by Jane Primerano

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — A.J. Both, professor and urban agriculture specialist for Rutgers University, talked about the challenges of farming close to urban areas at the Dec. 14 Rutgers and NOFA-NJ all day program on farming on the urban fringe.

Both noted the necessity for urban farms was brought home in his native Netherlands during World War II when the Nazis bombed Rotterdam.

He also talked about advantages: farms near the urban fringe reduce transportation costs, they create jobs and economic development in places that need that and increase food knowledge in areas where it may be lacking.

The challenges can be daunting, he explained. The cost of land means by definition urban farms will have limited space. There are often more regulations in urban areas as well as more environmental issues that cost more money. Access to an urban farm can also be problematic.

“You can only do it if you can keep it sustainable,” he said.

That means optimizing the space efficiency, he said. Green roofs can be part of that since there are plenty of flat roofs in the city. However, taller buildings create shade and winds are much higher which can create issues for the crops. There are also mechanicals on city roofs which can leak. The added weight of crops can also create problems. Not to mention the added costs and difficulty of bringing supplies up to the roof.

Farming on vacant lots is not a new concept, Both reminded the audience. In 1902, Dewitt Clinton Park in New York City was a children’s farm, used as a demonstration project and a teaching tool.

In 1872 there was a greenhouse at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, surrounded by tall buildings even then.

Today aero farms are the “warm and fuzzy” solution, he said. But Both feels they are probably funded by a good deal of venture capital because of the inherent costs of the lighting.

Experience is vital in all urban agriculture, he said, as is understanding the costs of labor, automation and lighting and the potential for soil and air pollution. Both suggested considering a public-private partnership to fund an urban farm. He said expanded education efforts and community support is essential to make urban farming work as is investment in research. Rutgers can help with that, but Both said the better solution could be farming on the perimeter of the city.