the theme on the dead – decaying and changing form.”

“Shortly we will be doing a vermicomposting workshop,” she continues. “Our compost is a mixture of animal manure, worm doo and plant matter. Our animals are hormone free and are cared for with herbal medicines, so we don’t worry about chemicals and drugs in the manure.”

Another practical program centers around the ‘Herban Farm and Apothecary’ that Fleming organized in 2011 on a neglected urban lot nearby. She studied plants and cell medicine for 10 years at the College for Indigenous Medicine and is a fan of their enormous restorative powers.

“A lot of things don’t grow here,” she admits, “but what does grow here we use a lot of. The reality is that people don’t even know the plants that grow here most. They are so busy weeding out what grows here they don’t know what it is. Yeah, so we run medicinal plant walks. Plants are outside of the codified system. We help to break that down.”

The herbal apothecary is loaded with freshly harvested medicinal herbs, herbal cosmetics and healing products crafted by Yonnette, who offers apothecary healing services such as Chakra rebalancing, energy healing, sound healing, aura cleansing, and reiki sessions. Groups focusing on dietary methods, percussion, plant dreams, sacred design, clearing land trauma, sacred mandelas and labyrinths are also available.

A number of young people have been engaged at the sites through Americorps or other programs. They do a variety of jobs, including running educational programs, and have expressed an interest in getting more involved in food and farming. African American-owned farms in the US have been on a historical decline for many years, but Yon would like to counteract that reality by finding ways to make black ownership easier. To this end she has helped create the Farm School, a training program of the Just Food program to promote learning about different kinds of farming and how to get access to land.

There is also a tiny tots program, including their own curriculum in the garden in the back in which 2-year olds participate. They have a pizza garden and had a program on smoothies and how you make them. The chickens are there, and a little cow that you can move back and forth to make compost.

Youthful community members learn about the food system at regular educational sessions.

photo courtesy Yonnette Fleming
Youthful community members learn about the food system at regular educational sessions.

As an example of an educational program, while I was there Jeneé Granum presented a demo on how to make pumpkin fritters drawn from the recipe in Caribbean Vegan, by Taymer Mason. You cut a pumpkin or squash into sections, grate the meat into a bowl, add flour, a tablespoon of brown sugar or agave or honey, corn starch, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. After mixing the dry ingredients together, you add ¼ cup of milk, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and mix the batter with the pumpkin meat. You pick out a tablespoon of fritter and deep fry or bake it, dust with sugar and then eat. The fritters Jeneé made were delicious!

Another delicious product of the Garden is figs. They have about 7 trees, which were producing delicious ripe figs when I visited. Apparently the effect of the subway line warming the soil is adequate to protect the roots and enable this treat to survive Brooklyn’s cold winters.

Obviously no activity like this can exist without financial backing. But Yonnette does not take a traditional approach to fund raising.

“We generally don’t do a lot of writing for grants from foundations,” she relates. “We don’t want to fit into small boxes and talk about ourselves as lacking or needing. The only money we are interested in is social justice money, for things like food sovereignty work. We have been here for forty years, so everyone has to support it! It takes a village to support the farm and the market!

“We must be very creative,” she continues, “to be able to support all this. In order for us to move or tweak the food system ultra creativity, connectivity and collectivity is called for. Any way that you can be creative to bring people along is going to be the way we have to do it. We have run plant exhibitions in our greenhouse where we create an ambience, a giant art exhibit. This is creativity. Once you bring that, then that same community comes back and supports you. The bread-baking class is a whole community of bakers. The composters are a whole different one. You have the bee people. The butterfly people. You have programs for them, you sell food at them. The bread-baking workshop was $40 and you go home with a loaf of bread. The same workshop is offered for $300 elsewhere, so ours is a bargain. I think it is amazing. You have egg people who love the chickens. We charge $6 a dozen for the eggs. That is the market price. If someone is ill and walks in here I will do the work with the herbs on them. It brings about a community. That is a market. Then with the sweat equity the city also has to support it. They didn’t build this for me, we built it ourselves. Our councilperson comes to our markets, as do our senators and legislators. We get public money for the youth, for instance. They learn and earn. And they certainly aren’t getting much money from selling collard greens!”

photo courtesy Yonnette Fleming The Community Market began in 2009 as the revitalization of an abandoned lot being used as a dumping groundI met a young black woman named Myles, new to the neighborhood as she just arrived four weeks ago, handing out flyers about the November 11th Farmy folks Soiree, which charges $50 for a Hyperlocal, Organic dinner, and $30 for a Wine and ferment bar. She was also promoting a Healing and Volunteer Appreciation Dinner on Nov. 19th. She explained how they try to make the classes self-supporting by charging reasonable fees and making sure people get something for their money.

“We have a lot of classes here,” she says, “to educate people about how to make things. We had one on bread-making last week where you go home with a loaf. Generally, if you take a class you get a token worth a few dollars on items you can buy here.”

A young white man named Mike Swigert had been in the community for several years. He is particularly interested in the political dimension of the work there.

“There is obviously money required to keep all this going,” he agrees. “We do fundraising events, workshops, we are always having cultural programs with music and food. And youth corps members are getting paid. This is supported by a lot of earned income – selling at the farmer’s market, a ton of volunteer work, we do get support from the city council, from foundations, particularly the Noyes Foundation for capital improvements. We had a workshop on compost a few weeks ago, and another one on the food system and looking at that with a racial justice, economic justice lens.”

The produce and processed items sold at the farmers market raise some funds, obviously. But most of that is paid for by the market, either to folks who raise it in the Community Garden or to Pennsylvania farmers.

“You ask where our food comes from,” explains Yonnette. “Let me tell you how it goes from Friday. I invite community gardeners who could submit a crop plan and have me check their soil to make sure they are not using chemicals, and they can bring food on Fridays. I pay them and sell their food. We have about 8 community gardens that do that for us and we aggregate their food to sell it. Staples of squash, rutabagas, sweet potatoes – we’ll never be able to do those on urban land – those come from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania.

“Also,” she continues, “at the farm there is a working apothecary where we farm the herbs and together with my team we move the herbs and medicine into the apothecary. When we sell the herbs and medicine – massage oils, teas, butters, berries, barks, twigs – that helps to take care of the farm. Those herbs are things that people have used for resilience through the course of history – not just African-Americans but all people. Herbs like plantain for example, Europeans depended on that in the landscape. When we teach we aren’t separating out anything. We believe that all things are African!”

The role of African Americans in the Garden, Market, Farm, etc. is important to the members. Even Mike, a white gentrifier, feels this is important.

“This over here,” he says, “is a community garden and those are all individuals gardening here. The entirety of the other site (Herban Farm) is maintained as a community project. It is infused with a spiritual energy – it’s an African indigenous, woman-led, people-of-color project.

“The neighborhood is changing now,” he continues. “It has been predominantly African American and low income. But there is tremendous gentrification now. You can see the public housing here and the yuppie coffee shops over here. There is lots of change. The idea of this project is that the community garden has lots of long time members who are African American from the South and have been in Brooklyn for awhile but come from rural backgrounds. Yon led a project a few years ago which captured their story from the context of a community garden which is really cool. People have individual plots but it is a collective endeavor. I like being a part of that. I’m from Washington D. C. and am obviously one of the people who is “gentrifying” the neighborhood. But it has been really wonderful for me to come here and connect with what is going on. We have had some wonderful sessions here on Race and Equity, Access, and Power. I attended one right after the Charlottesville killing. We had people from 12 years old to 70 come out for that. A lot of people have been volunteering here over the years, contributing to the agriculture. I come every week and water a number of beds. I have a little garden plot in my backyard but I contribute as a community member to this project too.”

The role of African Americans in the leadership of the Garden, Market and Farm is central to Yonnette.

photo courtesy Yonnette Fleming Recycling waste, be it manure, garden clippings, or neighborhood kitchen waste is an fundamental principle for the Garden, as well as an important source of fertility.

photo courtesy Yonnette Fleming
Recycling waste, be it manure, garden clippings, or neighborhood kitchen waste is an fundamental principle for the Garden, as well as an important source of fertility.

‘The project here is an African-American led one,” she asserts. “It always has been for the 40 years it has existed. The older garden ran a kind of sterile narrative about who they were as though all things were equal. They did that for a long time. It’s a traditional community garden where everybody gets a plot. It is like everybody is there, we are all here, there is no racial justice narrative going. But when gentrification came on the community they got to the level that they realized the sterile narrative, although it seems like a friendly thing to do, is not how you cultivate community. We are a diverse community, naturally, and there are various power structures. Everything is different for everyone. So in 2009 we began to clearly say that we are a people-of-color led project. That our work with the youth is on youth of color, to heal and repair themselves. Everything that we do has that sort of narrative.

“Our community is being gentrified currently,” she continues. “This is one of the last African American gardens left standing with African American leadership. That is a fact. How the leadership is dealing with that are internal strategies, some are ones I can share. One idea is adding a voluntary component to our membership so there is not a right-of-way into the garden. It serves as a speed bump. We ask for a year of voluntary help before you actually join the garden. When I added that to our bylaws (smiles) that was the winner! Many community gardeners come to meet me and the one thing they want is to keep it the way it is, how to keep the place African American, how to stack it without, yeah… We have a few whites who have earned membership now.”

Fleming’s concern with African American control may seem discriminatory to outsiders, but she feels that keeping her community in charge of the Garden they created is vital.

“It is important for historically oppressed communities” she states, “to have resources for healing and rights to land and territory. Every community needs resources and space for the production of fresh, clean, nutrient dense foods and to recognize the central role of land in culture, society and healing. Our gardens and farms are not just food production mills but serve as places that humanize and cultivate diversity.”

To that end, she argues, it is important to stress the strengths and assets of your community, not its weaknesses and needs.

“The work of community building and reconnecting to land,” she says, “like every process, begins with a desire to want something better for one’s community. Assessing the assets of one’s community is essential. Instead of using a needs-based only frame, every community should be able to map its assets and create change through establishing common ground and democracy. Engaging and educating using popular education pedagogy helps us recognize each other’s function in community. Music and Art defies the trappings of language and are important to our collective healing.”

Also important to community education about what needs to be done, Yonnette suggests, is a recognition of the problems they face and an appreciation of the traditions they come from.

“People need to have a race/class analysis,” she says, “when they are trying to be a part of creating a more equitable and sustainable future. The food system is so bad in so many ways – unhealthy food, people profit from it who are far away from producing it, lots of waste, issues of race and equity… The kinds of classes we run help you understand all that and create alternative ways of farming – local, organic, collective.

In keeping with the fall festival, this demonstration showed how to make pumpkin fritters.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Veronica (dressed for the Day of the Dead) tends Jasper as he finishes his art work at the festival’s arts and crafts table

“At the farm,” she continues, “we raise a consciousness of deep reverence for the Earth and respect feminine based leadership and values. We center black women’s knowledge and radically lift up the work of women around us. We redefine our relationships to the land; healing creatively with the land; ancestral honoring/remembering and community self-esteem, determination and liberation. We describe our Farm as a healing place. Our Farm has a wild patch where we bury our wounds, sing ancestral songs and recall stories of our environmental icons like Hattie Carthan who way back in the 70s, thought she was working to save a tree and in so doing created the backbone of this community.”

I asked several people at the Garden/Market/Farm how they would like to see the programs grow in the future.

Veronica Crevino, a volunteer staffer, mentioned their desire to function throughout the year.

“This area,” she said, “is open July through Thanksgiving. We’d like to go year round. Right now we own four generators, is how we get our power. We want to get permanent power through a meter. We are drawing up plans right now for electricity to be installed for the market area. That would enable us to be here year-round. It will mean lots more refrigeration and food preservation. Come back and see us in 3 years!”

One other consequence of year-round operation would be that the market could attract upstate farmers with winter crops, root vegetables, and preserved food. It would be an opportunity for them to reach a large urban market and a chance for the market to earn significant stall fees.

Yon is currently planning on building a classroom and herbal preservation structure on the farm and will be launching an indegogo campaign to raise funds for it. Large teach-ins and herbalism intensive courses are among the programs which would be taught there.

Another goal Yon has is to install a solar electrical tree at the farm. Also to have a rainwater barrel system there and a pump to activate it so the water can be brought anywhere for use.

Mike works with the food justice program which takes care of policy and makes sure things are running correctly. Fleming envisions him coordinating letter writing and door-knocking campaigns generating support for the program. That could pay off in several ways:

Longer leases – not the 3-year type currently used for the market, but more like the 40 years, which the Community Garden has. That would enable significant investment in the sites.

EBT support – the city requires every single community-based market to have an EBT operator. If that could be changed, or a system set up to pay for such an operator, then SNAP benefits and other such programs would be easy to use and the vendors could all function easier.

School programs – Yonnette would love not to have to chase down the schools for teacher awareness. The children are already coming to the site for services and teachers would benefit from such exposure themselves.

Health programs – Yon would like to have health professionals come at least one day a month to the farm. Her dad did that in Guyana. He had every public service program bring people to help on the farm – ministries of education, health, timber…

“I think what we want to do,” she says, “is build up this project here, and the other herbal one, in terms of growing more, developing enterprises to use it and benefit people. We want to get people to build their skills while increasing community economic activity. It is great to grow your own food in your backyard or a plot here, but also help us build the community and cooperative economics.”

The Role of Marginalized Populations in American Farming

share of farms by sales class fror minorities 2012Scratch virtually any American and you will find, without going too far back, a farmer. Despite their hunting and fishing activities, most Northeastern Native Americans depended on agriculture for the majority of their calories. Certainly those of us who arrived, voluntarily or not, in the age of sail did as well. More recent immigrants came in waves, often driven from home by persecution or war, but it was access to land, a piece of our supposedly endless frontier, of which they dreamed and for which they saved once here.

Historical Agricultural Demographics

Although early farm population figures are not reliable, we have good numbers from as far back as 1820 giving Americans in ‘farm occupations’ (2.1 million, or 72% of the workforce) and then again in 1850 (4.9 million, or 64% of workers). Once the census started counting the farm population, in 1920, the total was 32 million, or 30.2% of the national population. Careful Department of Agriculture estimates put the farm population peak in 1916, at 32.5 million, or 32% of all Americans.

Despite a general downward trend since World War I to its current level of 3.2 million, the farm population has had a few short surges, including one in 1933 when it grew to 31.2 million, or 24.9 percent of the United States population of 125.4 million. Were some of us driven back to the farm during the Depression, where at least we could eat?

Current Farmer Racial Demographics

minority principal operators 2007 and 2012The numbers of these farmers who are African Americans, however, is particularly low. In 2012, they represented fewer than 2 percent of the total farming population, despite an overall population accounting for about 13% of our people.

Although the farm population has been steadily diminishing for the last century, in 2012 (the last year for which there are reliable numbers) 2.1 million Americans still consider themselves principal operators of farms. This is down 4.3% from the number in 2007 (2.2 million).

Interestingly, however, this decline in principal farm operators is wholly among the white population (see “Minority Principal Operators, 2027 and 2012” table). Principal operators among all the non-white groups are on the increase: Hispanic operators grew by 21%, American Indian by 9%, Black by 9%, and Asian by 22%.

Most of these farms are still smaller than average (see “Share of Farms by Sales Class for Minority Operators” table) although the Asian farms seem to contradict this and actually break out as larger than average even when factoring in white-owned farms themselves.

Most farms operated by people of color also are where you might expect (90% of black farms are in 12 southern states; 76% of Latinx farms are in the 6 states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Florida, Colorado and Washington; 80% of Native American farms are in the 7 states of Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, Montana, California and South Dakota; and 64% of Asian American farms are in the 4 states of California, Hawaii, Florida and Texas).

Freedmen on Farms

Before the Civil War, abolitionists and those working to end slavery had no clear plans for how former slaves would transition to economic freedom in a non-slave economy. When victory by the North was imminent, however, this issue came immediately to the forefront. To what extent should government provide for a transition to wage labor rather than support the desire of many freedmen to have the means to be independent farmers?

There had been previous isolated opportunities for former slaves to acquire land. As early as 1862, Union generals subdivided some plantations of Confederate leaders for small farm settlements by former slaves. The government sold confiscated land on St. Helena Island and Port Royal, SC, in 1863 to a philanthropist-entrepreneur who produced cotton by hiring freedmen and arranged mortgage payment plans for those farmers to gradually purchase the land.

The first Freedmen’s Bureau Act in 1865 included plans for 40-acre tracts to be sold on easy terms from either abandoned plantations or to be developed on unsettled lands. But by late 1865, President Andrew Johnson terminated further initiatives by the Union Army for small farm settlements. In 1866, a second Freedmen’s Bureau Act was passed that lacked specific terms and actions for implementing 40-acre settlements.

Social scientists and economic historians have considered the government’s reluctance to implement a major land settlement program for the freedmen as a lost opportunity for small, independent farming. There were opportunities to provide small farms on government-owned or unsettled lands, but the extent to which land reform would have required seizure and breakup of plantations may have worked against adoption of such a policy. So the question remained, what to do with large plantations and how would they be farmed? By leaving the plantations intact, a demand for farm-operating wage labor was created.

Despite the early announcements of plans for land settlement programs, the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau focused instead on facilitating a transition from slave to various types of farm operation or labor relationships. During a 4-year period, the Bureau mediated agricultural production contract negotiations between planters and freedmen. In other words, national leaders decided that its appropriate role was to help former slaves become “free” in being able to offer labor and farm operating services. The demise of land distribution plans did not eliminate opportunities for ownership and independent farming, but its future depended on the extent of economic mobility, or what was called moving up the agricultural ladder.

Many freedmen were skeptical of operating as wage-workers out of concern that planters would establish a “free” labor variant of the factories-in-the-field system of slavery. The two general alternatives to wage labor were tenancy arrangements under rental contracts and sharecropping. Several southern states passed laws during the late 19th century establishing the status of payment terms and working relationships as subject to determination by private negotiations between the landowner and tenant worker, resulting in negligible differences between tenancy and sharecropping.

W.E.B. Du Bois estimated 19th century progress in land ownership by African American farmers at: 3 million acres in 1875, 8 million in 1890, and 12 million in 1900. The Census of Agriculture shows a steady increase in the number of farm operators owning land in the South from 1880 to 1890 and again in 1900, but does not distinguish between white and nonwhite owners until 1900. Census figures show 1920 as the peak year in the number of nonwhite owners of farmland in the South.

Increases in land ownership after 1900 were partly due to a significant rise in cotton prices that lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The growth in farmland acquisition by African Americans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrates a period of economic mobility for about 25 percent of farm operators. In the early 20th century, there were instances of black farmers having achieved the status of landlords and becoming philanthropic community leaders.

During the 19th century there were some opportunities to establish farms on unsettled lands, but over the long run, most black farmers gained land through their working relationships with white planters. Landowners profited by offering tenant farm operators the incentive of having an opportunity to buy certain tracts of land in exchange for increased farming efficiency. The increased land ownership and prosperity of the first two decades of the 20th century, however, were not shared by a large majority of African American farm operators. Enactment of Jim Crow laws in the late 1890s empowered landlords and planters to try to extract more output from tenants and sharecroppers with less compensation. Oppressive farm operating contracts were easier to impose because the voting rights of African Americans were limited. Without the franchise, black tenants and sharecroppers had no legal or political recourse.

The purchase of farm and household supplies was financed by loans secured with crop liens from merchants, which put many farm operators into a persistent state of debt. In some southern states, a peonage system developed from laws on indebtedness that enabled planters to force some tenants to remain as operators on their plantations. Cotton grown by tenants and sharecroppers was usually sold for them or credited to their ‘furnishing’ accounts. So, even when these growers avoided peonage, they likely received lower returns because they lacked the power to monitor marketing transactions.

Census reports from 1900 to 1920 show an increasing number of tenant and sharecropper families in the South. By 1920, there were 369,842 tenants and 333,713 sharecroppers.

World War Two and the Push for Civil Rights

For many African Americans, the war offered an opportunity to get out of the cycle of crushing rural poverty. They joined the military in large numbers, escaping a decade of Depression and tenant farming in the South and Midwest. Yet, like the rest of America in the 1940s, the armed forces were segregated.

The Army accepted black enlistees but created separate non-white infantry regiments and assigned white commanders to them. The Army Air Corps’ African American fighter wing was completely separate, training at the all-black university at Tuskegee, Alabama. The Navy segregated African American units and gave them the most menial jobs on ships. And the Marines, at least initially, didn’t even accept African Americans. At every training base, black and white soldiers were kept apart – despite excellent performance records for black units.

The best known black unit, the Tuskegee Airmen, was assigned to North Africa and later to Italy. They flew 200 bomber escort missions over southern Europe without allowing a single bomber to be shot down by enemy fighters. Their longest mission took them over Berlin where they encountered new, fast jet fighters. They shot down two and damaged another five. The unit received two Presidential citations, and individual flyers received 150 medals.

After the war, when non-white soldiers returned home, they found a country that still did not grant them full rights. But a movement for the expansion of civil rights had been born. Some African American soldiers who had left farm jobs in the South decided not to go back. Instead they moved to cities, looking for work that was similar to what they had learned in the armed forces. This movement represented an intensification of the Great Migration that began around the turn of the century.

Farming Innovation by People of Color

The creativity of farmers in designing useful tools, creating new varieties of crops, finding alternative markets, and engineering ways to reduce labor or save time is well established. Of course many non-white Americans, regardless of their status, contributed to this effort and found ways to make farming more productive, easier, and sustainable. The best known of these was George Washington Carver, whose inventions and writings while a professor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama are legendary.

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver
Born a slave in 1864, Carver was orphaned at an early age and adopted by the Missouri couple who owned him, Moses and Susan Carver. George showed early promise and was taught by Susan to read and write since no local school would take black pupils. Eventually he left home and received a high school diploma in Kansas. He enrolled in Simpson College in Iowa, where he so impressed his teachers that they suggested he study botany at Iowa State University, where he was the first African American to enroll and stayed on for a master’s degree. Upon graduation in 1896, Carver was hired by Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee’s principal, to run the Institute’s agricultural department.

Tuskegee was founded as a “normal” school for “colored” teachers and aimed to teach the students, ex-slaves, in “skills, morals, and religious life”, as well as academic subjects. Washington urged teachers trained at the Institute “to return to the plantation districts and show the people there how to put new energy and new ideas into farming as well as into the intellectual and moral and religious life of the people”. Since virtually all ex-slaves were now still growing cotton “on shares” for their old masters, new ideas in farming were badly needed.

Carver was ideally suited to encouraging new ideas for southern agriculture. Repeated plantings of cotton, which required lots of nitrogen, had seriously depleted plantation soils. At the same time cotton prices, which had been steadily climbing before the Civil War, had declined. With the blockade of southern cotton during the war, production had been drastically increased in India and Eqypt to supply European mills. Once the war was over these new sources continued to produce and the price of cotton fell. Add to that the infestations of the boll weevil in the monocropped cotton, beginning in 1892, which reduced production by up to 50 percent.

Carver promoted crop rotations to restore the soil, particularly with nitrogen-producing legumes like peanuts and soybeans. To encourage farmers to try these new crops, he devised over 400 products using the peanut, soybean, and sweet potato. By the time he died in 1943 Carver had met with Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt, was friends with Henry Ford and Henry A. Wallace, had been dubbed in 1941 by Time Magazine as a “black Leonardo”, and was a member of the British Royal Society.

Andrew jackson BeardAndrew Jackson Beard
Beard (1849–1921) was born into slavery in Alabama and gained his freedom when he was fifteen. Beard remained on the plantation, becoming a sharecropper. He married Edie Beard (at age 16, by some accounts), with whom he would have three sons; he is recorded as having purchased an 80-acre farm near Center Point, Jefferson County, at some point during this period.

Largely self educated, he invented, among other things, two kinds of specially designed plows, a flour mill, a type of rotary steam engine, and a device for the automated coupling of railroad cars that has been credited with saving many lives. In 2006, Beard was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

Henry blair

Henry blair

Henry Blair
Henry Blair (1804–1860) is the first black man to be identified on a U.S. patent application. The identification of Blair as “a colored man” was an accident, as the U.S. Patent Office usually didn’t identify patent holders by race.  Blair was a born a free man, but was illiterate, therefore he signed his patents with an “x”. At the time that his patents were granted United States patent law allowed both freed and enslaved people to obtain patents. In 1857 this law was challenged by a slave-owner who claimed that he owned “all the fruits of the slave’s labor” including his slave’s inventions. This resulted in the change of the law in 1858 that stated that slaves were not citizens and therefore could not hold patents. After the American Civil War, in 1871, the law was changed to grant all men patent rights.

Blair was awarded a patent in 1834 for a corn planter that had a compartment that held and dropped the seeds to the ground and rakes that followed to cover them with soil. He was awarded a second patent for a cottonseed planter in 1836. This invention worked by splitting the ground with two shovel-like blades that were pulled along by a horse. A wheel-driven cylinder followed behind which dropped the seed into the newly plowed ground. Blair had been a successful farmer for years and developed the inventions as a means of increasing efficiency in farming.

George Crum

George Crum

George Crum
According to legend, George Crum (1824–1914) was working as a chef in New York in the summer of 1853 when he came up with an all-new way to prepare potatoes. A patron had sent his French-fried potatoes back to the kitchen for being too thick and soft. To teach the patron a lesson Crum sliced a new batch of potatoes as thinly as he could, then fried them until they were hard and crunchy. To top them off he added plenty of salt. To his surprise the dish was a big hit and a new snack was born.

Depending upon the source, his father, Abraham, and mother, Diana, were variously identified as African American, Oneida, Stockbridge, and/or Mohawk. Some sources associate the family with the St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk reservation that straddles the US/Canada border. Crum and his sister Kate Wicks, like other Native American or mixed-race people of that era, were variously described as “Indian,” “Mulatto,” “Black,” or just “Colored,” depending on the snap judgment of the census taker.

Lloyd Hall
Lloyd Hall (1894-1971), an African American inventor with more than 100 patents, is credited with many of the meat curing products and preservatives used in food processing industries today. Hall’s grandmother came to Illinois via the “Underground Railroad” at the age of sixteen. Hall graduated in 1912 from East Side High School in Aurora. After graduating school he studied pharmaceutical chemistry at Northwestern University, earning a B.S. and a Master’s degree at the University of Chicago. After leaving university, Hall was hired by the Western Electric Company, after a phone interview. But the company refused to hire Hall after they discovered he was an African American.

LLoyd Hall

LLoyd Hall

Lloyd Hall devoted much of his life and efforts to food science curing meat. Hall also investigated the role of spices in food preservation. It was common knowledge that certain seasonings had antimicrobial properties, but Hall and co-worker Carroll L. Griffith found that some spices carried many bacteria, as well as yeast and mold spores. To counter these problems, in 1938 they patented a means to sterilize spices through exposure to ethylene oxide gas, a fumigant. Hall also invented new uses of antioxidants to prevent food spoilage, especially the onset of rancidity in fats and oils. Aware that unprocessed vegetable oils frequently contained natural antioxidants such as lecithin that slowed their spoilage, he developed means of combining these compounds with salts and other materials so that they could be readily introduced to other foods.

Frederick McKinley Jones
(1893-1961) was granted patents on more than 60 inventions, over 40 of them for innovations related to refrigeration, including the long-haul system used in trucks and railroad cars. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 17, 1893 to a white father and black mother. At the age of 11, with minimal education under his belt, Jones ran away to fend for himself, taking odd jobs where he could. In 1912, he landed in Hallock, Minnesota where he obtained a job doing mechanical work on a farm.

Frederick McKinley Jones

Frederick McKinley Jones

Jones had talent for mechanics and read extensively on the subject in addition to his daily work, educating himself in his spare time. By the time he was twenty, he was able to secure an engineering license in Minnesota. It was on the Hallock farm that Jones educated himself in electronics. He continued to expand his interests in the 1930s and

designed and patented a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food. In 1944, he became the first African American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers.

George Washington Murray
(1853–1926) held eight patents relating to farming and was one of the major African American political leaders in the quest for racial justice in the new South following the Civil War. He was born in Sumter County, South Carolina where he spent the first 13 years of his life as a slave, but after the Emancipation Proclamation he enrolled at the University of South Carolina and later continued his education at the State Normal Institute at Columbia; graduating in 1876.Murray lectured for the Colored

In the next 20 years he served as a farmer, school teacher, the Chairman of the Sumter County Republican Committee and as a customs inspector for the Port of Charleston, 1890-1892, a position he was appointed to by the President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison. While a farmer, Murray lectured for the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and participated in local Republican policies. In 1892 Murray was elected to the United States Congress representing the state of South Carolina. While serving in his second term, Murray secured patents for eight inventions, including cultivating and fertilizing equipment and a cotton chopper.

John Parker
John Parker

(1827–1900) owned three of the seventy-seven patents issued to African Americans by 1886. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1827, the son of a slave mother and white father. Thus legally born into slavery, at the age of eight John was forced to walk to Richmond, where he was sold at the slave market to a doctor from Mobile, Alabama. While working at the doctor’s house as a domestic servant, John was taught to read and write by the doctor’s family, although the law forbade slaves’ being educated. He asked one of the doctor’s patients, a widow, to purchase him. After taking title to him, she allowed him to hire out to earn money and he purchased his freedom from her for $1,800 in 1845.

He is best known for patenting a portable tobacco screw press, used for cutting tobacco, and a harrow or pulverizer. Parker was also a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. From his home in Ripley, Ohio, Parker helped more than one thousand slaves receive their freedom, despite a $1000 bounty placed on him by slaveholders.

Norbert Rillieux

Norbert Rillieux

Norbert Rillieux
Norbert Rillieux (1806–1894), a Creole inventor from New Orleans, was the natural son of the owner of a large sugar plantation and Constance Vivant, a half-black “free woman of color”. As a boy the precocious Norbert showed an interest in engineering, and his father sent him to France for his education. By the age of 24 Rillieux was an instructor in applied mechanics at the Ecole Centrale in Paris. Around 1830, Rillieux published a series of papers on steam engines and steam power. Widely considered to be one of the earliest chemical engineers, he revolutionized sugar processing with the invention of the multiple effect evaporator under vacuum. Rillieux’s great scientific achievement was his recognition that at reduced pressure the repeated use of latent heat would result in the production of better quality sugar at lower cost.

The success of his evaporator apparently made Rillieux, according to a contemporary, “the most sought after engineer in Louisiana,” and he acquired a large fortune. But as the Civil War approached, the status of free African Americans deteriorated with the imposition of new restrictions on their ability to move about the streets of New Orleans and other draconian laws. While his invention no doubt enriched sugar planters, Rillieux was still, under the law, “a person of color” who might visit sugar plantations to install his evaporator but who could not sleep in the plantation house.

Booker T. Whatley  
Booker T. Whatley Booker T. Whatley, an Alabama horticulturist, author, and Tuskegee University professor, examined efficient farming practices that allow the small farmer to make a decent living.  His book, “How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres” (1987), explored his ‘ten commandments of farming’ that assist the farmer in minimizing unnecessary costs, limiting wastes, and maximizing income and farm space with smart crop selection.  He also continued the use of soil regeneration techniques supported by George Washington Carver, a faculty member of the previous generation. His work continues to be a guide for small farmers towards success and sustainability.

One of Whatley’s commandments was the importance of what he called a Clientele Membership Club. Members of this club pay an initial membership fee to the farm. In return, they receive the right to pick  fresh produce.  This ensures a constant cash flow into the farm, while saving on time and labor.  Dr. Whatley identified this as an essential aspect of a successful farm in the 1960’s and 70’s. Today, this marketing approach has evolved significantly but is commonly referred to as community supported agriculture (CSA) and has becoming quite popular.

Urban Agriculture and Social Interaction

Although the Great Migration and other immigration flows in the US were largely away from rural life and farming toward cities, African Americans, like so many other migrants, did not easily give up their attachment to gardening and raising traditional foods. Whether in backyard plots or more organized community efforts, agriculture and food production continued in the city.

In areas of mixed ethnicities these projects can provide an opportunity to bring individuals together. Stronger communal bonds promote healthier, successful gardens, and strengthen neighborhoods overall. Such projects can be utilized to bridge the divide between racially disparate communities. Numerous attempts, for instance, have been made to ease tensions between African Americans and whites. The rift between the two groups is believed in part to stem from a lack of positive contact. Community gardening projects offer a distinct situation for racial integration, as individuals enter freely into this activity, making the environment more genuine. These gardens offer leisure spaces where individuals of diverse races socialize through their own volition. What debunks preconceived notions of “the other” is the opportunity to recognize commonality through shared values, a fascination with nature and making things grow, and a mutual commitment to making communities better.

Urban Farm

South Central Urban Farm, once the largest urban garden in the Unitd States

Additionally, urban farming projects have the added advantage of beautifying urban communities and curtailing crime, all of which has positive effects on a neighborhood’s real-estate value. Research shows that in “New York City gardens had a statistically significant positive impact on residential property within 1000 feet of the garden, an impact that increased over time. More importantly, this impact was highest in the lowest income neighborhoods”.

A study in low-income neighborhoods in Flint, Michigan revealed that the conflation of gardening projects, clubs or neighborhood associations—that facilitate the gardens by developing fundraisers, block parties, etc.—created opportunities for neighborhoods to have greater interaction with each other, since some members actively garden, while others act as administrators. This division secures communal solidarity that keeps the gardens productive, thus greatly benefiting the community as a whole.

Urban Land Rights and Gentrification

Urban agriculture projects are often executed on privately owned land considered of little value in low income, underutilized districts. Communal gardening is employed in poor communities as a system to augment food shortages, and to embellish neglected and depressed areas. Paradoxically once they flourish, the beauty and transformative equality of garden neighborhoods engenders interest by developers, looking to build market properties during periods of urban renewal and gentrification. Despite the sweat equity and guardianship that communities are willing to invest in their gardens, the longevity of these projects often depends on the largesse of local governments or private investors.

In the 1990s New York City’s Giuliani administration took on several gardening communities in a battle over land rights that changed the nature of privatized spaces in the city’s public arena. When the 1970s economic crisis left low income front-line areas devastated and abandoned, community members started grassroots campaigns to convert city-owned vacant lots into viable green spaces, providing a food source to impoverished people. Further, they reduced drug activity and other crimes, and colorful flowers and vegetable gardens became an antidote to urban blight. During the economic boom of the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani made plans to auction off 114 community gardens, and use the land to address a housing shortage. The garden communities contested his decision, citing that their gardens sustained destitute communities during the city’s economic downturn. Further, they engendered urban revitalization.

Giuliani remained recalcitrant, invoking his right to what was legally municipal property. So garden communities throughout the city coalesced and filed a class action lawsuit and advocates from various boroughs formed a coalition, transforming community gardens into “unity gardens.” In the end, many of the gardens were purchased and preserved by private land trusts.

Land rights issues illustrate that during periods of fiscal crisis, marginalized communities turn to gardening projects on borrowed land and become constituents in beautifying the urban landscape. But until these spaces are seen as essential permanent components of urban communities, land right challenges will continue to threaten their life span.

In 2006, Los Angeles’ South Central Farm (SCF) was destroyed. This 14-acre urban farm was cultivated and maintained by a Latinx community for twelve years on vacant but privately owned land, producing vegetables, fruits, and medicinal plants in one of the most impoverished areas in the county. The SCF became the lifeblood of the community and when a heated legal battle between one of the original owners and the local government threatened its existence, the community rallied in an attempt to hold on to what was, de facto, theirs. But a community of poor, many illegal, Latinx immigrants were ill suited to use litigation to further their efforts. In the end the farm was bulldozed for a Walmart distribution warehouse, which was never built.


Urban agriculture creates opportunities for integration between different racial groups in neutral spaces where physical closeness allows these groups to find common ground based on their similar desires to improve their neighborhoods. But successful projects rely on communal dedication and require local governments to commit to their safekeeping.

Community Based Bioremediation:

The past 150 years of industrial processes have left a legacy of toxicity in the soils of today’s urban environments. Exposure to soil based pollutants disproportionately affects low-income communities which are frequently located within formerly industrialized zones. Both gardeners, who come into direct contact with soil, as well as those who eat the products grown in the soil are at risk to exposure from industrial contaminants. Options for low-income communities for remediating contaminated soils are limited, with most remediation work being carried out by costly engineering firms. Even more problematic is the overall lack of awareness and available information regarding safety and best practices with soils.

In response to these challenges, a grassroots movement has emerged that seeks to empower urban residents with the tools and information necessary to address residual industrial toxicity in their ecosystems. Focusing on methods that are simple and affordable, this movement wishes to remove the barriers of cost and technical expertise that may be otherwise prohibitive. This paper will give an overview of case studies of organizations that have been successful in implementing these strategies.

  1. Soils and Cities

Soil is a living network. It is teeming with billions of microorganisms engaged in diverse ecological relationships with each other, much like humans in a city. Healthy soil is the foundation of nutritious food production, and arguably therefore of civilization itself. The relative sustainability of societies throughout history can often be attributed to how they treated their soils. Cultures with practices that regenerated the health of their soils persisted, while those cultures that depleted their soils either collapsed or were forced to move elsewhere.

Despite the fact that cities have been historically built in regions with high soil fertility to support their populations, the health of soils in today’s cities is rarely considered by residents or planners. Soils rich in organic matter have been cleared in order to expose the firm mineral soils below, deemed more suitable for supporting the foundations of structures. Productive farmland is paved over as urban sprawl extends beyond city limits. As the economy has become increasingly globalized and food is imported to cities from greater distances, urban residents have forgotten their connection and dependency on the well-being of soils. The critical web of relationships between humans, plants, and microorganisms has been largely neglected and forgotten. Plants, when given synthetically derived fertilizers, fail to develop symbiotic partnerships with soil bacteria. When given synthetic nutrients, they are no longer reliant on soil microorganisms and will cease giving off their root exudates to feed them. Without the soil bacteria producing mucus that binds soil particles together, the health of soils deteriorates and becomes subject to erosion. This pattern of soil abuse and neglect is further manifested in the form of urban soils being contaminated with industrial by-products.

Cities historically have served as centers of industry: manufacturing, smelting, and refining businesses have been commonly located in urban areas. As a consequence of this, many pollutants produced as by-products of these industries over the past two centuries have concentrated in the air, soils, and waters of urban ecosystems. Exposure to these toxins presents serious health risks to both humans and non-humans living in the city environment. As some of these pollutants may persist for centuries, their impact will extend long into the future.

As an issue, urban soil contamination has gained a particular amount of attention recently as interest in urban agriculture and community gardening has increased. Community gardens are defined as being areas of land utilized for food production by (typically) urban-dwellers with limited access to land. There are currently an estimated 18,000 community gardens in the US and Canada alone. Such efforts may have the potential to provide city residents with a significant amount of their nutritional needs, and improve the overall quality of urban life for many.

Because gardeners are coming into direct contact with potentially contaminated soils, inhaling their dusts, and growing food in them, they are at a high risk of harmful exposure. Low-income urban populations are at particular risk, as polluting industries are more likely to be situated within low-income neighborhoods. Additionally, negligent landowners are less likely to have carried out lead paint remediation in poorer neighborhoods, which may continue to impact the soils and the health of communities to this day.

There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty in regards to the health concerns associated with urban gardening. Complicated interactions between contaminants, soils, plants, and people create difficulties in making general statements regarding the safety of urban gardening. Frameworks for doing proper risk analysis that take all these complexities into account have not been developed to date.

Despite these uncertainties, there are many benefits to urban agriculture and community gardening and the practice as a whole should be encouraged. Along with the development of urban agriculture, however, there needs to be a heightened awareness of the potential risks involved, as well as better defined best practices for urban gardeners to use to protect themselves from soil contaminants, and for addressing their long-term remediation.

In recognition of this issue, US EPA has drafted a number of documents that suggest best management practices for urban agriculture. These contain suggestions ranging from personal hygiene (washing hands, vegetables, removing shoes after gardening) to stabilization of soils using ground and vegetative covers, depositional barriers, and pH neutralization.

These best management practices suggested by governmental agencies are likely effective at protecting gardeners from direct exposure to contaminated soils. They are, however, palliative, making no suggestions as to how to permanently address the toxic substances that persist in soils. Covering contaminated soils with groundcovers, while practical as a short-term solution, are in effect “sweeping the problem under the rug”: numerous toxins will persist in the environment and can once again become a risk if they are disturbed and unearthed.

In order to address soil contamination in a meaningfully long lasting way, techniques need to be employed that are capable of degrading contaminants into their harmless components, or permanently sequestering them so that they will pose no risk to future gardeners.  In keeping with an ethic that values soils as both precious and vulnerable, such long-term strategies are required. Bioremediation may be one possible method of achieving these goals.

  1. Bioremediation

In instances where relatively low levels of contamination are present, it may be possible to degrade toxins or to render them immobile using a technique called bioremediation. Bioremediation is the process of using the biological properties of naturally occurring organisms, primarily microorganisms, fungi, and plants, to degrade, immobilize, or sequester environmental toxins. One significant advantage of bioremediation is that it is considerably less expensive than conventional treatments, and can be performed “in-situ” with minimally disruptive techniques. Perhaps the greatest benefit of bioremediation, however, is that it is a sustainable method of soil remediation. By cleaning soils in situ, it makes it possible for future generations to make use of them again.



While bioremediation shows great promise, significant barriers still lie in the way of its wide scale implementation by non-specialist community members. Highest ranking among these are the cost of doing soil analysis in laboratories, and an overall low level of scientific literacy among the public. For these reasons, bioremediation has remained a technique used nearly exclusively by professional engineers.

In response, a grassroots movement has emerged that desires to empower urban residents with the tools and information necessary to address residual industrial toxicity in their ecosystems. Focusing on methods that are simple and affordable, this movement seeks to remove the barriers of cost and technical expertise that may be otherwise prohibitive. This movement envisions community-based bioremediation as a form of citizen science, where the tools for data collection, soil analysis, and degradation of toxins is put into the hands of community members most affected by toxicity. In this regard, citizen bioremediation acts as a form of generative justice, putting the technical and scientific means of addressing soil toxicity into the hands of historically marginalized populations who have suffered a disproportionate burden of toxic exposure. Generative justice is furthered through citizen bioremediation by constructing mutually symbiotic partnerships between humans and non-humans: by providing microbes, fungi, plants, and worms with ideal environmental conditions and a food source, humans are in return given detoxified and nutritionally enhanced soils. This human/microbe symbiosis works to promote healthier urban ecosystems overall.

Critics of the idea might question why one would go to the trouble of developing this bottom-up bioremediation approach when large-scale industrial remediation techniques are already available? The importance of citizen-based approaches is better understood when seen through the lens of human and non-human value circulation. Industrial remediation techniques extract value from communities by the enormous costs, physical disruption, and social disturbances created by them. In contrast, citizen bioremediation is characterized by methods that enhance a community’s ability to generate and circulate value. By becoming familiar with basic bioremediation techniques, urban gardeners can train one another in these methods. Furthermore, the microbial cultures used in the process can be maintained and shared, similarly to how a traditional sourdough starter is passed on between families. In this sense, the value of these microbial cultures and bioremediation know-how can be continually circulated within a community. This generative justice approach is markedly different from the conventional approach of hiring experts to fix problems at great expense and leaving them with no lasting tools for continued empowerment.

A community-based approach to bioremediation is in many ways contrary to the goals and assumptions that are fundamental to the discipline of environmental engineering. In engineering, uncertainty is denied, control is emphasized, and variables are reduced. A generative justice approach would necessarily be complex in nature, involving high levels of uncertainty and low levels of control. In this regard, it could be thought of as a post-normal  approach to bioremediation, an idea that classically educated engineers would likely be uncomfortable with. Professional engineering services are prohibitively expensive to the majority of urban residents, and contamination is widespread. There is therefore an imperative to develop a protocol for low-cost, non-proprietary methods for monitoring and remediation.  In situations such as contaminated urban environments, where risk and need is high, the question is how to best move ahead despite high levels of uncertainty.

The intention of this article is only to be an exploration of the idea of bioremediation as a tool usable to promote generative justice, not an in-depth technical review of bioremediation practices themselves.  As there are inherent risks involved anytime a person comes into contact with toxic materials, it must be emphasized that personal safety take priority over any cleanup endeavor – there is a fine line between citizen empowerment and endangerment. As insufficient information is given in this article as to how to carry out bioremediation processes, anyone with serious interest in undertaking them would need to carry out significant additional research.  With this stated, however, concerns over risk should not be used to shut down discussion and careful experimentation with bioremediation technologies

Take phytoextraction, for instance. It’s a technology using plants that accumulate high levels of certain elements or compounds. Once accumulated the toxic materials are removed along with the plant from the site and disposed of in a way suitable to the toxins involved. It is a complicated, highly sight specific process, and has yielded varying results. At no point would I make the claim that it is a fool-proof method capable of remediating lead-contaminated soil in every instance.  With this said, however, the technology has been useful in many cases. A google scholar search for “phytoextraction” will reveal numerous recent studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the method. Clearly it has enough potential that research funding is still being put towards it.  So while it’s not a panacea, I believe it’s worth mentioning phytoextraction so that it might be considered as one among other potential tools for bioremediation.  To exclude phytoextraction from the conversation simply because there is not a clear scientific consensus about its effectiveness and that it might result in people being harmed is equivalent to saying that people should not be taught how to fish because they might possibly fall in the water and drown.

The citizen bioremediation movement is focusing on two primary aspects: soil testing and contaminant degradation/immobilization.

  1. Testing

The cost of soil testing makes it prohibitively expensive for the majority of people. Standard soil tests offered by cooperative extensions typically test only for soil macronutrients (NPK), lead (Pb) and occasionally other metals. Testing beyond these basic parameters is prohibitively expensive, as each contaminant, both organic and heavy metal, must be tested for individually. Such comprehensive soil testing can be carried out by engineering firms as phase II environmental assessments, typically at a fee of several thousand dollars. US EPA recommends doing extensive background research on any potential site in order to narrow the range of possible contaminants.

The high cost of soil analysis not only makes it difficult to get a precise reading on the existing extent of soil contamination on a site, but also as to whether or not a particular remediation strategy is effective in reducing contaminant levels. Below is a description of several low-cost techniques that may be useful in providing some raw data in regards to contaminant levels in soils.

Bioassays are a technique used by organizations in locations where laboratory facilities are unavailable, or too expensive. Using this technique it’s possible to gauge soil contamination levels based on plant germination rates or earthworm mortality. While incapable of giving precise measurements of soil toxicity, the technique is simple and affordable enough to give rough approximations to the concentrations of toxins within a particular soil sample that would be toxic to the organism in question

Public Labs, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of citizen-based environmental monitoring and analysis, has developed a prototype for a “DIY spectrometer”. The $40 device enables users to take crude measurements of contaminants in soils and water, obtaining a spectrographic signature of contaminants that can be compared to those taken by others and shared online. By containing an open source design, the spectrometer can be further modified, elaborated, and put back into circulation by its users.

X-ray fluorescence, or XRF, is a technology that allows for nearly instantaneous on site readings of a wide range of soil contaminants. While the tool itself is quite expensive (in the range of $10,000), there may be the possibility of it becoming more affordable over time, or of it being “hacked” in a fashion similar to public lab’s DIY spectrometer. It may also be possible for a community to collectively purchase an XRF and have it be available for public use, or to arrange with an institution possessing one to use it in specific situations .


  1. Bioremediation for Contaminant Degradation/Immobilization

The term “low-intensity” is often used in discussion of the technologies which best fit community-based organizations. Here we can see how generative models for remediating contaminated properties and making them usable for urban agriculture help to illuminate the rationale for these “low intensity” restrictions:

In addition to the above parameters, a method would be excluded from the definition of “low intensity” if it relies upon the use of chemical oxidants. Low intensity methods rely upon the metabolic processes of naturally occurring biological organisms in order to remediate contaminated soils. Acceptable uses of machinery include using air pumps for culturing microbes in compost tea and the use of machines for turning or aerating compost piles. Due to its limited accessibility, low intensity bioremediation methods have limited applicability in treating contaminated groundwater.

Adherence to the above criteria will ensure practices that are all economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. Bioremediation methods that meet the listed criteria above are more likely to be successfully used by community-based organizations. Methods that are simple and affordable will have more broad scale applicability and replicability.

In many cases, the naturally occurring organisms used can be collected from wild sources or can be purchased at relatively low costs from nurseries, mushroom spawn, or worm suppliers without any special licensing requirements. Non-invasive, in situ methods are desirable in that they are less likely to expose people to potential contaminants in the subsoil as only the top 12 inches of soil are those which the majority of people will come into contact with, either through passive recreation or through gardening activities. In keeping with the sustainability goals of low-intensity bioremediation, it is important that the use of renewable energy sources be encouraged.

In community-based bioremediation, sterile lab techniques are purposely eschewed in favor of “wild cultivation” methods because non-sterile methods are more broadly applicable. The vast majority of the world’s population will never have access to sterile conditions, therefor for any method to have wide ranging impact it needs to be implemented without being reliant on sophisticated infrastructure. For instance, in a handful of worm compost there are likely billions of microorganisms representing an incredible diversity of species (many of which cannot even be lab-cultured or identified). The assumption is that out of that incredible diversity, the necessary organisms to degrade certain toxins are likely present. What may also be at play is an emergent and synergistic co-metabolic effect of this diversity that cannot otherwise be replicated. The end result may not be as efficient as if a handful of proprietary microorganisms were employed, but ultimately it is much more effective if it is made into a tool for use by the average person.  A complexity-based approach to bioremediation may be less attractive to engineering firms as it has reduced profit potential, but would be of greater interest to citizen’s groups and activists on account of its decentralized nature and transferability.

A short list of community-based bioremediation technologies include:

Microbial remediation: use of compost, composting, and “compost teas” for the accelerated degradation of organic pollutants and the immobilization of heavy metals. All of the above techniques employ microorganisms, chiefly bacteria, to degrade organic pollutants such as hydrocarbons. As an estimated 20% of soil microorganisms possess the ability to degrade hydrocarbons, microbial remediation primarily involves introducing soil bacteria if they are not already present, and providing them with moisture, oxygen, and a carbon source. Such techniques may be usable by an urban gardener to facilitate the cleanup of oil spills in soil resulting from automobile oil spills.

Phytoremediation: A term used to define a wide range of techniques involving the use of plants for environmental remediation. These can range from phytoextraction (uptaking metals from soil using “hyperaccumulating” plants) to phytodegradation (the use of plants to create a microbially enhanced environment in soil). While success is dependent upon a number of complex factors, phytoextraction is one technique that has the capability to extract heavy metals from soils, which would otherwise persist indefinitely.

Mycoremediation: Mycoremediation involves the use of fungi to facilitate the degradation of organic pollutants in soil. Fungi produce powerful enzymes that have been demonstrated to be capable of degrading some of the most persistent organic pollutants, including hydrocarbons, PCB’s, and dioxins. Mycoremediation can take the form of actively growing litter decomposing fungi through soil, or by spreading spent mushroom substrate over a contaminated area.

  1. Examples of applications

Below are a few case studies of grassroots organizations that have initiated community based bioremediation programs.

5.1 The Worcester Roots Project

The Worcester Roots Project is a youth-led organization based in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was founded in 2001. Through their Toxic Soil Busters program, Worcester Roots engages in community lead safety education and remediation programs. In conjunction with the City of Worcester’s lead abatement program, the group receives contracts from the city to conduct soil sampling and remediation at residential properties. Regular tasks carried out by the group include carrying out extensive soil testing, with lead being the primary contaminant of concern. Upon receiving tests results, the group develops a plan of action based upon the revealed lead levels.

For soils containing relatively low levels of lead contamination, typical remediation strategies include the addition of compost to soils in order to dilute contaminant levels and to reduce lead bioavailability through binding with organic matter.

For sites with elevated lead levels where residents are wishing to garden, the group will assist in the construction of raised garden beds, lined with landscaping fabric. The fabric prevents plant roots from being able to access contaminated soil beneath, but still allows water to move through the garden bed. Ground covers, consisting of materials such as woodchips or gravel, are put down in between garden beds so as to prevent people from coming into contact with contaminated soils. In some instances where high levels of lead were found in the soil, Worcester Roots has employed phytoextraction technology in order to reduce levels to safe ranges. Plants that the group have used for phytoextraction include geraniums, indian mustards, and corn. The group made the deliberate choice not to use chemical agents in order to facilitate phytoextraction, fearing that their use would mobilize toxic metals and result in them leaching into groundwater. Phytoextraction, the group admits, is a long-term remediation strategy, and is not used in all instances because most residents want to begin gardening immediately. In its past, Worcester Roots has recommended that some soils with extremely high lead levels simply be excavated and disposed of, believing that remediation efforts would be unwarranted.

The Worcester Roots Project is an excellent example of a community based organization making use of low-intensity bioremediation techniques for the purpose of cleaning up contaminated soils in their city. Their organizational structure empowers its youth members with leadership and business skills, and provides them employment and training.

5.2 The Amazon Mycorenewal Project

The Amazon Mycorenewal Project (AMP) is an organization that works in the Sucumbios province of the Ecuadorian Amazon Region. This area has had an estimated 18.5 billion gallons of petroleum spilled across it since the 1960s, largely due to the activities of the oil company Texaco. The local population of the affected region has suffered greatly as a consequence of the spill, with oil having contaminated both soil and water extensively. AMP is interested in using mycoremdiation to address contamination faced in the region. Their stated goals are:

To research and evaluate the use of mushroom mycelium for bioremediation in an oil contaminated area of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

To document and describe fungal, microbial, and botanical taxa within a petroleum pollution gradient.

To identify the most appropriate substrate for growing saprotrophic fungi in the region (e.g., agricultural byproducts, debris fields, renewable resources).

To evaluate plant performance as a metric for determining bioamendment-mediated decreases in soil toxicity.

To provide local leaders with the materials, mentors, and skill sets to implement ‘low-tech’ mycoremediation technologies in their communities.

To promote the integration of mycoremediation techniques into the skill set of methods used to clean up oil spills in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Working in rural settings without access to laboratory equipment has encouraged the group to develop innovative low-tech methods of performing soil analysis. One method was performing plant bioassays. Initially, a mixture of contaminated and non-contaminated soil was produced that would reduce plant germination rates by 50%. This method was then used to determine whether the remediation techniques employed were sufficiently degrading hydrocarbons so as to increase germination rates.

AMP is working to establish a library of petroleum-tolerant fungal species that can be grown in the region. Working in the Amazon has posed its own unique challenges. The group’s installations have, on several occasions, been tampered with by both termites and oil company employees. As much of the contaminated land is owned by oil companies, it has been difficult to gain legal access on to the most contaminated areas where testing needs to be carried out.

Education is an important component of their work as well, as one of their goals is to train local community members in carrying out the work of regeneration. A future goal is to create a graphic novel that would explain the concepts of mycoremediation with simple didactic images

5.3 Integrated Sustainable Bioremediation in the Integrated Niger Delta

CE-RASE (the Center for Environmental Resources and Sustainable Ecosystems) is a non-governmental organization active in the Niger Delta of the West African coast. They seek means of providing environmental services to the communities living there that translate to grassroots actions. CE-RASE is a proponent of the concept of “sustainable bioremediation”, described as “the promotion of integrated environmental conservation and rural development led by community participation. The aim of CE-RASE is to empower the people “through participatory development for environmental protection using biological methods.” By doing so, CE-RASE hopes to involve rural populations in efforts to protect their lands while also providing them with economic opportunities, thereby reducing instances of civil unrest on account of frustration related to environmental degradation.

Being a major center of oil production and refinement, the lands and communities in the Niger Delta are severely impacted by events such as oil spills and leakages. The impacts of the oil industry on the health of local ecosystem are severe, and frequently result in the evacuation and displacement of peoples. CE-RASE has developed techniques using kenaf, a locally grown plant, as an oil absorbent. Dehydrated and pressed into flat sheets, the kenaf mats are then pressed onto oil spills. Oil soaked mats are then transported elsewhere for microbial degradation. By training local residents in the techniques for running kenaf nurseries, CE-RASE has devised a means for people to earn income while simultaneously empowering them with the knowledge for cleaning up contamination affecting their communities and lands. Such methods employing human, plant, and microbial agency are prime examples of generative justice.

  1. Conclusion

The generative justice approach to citizen bioremediation greatly increases the capacity of a local community to address the persistent pollutants found in its soils in a manner that lessens their dependence on high-cost industrial approaches. Over time, and through greater sharing of techniques and information, citizen bioremediation could play a significant role in promoting the agendas of both the environmental justice and urban agriculture communities. Through forming mutually beneficial partnerships between humans, plants, fungi, and microbes in the process of bioremediation, the critical interdependencies necessary for socio-ecological health can be re-established.  It is my intention that this article can help in provoking a broader conversation about the challenges, strategies, and opportunities for achieving this.

NOFA’s Memberships, Affiliations & Alliances

In case you haven’t noticed yet, NOFA chapters are not rolling in the kind of cash that corporate lobbyists use to influence state and federal policy. NOFA chapter policy budgets range from small to non-existent. What we do have is us, all of us who are active members. We represent numbers – many passionate voices who are willing to speak out. And authenticity. NOFA members can testify with eloquence from our own lived experiences as land workers of all kinds – farmers, farm workers, gardeners, apprentices, landscapers – and aware eaters of organic locally grown food. By ourselves, however, there are not enough of us to make a big impact and this year, we are having to direct a lot of our energies to saving what we have spent many decades working for. That is why we do most of our advocacy and policy work through coalitions, building alliances with groups and organizations with whom we share values, programs and goals, pooling our resources with others so that together we can have a stronger impact.

We have a lot to offer partners: our strong positive vision – the NOFAs not only envision an ecological future, our members are living examples of what needs to be done to get there. We have solutions. We are inspiring. We have a long track record of critiquing the methods and materials of industrialized monoculture agriculture and the overblown corporations that profit thereby, as well as Washington’s food and agriculture policies. We work hard to be good partners, reliable and long-term, and to express publicly our solidarity with the struggles, losses and victories of our allies. We still have a lot to learn about how to make progress towards racial justice and equity.

The NOFA-Interstate Council in itself embodies collaborative efforts. Over 30 years ago, across the region, seeds were planted to create a network of organizations that focus the organic farming community. Throughout the years, the NOFAs continue to work together, support each other’s efforts and stand with a united voice in the protection and advancement of organic food and farming. Even with our limited resources, we have accomplished so much to elevate the voice of organic farmers and the need of organic food systems for eaters and the earth. So much so, that big organo business is vying to take over. To combat this monster, our NOFA Network, collaborations and alliances are even more important. As the saying goes, when you control the food, you control the people. NOFA will not allow that to happen. And the only way to do that is by banding together.

NOFA folks were among the founding members of IFOAM in the early 1970’s and the newly established IFOAM North America. We have been involved in the whole history of development of the movement for sustainable agriculture, starting with the Dialogue for Sustainable Agriculture, through the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, the formation of the regional Sustainable Agriculture Working Groups, like the Northeast SAWG, to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. To work more effectively to influence the National Organic Program of USDA, NOFA became a founding member of the National Organic Coalition, our very own brain trust for organic integrity. We helped found the Agricultural Justice Project and the Domestic Fair Trade Association, and built on the connections across the food chain that these provided to start breaking down the distrust between farmers and farm workers and their advocates. More recently we have extended our affiliations to the US Food Sovereignty Alliance and the National Family Farm Coalition, and endorsed the program of the HEAL Food Alliance (HEAL stands for Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor). We contributed to the careful process that assembled the Organic Farmers Alliance (OFA).

This issue of TNF introduces you to our growing list of alliances and affiliations. We include only the organizations with which we have formal agreements and formal delegates. Happily, our networks extend to many more groups – the Organic Consumers Association, Vermont Migrant Justice and other farm worker organizing efforts in our region, the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association, Cornucopia, the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, American Farmland Trust, and so forth. The NOFAs often sign onto letters and petitions circulated by these friendly groups and even sometimes by organizations where our overlap of shared values or goals is limited. We seek common ground, mutual understanding and effective action.

It is not always easy to work in alliances. Sometimes, you have to agree to disagree in order to focus on the commonalities. The larger mission and vision need to go above and beyond individual organizations’ individual needs. It also can be challenging when there is a disparity in budgets. Many organizations vie for the same money pots and some are more successful than others. Another challenge is that individuals create the relationships that allow alliances to grow and prosper. When an individual leaves the network, a vacuum can be created that may stall the ability to continue to collaborate. As you will read in these pages, NOFA collaborates quite extensively, but we need to convey this to you – our members – and provide opportunities for your engagement. That is a challenge that this edition of The Natural Farmer aims to address, but it will take more work to further engage you.

Despite any obstacles, NOFA is committed to what IFOAM calls Organic 3.0 – building a worldwide movement for the transformation of farming systems towards higher levels of resilience, sustainability and systemic health. We seek to unite disparate efforts that currently compete for scarce resources and speak at cross-purposes. Agroecology, urban agriculture, food sovereignty, certified organic, biodynamic, regenerative organic, domestic fair trade, soil health, farmer justice, environmental justice… We will never achieve the future we long for of health, stability, racial and ethnic equity and peace, unless we collaborate and cooperate with one another. To transform the current world food system, we need to pool our resources and raise our voices to inform and empower many, many more.

What follows is a description of 8 NOFA Interstate Council formal alliances.

Urban Agroecology:

reprinted from Urban Agriculture Magazine, November, 2017

In light of climate change, failures in industrial agriculture, increased energy costs and demographic pressure, and as multinational corporations increase their control of the food system, a significant rise in food prices, if not food shortages can be expected. This situation is compounded by the fact that by 2030, 60% of the world’s population will live in cities, including 56% of the world’s poor and 20% of the undernourished. Today, for a city with 10 million people or more, over 6,000 tonnes of food has to be imported every day, traveling an average of 1,000 miles. Given these scenarios, urban agriculture (UA) is becoming a major sustainable alternative for food security on an urbanised planet. Urban production of fresh fruits, vegetables, and some animal products, near consumers, improves local food security, especially in underserved communities. By improving access to fresh, nutritious food, UA can help in combating childhood obesity, diabetes, and poor nutrition that are prevalent in many urban communities.

Agroecological PrinciplesIn response to food insecurity, UA has spread rapidly. From 1950-2005 UA increased in developing countries by 3.6% annually. In the United States, UA has expanded by >30% in the past 30 years. One reason for this is the fact that UA can be very productive, providing an estimated 15–20% of global food. However, an important question remains, what level of food self-sufficiency can cities obtain through UA? A survey with the goal of providing 300g /day per capita of fresh vegetables, found that 51 countries have insufficient urban area to meet the recommended nutritional target. In addition, UA would require 30% of the total urban area to meet the global demand for vegetables. More optimistic estimates have calculated that, for example, Cleveland, Ohio, with its population of 400,000, has the potential to meet 100% of urban dwellers’ fresh vegetable needs, 50% of poultry and eggs, and 100% of consumed honey. These estimates suggest that self-sufficiency could be achieved, depending on how UA is designed and managed (i.e. crop arrangements, production practices used, size of plots). Urban farmers do not always optimise crop planting density or diversity, thus modifications of cultural practices to enhance yields are necessary. Agroecology can help realise the productive potential of UA by providing key principles for the design of diversified, productive, and resilient urban farms.

Agroecological principles

Agroecology uses well-established ecological principles for the design and management of diversified urban farms where external inputs are replaced by natural processes such as increasing soil fertility and enhancing biological pest control. Agroecological principles (Table 1) are applied by way of various practices. These lead to optimal recycling of nutrients and organic matter turnover, closed energy flows, water and soil conservation and balanced populations of pests to their natural enemies, all key processes in maintaining UA productivity.

The integrity of an urban farm relies on synergies between plant diversity and a soil rich in organic matter and soil biota. Soils with high organic matter and active soil biological activity exhibit good soil fertility and beneficial organisms that prevent pathogen infection and pest incidence. Integration of soil, water, and pest management practices constitute a robust pathway for optimising soil quality, plant health, and crop production.

Crop diversification

A key agroecological principle is the diversification of urban farms, which combines crops in temporal (rotations) and spatial arrangements (intercropping); at times combined with fruit trees and small animals.


Intercropping involves mixtures of annual crops in the same plot of land at the same time, resulting in increased crop diversity which improves soil organic matter (SOM), soil cover, water retention capacity and microclimatic conditions favouring production. Crop diversity also enhances resilience to climatic variability and favours arthropods and microorganisms involved in improved nutrient cycling, soil fertility, and pest regulation.

Synergistic crop combinations include tall and short plants, plants that use resources at different times, shallow- and deep-rooted plants that exploit different soil horizons such as legumes with cereals, tomatoes and basil or beans, lettuce or mescluns between rows of leek or garlic, arugula under kale. Good crop mixtures lead to increased productivity partly due to the process of facilitation, when one crop modifies the environment in a way that benefits a second crop, for example, by lowering the population of a pest, or by releasing nutrients that can be taken up by the second crop.

A combination of two contrasting species leads to greater overall productivity because the mixture can use resources (nutrients, water, sunlight) more efficiently than separate monocultures. The overyielding of intercrops is measured using the Land Equivalent Ratio. When the value is higher than 1, polycultures overyield (i.e. a LER of 1.5 it means that a monoculture requires 50% more land to obtain the same yield of the polyculture). In our experiments at Berkeley, we have obtained LER values > 1.3 in combinations of lettuce and mizuna, tomatoes and beans, broccoli and fava beans, and kale and arugula.

Crop rotations

Crop rotation is the practice of growing a sequence of different groups of crop species (legumes, root crops, fruit crops, and leaf crops) in the same area for many seasons. By dividing the garden in 4 plots (each planted to each group of crops), every successive year each group moves to the next plot clockwise. Basic rules include alternating between legumes and non-legumes, never planting crops of the same family consecutively, and alternating crops of deep and shallow roots. Legumes increase available nitrogen in the soil, even after they are harvested, for future crops. Including legumes in crop rotations reduces the need for external nitrogen inputs. Rotating plant families reduces soil-borne diseases like verticillium wilt and soil-dwelling insects.

Agroecological soil management

Agroecology promotes a series of soil-health-improving management practices such as complex crop rotations, intercropping, minimum tillage, cover cropping and use of a variety of organic amendments. These management practices, increase inputs of SOM, decrease losses of carbon, maintain soil coverage, decrease soil disturbance and encourage beneficial organisms. Improved soil properties resulting from such practices have added benefits such as more available water, less compaction, enhanced nutrient availability, and the production of growth-promoting substances, which promote growth of healthy and productive plants.

Most crops grown on compost-amended soils have positive yield response. In our studies, we have found that average yield (weight/plant) of tomatoes amended with one application of 12 t/ha (4.8 tonnes/acre) compost was 23 and 38% greater than plots amended with 6 t/ha (2.5 tonnes/ acre) and un-amended controls. Moreover, organic soils exhibit high populations of antagonists that suppress many soil-borne diseases.

A main challenge for urban farmers is to access animal manure as a source of Nitrogen as shortage of available N may greatly reduce crop yields. Many cities do not allow animal-raising, which further limits N availability. As an alternative, many farmers grow green manures such as fava beans, vetch and peas, or a mixture (at times adding 20% rye or barley) in fall and winter. This constitutes an important strategy to increase N supply for crops. In California a vigorous green manure growing for four to six months before incorporation typically adds between 112 and 224 kg N/ha (100 and 200 lb/acre) N to the soil for the succeeding crop. Yields of most vegetable crops increase with increasing rates of N. Carbon to N ratio of incorporated materials should be equal to or less than 20:1 to assure net short-term mineralisation and avoid N “hunger”.

Many urban soils have been impacted by uses that may leave a legacy of contamination. Surveys in US cities have found soil lead concentrations above 400 mg/kg in many urban gardens. On-farm generated organic amendments like animal manure, compost and green manures have some utility for low-level remediation due to dilution and stabilisation of potential contaminants.

Biological pest regulation

There are natural enemies of pests on urban farms and they constitute a form of biocontrol by regulating pest populations.

These enemies include predators, parasitoids, and pathogens. Their effectiveness is typically constrained by low floral resource availability in and around urban farms, due to the higher percentage of impervious surfaces in the urban landscape. Our research shows that it helps to sow borders or strips of buckwheat, sweet alyssum, coriander, wild carrot, phacelia and fennel early in the season. The abundance of syrphid flies, lady bugs and many parasitic wasps increases as the strips provide them with pollen and nectar.

The literature suggests that diversification in urban farms achieves positive outcomes, including natural enemy enhancement, reduction of pest abundance, and reduction of crop damage. Many studies conducted on cabbage, broccoli and brussel sprouts have reported three results: aphids and flea beetles are more likely to locate and remain on host plants occurring in monocultures than in cole crops associated with other plant species; pests immigrate into polyculture systems at significantly lower rates than into monoculture systems; and, pests emigrate from polycultures at significantly higher rates than from monocultures. Moreover, generalist natural enemies tend to be more abundant because they can utilise a greater variety of hosts available in diverse garden systems, and their action usually results in lower herbivore population densities.

Mixed crop systems can also decrease pathogen incidence by slowing down the rate of disease development and by modifying environmental conditions so that they are less favourable to the spread of certain pathogens. Moreover, many intercrops are often superior to monocrops in weed suppression, as intercrop combinations can exploit more resources than sole crops. This suppresses the growth of weeds more effectively through greater pre-emptive use of resources.

Water conservation and use efficiency

Farmers need water to irrigate their crops and provide drinking water to their animals or fish. In the event of water shortages or decreasing quality of the available water sources, urban producers can access sources such as wastewater, greywater, or harvested rainwater, and apply such water via irrigation more efficiently than can rural producers. In areas of water scarcity, productivity should be measured per unit of water (weight or volume), with the goal of irrigation systems reaching efficiency values > 60%.

In rainfed regions improvements of rainwater capture, selection of drought tolerant varieties, alternative tillage systems, and mulching are critical to secure good harvests. Addition of organic amendments to the soil is vital as many studies show that SOM enhances water retention. Depending on the soil type, it is estimated that for every 1% increase in SOM, the soil stores 1.5l of water per square meter. Organically rich soils usually contain arbuscular mycorrhizal (VAM) fungi, which are of particular significance under water stress conditions, as VAM colonisation increases water use efficiency.


Examples from productive urban farms around the world suggest that self-sufficiency in terms of vegetables could potentially be achieved at the level of a community or city. Well-designed urban farms can be up to 15 times more productive than rural holdings. In Cuba, an area of just one square meter can provide 20kg of food a year (200 tomatoes (30kg) per year, 36 heads of lettuce every 60 days, 10 cabbages every 90 days and 100 onions every 120 days). But this requires the application of agroecological principles to guide the intensive cultivation of a diversity of vegetables, roots and tubers, and herbs in relatively small spaces.

It also requires that citizens have access to sources of green biomass and/or manure as nutrient sources. Some cities provide weekly residential collection for plant debris and food scraps. In 2010, the city of Berkeley, California collected 13,650 tonnes of residential food and green waste and 6,500 tonnes of food scraps from commercial customers. This material is processed by a private composting company, which at the end of each month from February to October makes freely available 80-120 cubic yards of compost to residents.

Agroecological designs feature well-planned crop diversity, complemented by organic soil management. Together these comprise an effective agroecological strategy to improve nutrient cycling and soil fertility. They also limit nutrient and water losses, reduce impacts of pests, diseases and weeds and enhance overall productivity and resilience of the cropping system. But diversifying urban farms per se does not necessarily mean that they are being managed agroecologically, unless the collection of crops chosen interact biologically. Many urban farms are diversified in response to food security or market demands. Such farms do not reach full potential as the crops do not interact with each other synergistically, necessitating external conventional or organic inputs of fertilisers or pesticides. The key is for researchers and practitioners to find the right combinations of crops that complement each other to achieve overyielding.

Farming for Racial Justice

Gladys and Kohei better

photo by Jack Kittredge
Kohei Ishihara with CSA member Gladys Gould from South Providence.

Watered by the adjacent Taunton River, the 17.4 square miles of flat bottomland making up the Massachusetts town of Berkley between Boston and Providence was considered excellent agricultural soil by the original Wampanoag, Narragansett and Massachusett inhabitants. Artifacts going back 8000 years have been unearthed at local sites, indicating how they lived in inland longhouses and planted in these fields for much of the year, venturing to exposed coastal areas in the summer to harvest seafood. Dighton Rock, a 40-ton boulder now displayed in a Berkley state park, was once submerged in the Taunton River but visible at low tide. It is covered with ‘petroglyph’ markings many believe were created by these ancient Native Americans over years of habitation.

Although the town’s population is now overwhelmingly suburban and white (96%) some agriculture still exists on undeveloped parcels. On one leased 16 acre site, fringed by million dollar homes set off by a high fence, 3 acres are in vegetables, chickens, ducks, emus, quail and goats. Those products are marketed on-site and at 6 CSA drop-off sites in Boston and Providence, 35 and 25 minutes away respectively. The farmer behind this endeavor is Kohei Ishihara, a Japanese-American committed to providing food for urban residents, particularly Asians and other non-white people who are themselves involved in racial or economic justice work.

“I grew up in Maryland in a predominantly white neighborhood in Rockville,” he relates. “I felt generally white. But being biracial, I felt some prejudice. The other thing that really got me thinking about social change was coming out as a gay man as a teenager. I savor that experience growing up. Being able to feel, as a biracial, a part of the community but later when I was struggling with issues of sexuality to give me a framework for understanding other folks who are facing different kinds of oppression, whether it is anti-black racism or something else.

“I went off to college,” he continues, “with this commitment to dedicate my life to making change. So at Brown I majored in ethnic studies, or studying ethnicity from a multidisciplinary perspective. At the time in Providence there were a lot of gang killings of young Cambodians. Over 50% of the young men drop out of high school. On top of that, after 2011 there was a diplomatic agreement made between Cambodia and the US providing that all these Cambodians that came here as refugees could face deportation. So there was a lot of fear in the community. That was the impetus to start the Providence Youth Student Movement. We started it as a youth activist group and the first campaign was against deportation.”

Movement Ground Farm sign

photo by Jack Kittredge
Movement Ground Farm is organized around a commitment to land, food, and community

Kohei feels that farming has an important role to play in community organizing.

“In Providence,” he recalls, “we would often say ‘food brings people together’. But often our community would be coming together around Dunkin Donuts! Or around food gotten from Stop and Shop! So if food does bring people together, what does it mean if that food is grown ecologically, is restorative, and is raised by the people eating it? In that context food has an even more powerful dimension.”

Growing up, Ishihara did not connect to local or fresh food. It was only later, following his love of plants and ethnic foods, that he got into farming. Before starting his ‘Movement Ground’ farm he worked for three years on farms in Raynham, Massachusetts, where he learned the practices he uses.

The vision of the farm. Kohei says, is to connect people and empower them through a connection to land.

“For 15 years,” he explains, “I was doing community organizing in Providence. I kind of turned to farming because I felt really grounded by it. You are in sync with the weather cycles, you can work outside; that you can feed people really restored and empowered me. When I was trying to contemplate whether I wanted to get into farming it didn’t make complete sense to me because I wanted to stay connected to the work that I used to do. Which was around equity and process. I started to think: ‘How can I stay connected with people who are on the ground doing social justice work?’

“I thought,” he continues, “that maybe I should make a profit and split some of the profit with them. But once I did the budget I saw that was not going to work! Then I thought: ‘Well, what resources do you have as a farmer?’ If you worked as a farmer you know there is so much excess produce. So that is a huge resource. But also what is a big resource to people in cities who are poor is just access to land – having a place to go to on land. So land and food are what I can offer people. Then it started to make sense to me that maybe I could run a farm operation that serves the same purpose to other people as it does to me. I can help people build community, have a deeper connection to their food, and a lot of members could have a chance to work and be on land. So the idea was helping to build community among social justice communities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts by uniting them through their food.”

serving egg noodle soup

photo by Jack Kittredge
Asian egg noodle soup was just one of the many ethnic dishes Kohei prepared for members.

Most of Kohei’s members had never belonged to a CSA before. They are often people who have been involved in racial or social justice work and not really focused on food or nutrition. The CSA delivers to sites in Providence and Boston that are connected to the social justice-minded organizations in those cities. In Dorchester it is coordinated through the Asian American Resource Workshop, for example, which shares a building with the Vietnamese Aid Center — an organization in Fields Corner of young Asian professionals who are interested in supporting community organizing and social justice issues within the Asian American community. In Providence his site with the most members is at the Providence Youth Student Movement, which does Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong youth organizing.

“A lot of my CSA members,” he beams, “are members of those groups. I grow a lot of Asian food for them. I have chickens, ducks, emus, quails, and goats. Ducks are really central to Asian cuisine, and you don’t see many of them at farmers markets. Nobody will slaughter them, because their feathers are hard to pluck. So we do it here. We got the mobile processing unit and some detergent for the hot water to cut the oils. It made a big difference.

“Ducks are not as popular as chicken,” he continues, “and people are afraid to cook them. They think it is hard to cook one. But about 15% of the population loves duck. So I have a very enthusiastic set of buyers. And I only did 100 ducks. So I’m the only place you can buy a Massachusetts duck! Emus were kind of a mistake. I already do chicken, duck and quail eggs, so I wanted to do emu eggs. But they kept escaping.”

Ishihara gets $8 a dozen for his chicken eggs. He feeds them organic grain, which is expensive. He also wanted to try raising turkeys. Of course turkey isn’t Asian, but he said he just wanted to try it. He raised 40 in 2017.

Every week his CSA members receive five vegetable items as well as a half-dozen eggs, if they have chosen the option of receiving eggs. For example, on one summer week they may get something equivalent to a pound of tomatoes, a bunch of carrots, a pound of green beans, a head of lettuce, a whole watermelon, and a half dozen eggs. Meat is delivered on ice in coolers on a specific pick-up day twice during the summer. In the fall, the turkey pick-up is at the farm.

Processing ducks

photo by Jack Kittredge
Ducks, a popular Asian food, are difficult to clean because their oily skin prevents hot water from loosening the feathers. So Kohei cleans them at the farm with his members.

Members can choose their own vegetables if they pick up from Kohei’s stand at a farmer’s market. There, you can just walk up to the farm stand and choose what you wish within the limit of 5 items/week. For everyone picking up a prepackaged boxed share, however, they cannot choose which vegetables they are going to get each week. (There is an exception for those not wishing to consume any of his spicy peppers!)

The price for a share depends on the season and the contents. Full summer shares go for 17 weeks at $30 per week if they include eggs and meat. It is about $6 a week less without them. Full fall shares go for 12 weeks at about $35, and full winter ones for 8 weeks at $18.50.

Movement Ground Farm has several mechanisms to be more affordable. For starters, they offer a 10% discount to those who sign up for all three seasons. They also let members opt to schedule automatic payments throughout the season rather than pay everything upfront, as traditional CSAs do. Also, Kohei has a limited number of ‘Food Justice Discounts’ to give out to those who qualify. He also asks members to donate a day of work at the farm.

“Including all the work of starting up a new business and farm,” he explains, “we are running a pretty daring operation offering diversified produce with little farm infrastructure and equipment. Plus, we do extra stuff to make sure we fulfill our vision. This project of building a farm with a social justice vision from scratch will only be sustainable if I get some help, especially with weeding. We also want our CSA membership base to be deeply connected to the land (and the food they eat) and invested in the vision of what this farm can offer. For those who really do not have time, an alternative is to find someone else to volunteer for them.”

Although Ishihara is not certified organic, everything he does uses organic methods, including organic feed for the animals and using only organic fertilizers — OMRI listed ones. He has been buying in compost but now is thinking of making it. The birds have generated a lot of manure he can use!

PrYSM celebrates CSA

photo courtesy Movement Ground Farm
Racial Justice work is important to Kohei, such as this successful effort to pass a racial profiling law to provide police oversight.

But he admits he is still learning, after 3 years in farming. For example by the time I visited in early November, 2017, Kohei still hadn’t sown cover crops for the winter.

Gladys Gould, who lives in South Providence, is a good example of one of the Movement Ground CSA members. She met Kohei when he was doing community organizing in her area. Originally from the Dominican Republic and now in her mid-fifties, she had also been a community organizer and worked a stint as a labor organizer for AFSCME Council 94. Now she is active in PrSYM, the Providence Youth Student Movement, which just concluded a successful 7-year struggle to pass a municipal racial profiling law to ensure community oversight over police misconduct — Kohei calls it ‘the most comprehensive racial profiling law in the nation’. She has her own garden at home, but joined the CSA and loves it.

“It has been amazing,” she exclaims, “being able to make connection with the food. It makes your perspective of the whole food chain different. We have all these young people involved — people who never visited a farm before. Their whole experience with food was just getting it at a supermarket. I’ve seen many young people change their attitude about organic food. They thought organic was bad, something they didn’t want. But now, seeing all these people involved with the land it has been amazing. Watching plants grow changes people. I remember one time my neighbor asked why I was collecting all the trash people left behind in my garden. I said ‘this is my home’. I started gardening at a time of day when a slew of people walked by on the sidewalk. They asked about what I was doing, and then they started respecting my space and not throwing trash there. They even thanked me for gardening! I felt that was my contribution.”

Sweet potatoes cooking

photo by Jack Kittredge
Farm raised sweet potatoes and duck Kohei raised
are among the items roasted on his homemade barbecue.

I caught up with Kohei and about 100 members and their guests at the annual farm Harvest Celebration. Rescheduled from September because the farm work was just too intense then, this early November date worked for all and delivered a beautiful Sunday fall day.

“This event is a barbeque I organize every year,” says Kohei, turning pieces of quail, duck and sweet potato (‘Asian favorites’, he grins) on a large grill which he converted from an oil tank. “It is our time to celebrate the CSA and our members. I should have done it earlier, in September, but I was too busy and pushed it back.”

The celebration, with tours, games, and a massive feast of farm meat and vegetables plus plenty of beer and lovingly made spicy Asian wraps and egg noodle soups, is free to CSA members. They get two free tickets for each CSA they join, qualifying a family joining for the summer, fall and winter to receive six tickets. Others can come if they pay at the street before entering the farm.

“This morning we had a number of other farmers here,” Kohei reports, “and started with a barter event. It was nice not to use money but to build community. One family that came was of fishermen. They bartered their stripers and bass and cod. Several farmers came with various products, cranberries, chicken, pork. It is our third year doing it. Most people here now who have stayed into the afternoon are members of the CSA. Everyone here has connections to community organizations or other people and has brought their friends and families.

CSA members at the Movement Ground barbeque line up for a game

photo by Jack Kittredge
CSA members at the Movement Ground barbeque line up for a game while awaiting dinner.

“That is part of why we have this Harvest celebration,” he continues, “to connect the community. We also do separate workshops of smaller groups. We have done a chicken processing workshop and we are going to do a turkey processing one soon. That is when people really connect to their food. Some people say prayers, some really bond over the slaughter. Some come, take part, and leave saying ‘I’m not going to eat meat anymore!’ That is awesome that they made that decision. Other people come and say ‘This is great. I’m going to continue eating meat.’ “

One of the treats Kohei arranged for the celebration was for people to meet his parents. His father, Michio, came to the US in 1968 when he was 23.

“In the mid 60s in Japan,” he recalls, “we had major student demonstrations against the US/Japan peace treaty. It meant that we were under the protection of the US’s nuclear power. So in our constitution we declared that we would not have an army. At the time Marxism was very strong in the colleges. I was in my junior and senior years at college. We would throw rocks at police and we barricaded the graduation ceremony. My father said: ‘why don’t you go to the United States and see what is happening there. You are not going to school anyway, you are not studying.’ So I said ‘okay’.

“I came to the United States as a graduate student,” he continues. “In those days you had to have a sponsor to come to the US who would sign for you and take care of any financial problems. My father had a connection in Missouri who would sign for me, so I went to the University there. I was not very much aware of the problems here, but I certainly learned about the Vietnam War and race problems that year!”

Michio ended up with an advanced degree in economics and a job at the World Bank, hence Kohei’s childhood home in Rockville. His mother, Melody, is a musician who sings and plays the piano. She and Michio met during his days at the University of Missouri. These days she visits nursing homes and offers music and art therapy to help needy people who don’t even have family members left visiting them.

One of the realities that Kohei mentions often is that farming takes more time than he anticipated – which makes it difficult for him to achieve the larger goals he originally intended.

“I would like to do more workshops and educational events,” he says, “but I’m learning farming consumes all your time! I don’t have time to do other stuff like a newsletter, or workshops. I feel education is crucial for a CSA. But how do you have time to educate people about what vegetables they are getting and how to use them? I did a weekly blog for a while, but I couldn’t keep it up. That stuff is really important to giving people the full experience. The economics of the farm are not important to me so long as they are sustainable.

“I realize I need money,” he continues, “to get other people to help doing all this stuff! I have good people who can help. I have summer help on the farm, and one person who is still working with me now. But it is too much! The interest is there among members, but I haven’t yet figured out my sustainable model to make it all work.

“I love the idea of a CSA,” he concludes. “I think it is great. But I also love being at a farmers market. Running a CSA is not sustainable, unless you are a crazy workaholic. The main difficulty is trying to grow 80 different vegetables. They all have different harvest dates, storage requirements. So I’d eventually like to learn about partnering with other farms. Then instead of growing 80 things, maybe I could grow 30. And make it a little bit more sustainable. Focus on 30 things I’m good at and have the machinery for.”

Kohei wonders if perhaps starting a non-profit may be the best way to avoid burnout or bankruptcy. In a way it is a false economy, he feels, but if that is what he has to do, he’ll do it. His long term goal has evolved to having a strong non-profit which can do social justice work – ideally a retreat center which could have programs and enable people to stay on site and participate in the growing too – and eventually finding a good partner who can run the farm operation.

Of course such a goal would require purchasing the land, which means a significant capital investment and also land which is suitable for these purposes but also not as close to urban areas and their housing-driven land prices as he is now.

He is now setting up an exploratory committee to help figure this all out. His parents are onboard with the idea and have sold their Mendocino, California home to raise capital. They hope to live at the new location. His sister, who is currently doing a residency in California, is mostly on board too, which would enable them to tap into a doctor’s line of credit!

Kohei would like to buy the land privately, run the farm on it, and raise money for the retreat center and non-profit work.

“But we need to find the land first, of course,” he says. “I want access to the Providence and Boston markets, even if I have to be an hour and a half away. I figure once a week we could drive an hour and a half not too much harder than a half hour. If I find the perfect land and it is 2 hours from Providence, I’ll go that far if I have to.”

National Organic Coalition Advocates to Keep Organic Seal Strong

National Organic CoalitionThe National Organic Coalition is a cross-sector alliance of fourteen organizations from across the U.S., including the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Our member organizations represent diverse stakeholder groups in the organic community – we are farmers, consumers, environmental groups, certifying organizations, retailers, and progressive businesses coming together to be a strong and united voice for integrity in the USDA National Organic Program.

Our coalition came together in 2001, just as the federal organic regulations were being finalized and put into place. Since that time, NOC has been working in various arenas, including Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Organic Standards Board, to garner support and federal resources for organic programs, organic research, and plant breeding to benefit organic farmers. In addition, our collaborative efforts are aimed at keeping the organic standards strong, to ensure they are consistent and enforced across the board, and to work for continuous improvement in the standards. NOC believes that strong standards keep family farmers in the game and ensure that organic is valuable for all scales of businesses.

Our coalition is unique because we operate with a consensus model – a model that is often challenging given the wide range of perspectives represented within our diverse coalition. But our consensus process allows us to develop well-vetted policy positions and proposals that are informed by multiple viewpoints and have support across stakeholder groups. This type of cross-sector collaboration is especially valuable in our work at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a citizen board that advises the USDA on issues related to the organic standards and has statutory authorities under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (only materials recommended by the Board can be put on the National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances). The NOSB, which has 15 seats with slots reserved for different stakeholder groups, must also develop proposals that can garner widespread support because proposals need a 2/3 majority to pass (10 out of 15 board members must vote in favor for a proposal to move forward to the USDA as a formal recommendation). This requirement for a 2/3 majority also helps ensure that the voices of small and mid-size operations are heard and represented through the NOSB process because of the delicate balance of stakeholder seats on the board, including seats occupied by small or mid-size farmers. It has been a basic principle of the NOSB that no one group should dominate over the others.

NOFA’s participation is invaluable to our coalition work The Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council is a long-standing and actively engaged participant in NOC. NOFA brings to NOC a strong grassroots voice from the thousands of farmer and citizen members who participate in NOFA chapters across 7 Northeast states. NOFA’s engagement in NOC also helps us pack a punch in our work on the Hill. NOC members, including NOFA, are represented on the hill by our DC-based policy director, Steve Etka, whose depth of experience and extensive network of contacts are an invaluable asset in our efforts to advance organic and protect the integrity of the program. Steve Etka has been working with NOC since our inception – for over 16 years.

The Northeast Congressional delegation includes key champions for organic agriculture. Senator Leahy of VT, is an author of the 1990 organic law and senior member of both the Senate Appropriations and Agriculture committees. From NY, Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representatives Faso (R-NY) and Maloney (D-NY) are crucial on the Agriculture committees, and Sen. Schumer (D-NY) has been a strong advocate of organic. From CT, Senator Murphy (D-CT) and Representative DeLauro (D-CT) are vital in their roles on the Senate and House Appropriations committee. From NH, Senator Shaheen (D-NH) serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee and Representative Kuster (D-NH) is on the House Agriculture Committee. From MA, Representatives McGovern is on the House Ag Committee and Representative Clark is an appropriator. NOFA’s participation in NOC is essential given the critical role of these members of Congress in the Farm Bill and Appropriations processes.

Wins for Organic
NOC has also achieved wins for organic through the Farm Bill process, despite unfavorable odds. For example, in the 2014 Farm Bill, NOC worked with Congressional allies to reinstate funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program after the program was eliminated in the House bill. The certification cost share program is especially important for small and medium scale operations, for whom annual organic certification fees can be cost-prohibitive. NOC believes diversity of scale within organic certification is essential to protect the integrity of the organic seal.

In the 2014 Farm Bill, we also secured mandatory funding for organic research and a one-time infusion of funds to create the Organic Integrity Database at the USDA. NOC is optimistic that we will see a boost in funding for organic research plus enhanced provisions to address organic import fraud in the 2018 Farm Bill. We are encouraged by the leadership role that House Ag Committee member John Faso (R-NY) has taken by introducing the Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act and the bipartisan nature of these Farm Bill provisions. Here, again, NOFA’s advocacy, and specifically the work done by NOFA-NY, has been important in securing support from Representative Faso.

Regulatory Hurdles
The National Organic Coalition has been a strong proponent for continuous improvement in the USDA organic program. As the organic industry grows and evolves, regulatory improvements are critical to ensure consistency in the standards and a level playing field. The regulatory changes made in 2010 to clarify access to pasture (the ‘pasture rule’) are one such example where NOC and NOC member organizations successfully advanced changes to strengthen and clarify the organic regulations. This regulatory improvement is a big achievement. However, NOC is currently concerned that in some cases enforcement of the pasture rule is falling short and we are urging USDA to take immediate action to bring bad actors in the dairy sector and their organic certifying agents into compliance.

While promulgating new organic regulations has been challenging under previous administrations and in all political environments, the current Administration’s focus on pulling back regulations presents an added barrier to ensuring the integrity of the USDA organic seal. There are several key areas where NOC believes regulatory improvements are essential:

Import Fraud – eliminating the exclusion from certification for uncertified entities is one of the most important actions that can be taken to increase the integrity in the global organic control systems.

Poultry – NOC is strongly opposed to the withdrawal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule. Unequal enforcement of federal organic standards has long been a problem in the organic poultry and egg sector.

Dairy – Another regulatory issue that must be addressed relates to the transition of dairy cows into organic. OFPA requires organic milk and dairy products labeled as organic to come from dairy cows continuously managed as organic from the last third of gestation. However, in recognition of the short supply of organic dairy breeder stock in 1990 when the law was passed, an allowance was included for a one-time conversion of conventional dairy cows to organic as long as they are managed organically. Unfortunately, with two interpretations of this provision, it has turned into a loophole that has allowed some dairy operations to circumvent the last third of gestation requirement altogether, and to bring conventionally managed animals into their operations on a continuous basis. In 2015, USDA proposed an Origin of Livestock rule to clarify that section of the law and ensure consistent enforcement of the standards, but USDA currently has no plans to finalize the rule.

Hydroponics – It is NOC’s view that hydroponics/aquaponics/aeroponics systems do not meet the letter or spirit of the OFPA and should not be allowed in organic production. The USDA should halt the continued certification of hydroponic systems until specific regulations for these types of operations go through the NOSB recommendation process and are then adopted through the proposed and final rule process.

How can we make progress in the current political environment?

We are facing new challenges and these new challenges demand new tactics. More farms and businesses, including conventional agribusinesses and manufacturing companies, want to take advantage of the market opportunity and premiums that the USDA organic seal provides.How can we ensure that the organic seal, which was born out of our grassroots movement to transform our food system, remains true to its founding principles? The framework we have established with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 provides us with a strong foundation.

NOC asserts that abandoning the foundation we have already laid with the organic law and organic regulations is irresponsible and could leave us in a weaker position given our broader vision of transformation. NOC’s approach in this political environment is focused on cultivating champions for organic on both sides of the aisle; we will continue to increase our grassroots reach in key states and grow our power to influence key decision-makers at the USDA and in Congress to address gaps in the enforcement of organic standards and to demonstrate the value of organic regulations.

NOC also believes we need to work equally hard using multiple tactics simultaneously and in multiple arenas to re-gain full integrity of our organic certification system – legal, marketplace, legislative, administrative, grassroots and media outreach strategies are all components of our much-needed campaign to win back our standards. We support efforts undertaken by other groups in other arenas. However, the entire organic community needs to make sure these efforts are coordinated, synergistic and do no harm to the thousands of family farmers and businesses already adhering to the existing organic standards, both in spirit and to the letter of the law.

NOC invites you to become more engaged in protecting the integrity of the USDA organic seal. Sign up here to get updates and action alerts: www.nationalorganiccoalition.org