Last night I attended 'Room to Grow': Real Roles for City Residents & Food Professionals in Urban Agriculture. Held at Astor Center, the panel of presenters consisted of:
- Brian Snyder, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture
- Annie Novak, founder and director of Growing Chefs; farmer and co-founder of the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm; Children's Gardening Program coordinator for the New York Botanical Gardens
- Nevin Cohen, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at The New School where he teaches courses in urban planning and food systems
- Catherine Saillard, owner of iCi, a restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn
All proceeds of the event benefited Farm Camp, which is something I'd love to soon participate in. Created by Flying Pigs Farm, Farm Camp offers an intensive weekend on the farm for anyone interested in food production--chefs, writers, policy and media professionals, etc. The weekend includes local chores like feeding the chickens, discussions around important food topics with groups like American Farmland Trust, and tours of different farms such as Battenkill, Dancing Ewe, and Nettle Meadow. It's a completely amazing endeavor and vitally important for any person interested in gaining a well-rounded knowledge about food production.
The event's moderator, Erin Fairbanks, wanted each audience member to leave with something tangible they could do to promote urban and state agriculture. I found her questions pointed and well-researched. In fact, all of the panelists came prepared and offered interesting insights. While some of the insights were known by much of the audience, it's always refreshing to listen to people who are on the ground enacting change in a field that I not only believe in, but am incredibly passionate about.
A few notes:
Brian touched on the fact that we need to think geographically about food systems, not just state to state. A foodshed contains growers, eaters, and markets, yet the numbers are incredibly imbalanced, with only 2% of our nation working as farmers.
Every movement needs a voice that pushes the boundaries or offers nontraditional ideas. It's important to start with a 'what if' and then have an educated group discuss the pros and cons. Brian provides a voice willing to share big ideas. One such idea involves thinking of a foodshed and a watershed as the same thing, and moving state lines around to make those food systems more coherent. Moving state lines around?! While I really can't see that ever happening, I do appreciate a thought process revolving around redefining what a foodshed is. On the East coast, states are right on top of each other. In order for improvements to happen in food access and quality, state boundaries do need to be symbolically crossed or merged.
Erin asked, 'What does a farming infrastructure look like for urban farmers?' Nevin, the city planner, responded that the infrastructure must include land, rules, a consumer market system, and a wholesale farmers market. In addition, city planners need to ask questions like 'where does the water to support urban farming come from?' and 'how much do farmers have to pay for this water?' Annie stressed the importance of regional transportation systems, good dirt, and a city composting system.
So what is the future of urban agriculture? According to Nevin, it's distributed and networked, with rooftop farms and small plots tied together through social and physical networks. Both Catherine and Annie insisted that the future of urban agriculture requires recreating a sense of community. Urban farming can become economically sustainable when there are direct sales to restaurants and the appropriate crops are grown. Annie shared that it's a balance between what consumers want and what grows well. For example, she's chosen not to grow squash on her rooftop farm because it takes up too much space.