by Jane Primerano

Keynote speaker at the Farming on the Urban Fringe one-day workshop was John Ikerd, professor emeritus from the University of Missouri and the author of a number of books on sustainable agriculture.

Ikerd pointed out many critics see urban agriculture as a passing fad, an answer to the problem that many cities are food desserts. He believes urban agriculture is a significant part of the food system. While the USDA does not keep track of the number of urban farms, it is obvious to the observer that it is growing.

Since old, industrial cities have a lot of land owned by government entities, there are possible farm plots available in areas with a large number of people living in the area who can potentially become involved. An intergenerational force of people interested in working the plots is an advantage, Ikerd said.

An earlier model had cities build around an industrial core with farms at the outer edge of the circle. Produce was brought into the city center by truck, hence the term “truck farms.” Even when cities were planned, the green space was reserved for parks so people could escape their factory towns. New paradigms of industry take jobs out of the inner city, leaving people in the urban centers hungry and poor. Food insecurity has grown both in the sense that people in the cities have less access to food and that they have access to primarily unhealthy food. The industrial food system is linked to this increase in availability of unhealthy food in urban areas.

Popularity of urban farming tends to rise in times of crisis, such as the Victory Garden movement during the World Wars. This is in contrast to today’s interest in urban farming coming in a time of relative prosperity, Ikerd said.

Ikerd doesn’t talk about farming for a profit. He talks about meeting the needs of people at the present time without jeopardizing the future. Ikerd believes we must meet the needs of all before we can get the majority of people concerned with issues like climate change and species loss.

“Pursuit of individual self-interest won’t get us far,” he said. “Money is a means to an end.”

Urban agriculture can’t meet all the needs of the population, Ikerd cautioned, although it can move the people closer to food security. “Hunger is a market failure,” he said.

A city farm can provide employment opportunities that help young people develop skills and maintain a sense of dignity. Turning parks into gardens combats inner city blight, which Ikerd calls “social integrity.” Urban farming gives residents a sense of empowerment.

Urban farming linked to the organic and sustainable agriculture movements is a good way to bring back nutritional food to the inner city, Ikert said. He cautioned that urban agriculture cannot sustain urban economies, but it is one method of helping them.