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posted by martyb on Wednesday February 13 2019, @08:47PM   Printer-friendly
from the Balconies-and-roofs dept.

Phys.org:

Urban farming has grown by more than 30 percent in the United States in the past 30 years. Although it has been estimated that urban agriculture can meet 15 to 20 percent of global food demand, it remains to be seen what level of food self-sufficiency it can realistically ensure for cities.

One recent survey found that 51 countries do not have enough urban area to meet a recommended nutritional target of 300 grams per person per day of fresh vegetables. Moreover, it estimated, urban agriculture would require 30 percent of the total urban area of those countries to meet global demand for vegetables. Land tenure issues and urban sprawl could make it hard to free up this much land for food production.

Is urban farming a pipe dream, or can appropriating vacant lots for traditional farming or employing hydroponics make it work?


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  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by Thexalon on Wednesday February 13 2019, @09:17PM (7 children)

    by Thexalon (636) on Wednesday February 13 2019, @09:17PM (#800737)

    My former fair city had a substantial urban farming and gardening program going. And while it might not have produced a ton of food in terms of sheer quantity, it did make a substantial difference in what kinds of food were available.

    For instance, this community garden [google.com] is right smack dab in the middle of one of the poorest urban neighborhoods in America. And the reason it's there is that it gives the residents of that neighborhood a chance to get fresh vegetables that would otherwise be too expensive and hard to find in the area. Which, as you can imagine, is important for being able to get vitamin A and other important nutrients that simply don't exist in fast food and what you can find in convenience stores.

    And the best part is that the spaces they're doing this in had previously housed condemned buildings. The city demolished the buildings, made the now-vacant lots available to rent for something like $10 a year via a land bank, and helped residents create these kinds of places. Turning urban blight into urban agriculture is definitely an improvement.

    --
    The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
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  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 13 2019, @11:41PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 13 2019, @11:41PM (#800786)

    That sounds great, but how do they prevent things like particles of rubber, asphalt, soot, lead (I assume all gas is unleaded, but...), and other toxins from entering this food. It's probably better to exist than to have neighborhoods have no fresh produce at all, but is there any health hazard to be concerned with?

    • (Score: 2) by Thexalon on Wednesday February 13 2019, @11:49PM

      by Thexalon (636) on Wednesday February 13 2019, @11:49PM (#800789)

      One of the hoops they have to go through is doing a soil test of the lot from a qualified lab. If there's nasty stuff in the soil, they have to do a bunch of work to ensure that they're not growing crops that will pick up the contamination. There are also some plants you can put in that will specifically pull out the pollution from the soil, and then you don't eat those.

      (I was involved in a different project to start up something similar to the spot I just highlighted above, which is how I know something about the process.)

      TL;DR: Yes, they thought of that problem.

      --
      The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 14 2019, @02:01AM (4 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 14 2019, @02:01AM (#800829)

    Sounds like they need more grocery stores, not more farms. Urban food deserts are certainly a problem that local governments should address. But consider the essential conflict here:

    it gives the residents of that neighborhood a chance to get fresh vegetables that would otherwise be too expensive and hard to find in the area

    The city demolished the buildings, made the now-vacant lots available to rent for something like $10 a year via a land bank

    The vegetables became available not as a result of better land use, but because the government decided to massively subsidize this particular farm. If the goal is to make vegetables available, the city just did it in an incredibly expensive way.

    The plot you mentioned is 2.5 acres [archive.org]. The area is a low-income, mixed-use area with primarily commercial and dense residential property (row houses). A brief property search reveals that a typical residential property (1361 East Blvd) located adjacent to the farm is .262 acres and has an annual property tax bill of $1179. There are six condominiums in that building which have estimated value of about $115,000 each. Counting only the tax revenue, not the land itself or any possible value of the demolished buildings, the city is subsidizing this farm to the amount of $11,249 per year. Amortizing the value of a similar condo building over 30 years would yield an additional $23,000 per year, but if we assume the building is a loss, you would have to actually construct the new building, so let's cut it in half and say $11,500 per year in lost rent. This farm costs the city approximately $22,750 per year - just for land.

    Cleveland Crops doesn't publish their farm productivity, so I used these values [wisc.edu] for small farm productivity, classifying the property as a market garden (as it consists of separate 1 acre and 1.5 acre plots), which qualify as market garden scale either together or separately. These farms, at average productivity, would produce $15,623 per acre or approximately $39,000 per year worth of crops. However, these farms also have $9,959 per acre per year of operating expenses (mostly labor). This is a total of approximarely $24,900 in operating costs.

    The total cost of the farm, then, including land and operating expense, is $47,647, and it produces $39,000 per year worth of crops. This farm loses $3459 per year per acre ($8,647 per year total). Oops. And before you say "but, at large scales, farms would be more productive," that's actually the reverse of true. Per the study I cited, larger farms are more productive relative to labor costs, but not by land area. To merely break even, the total annual cost of land (and all other depreciation, such as machinery) has to average out to $5,664 per acre per year at this scale. At large scale, it needs to be $3,757 per acre per year.

    I'm not going to bother finding stats for this, but, uh, you can't get city land for $3757 per acre per year, nor even $5,664 - and that's already excluding other depreciation, and assuming the costs of labor and other resources such as water remain constant relative to rural areas! (They wouldn't). Even with highly favorable assumptions, the farm is still a huge money loser. The bigger you make these farms, the more money they lose. It only appears to work because the government subsidizes it with free land - normally the biggest cost in urban areas.

    It might be possible to consider this specific program a success because of its impact on the social fabric of the area, or as a jobs program (although the project's own site admits that its jobs are not popular, even in a low-income area). Ideally, though, your jobs programs would not lose so much money. You might be better off with universal basic income. And it's certainly not a model for large-scale urban farming.

    And there are a whole host of other problems completely ignored that come into play in large scales. More urban farms means more demand for city land, driving up prices even further. The space they take up increases sprawl. Demand for water is a huge problem in cities - a severe resource shortage in some regions, and more of an engineering challenge in others, but it can't just be overlooked. Many farming operations create bad smells or pollution problems that are less severe in rural areas. And the people that want to be farmers are not usually the people that want to live in cities, and vice versa, causing labor shortages or higher costs.

    So urban farming in general is a complete nonstarter, but maybe rooftop gardens can work. After all, that's real estate that isn't really being used (although your average commercial or apartment building roof actually has quite a bit of necessary machinery up there). These small-scale operations could potentially be quite productive per land area, but also very expensive, due to the low labor productivity and higher cost of labor (and water, and other resources) in the city. We can probably have rooftop gardens when we have better automation to do most of the work without human labor. They would probably contribute only a tiny fraction of the total food consumed by the city, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be done at all.

    • (Score: 2) by Thexalon on Thursday February 14 2019, @02:43AM (2 children)

      by Thexalon (636) on Thursday February 14 2019, @02:43AM (#800843)

      You seem to have forgotten a key aspect of all this, which is that if the garden does not exist, one of two things happens:
      1. The city leaves the condemned crackhouses that were there standing.
      2. The acreage sits vacant, and the city has to pay someone to come in and mow the grass.

      It's already a loss. The gardening program makes it less of a loss. Which would you rather have next door to you, a crackhouse or a garden?

      The economics of Cleveland real estate are very very different from, say, San Francisco: Most land isn't very valuable in Cleveland. There's tons of empty land in fairly good locations which in a more prosperous city would have been snapped up and developed a long time ago. Between doing nothing with it, and employing otherwise unemployed people to work it and grow crops, I'd say that's a pretty good decision.

      There's also efforts to set up farmer's markets and fresh food imports into this area, so it's not like they're neglecting the prospect of bringing in vegetables.

      --
      The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
      • (Score: 2) by Runaway1956 on Thursday February 14 2019, @03:15PM (1 child)

        by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Thursday February 14 2019, @03:15PM (#801007) Journal

        There was a time when a Farmer's Market excited me. Fresh, wholesome food, at less than wholesale prices - beautiful! In recent years, farmer's markets seem to be mostly ripoffs. The fresh food is sold at grocery store prices, no bulk sales or bulk discounts. There are mostly craft items available, at exorbitant prices, whether they be woolen goods, soaps, lotions, maybe cotton goods. And, baked goods. True, the baked goods are mostly better than anything the grocers sell, but they are priced right up there with the best of a grocer's offerings.

        The livestock auctions today meet my expectations of a farmer's market, more than a farmer's market does.

        Maybe that's just a local phenomenon. I can't really say, since I don't travel much anymore.

        --
        We've finally beat Medicare! - Houseplant in Chief
        • (Score: 2) by Thexalon on Friday February 15 2019, @04:17AM

          by Thexalon (636) on Friday February 15 2019, @04:17AM (#801393)

          The main advantage of farmer's markets is that because the farmer is the retailer, they get to keep much more of what you pay. Also, in really busy farmer's markets where there a whole bunch of farms selling the same stuff, you get market competition (sometimes even in real-time) keeping quality up and prices down.

          --
          The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
    • (Score: 2) by Runaway1956 on Thursday February 14 2019, @02:47PM

      by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Thursday February 14 2019, @02:47PM (#800995) Journal

      You seem to have justified the elimination of all city and county parks. Paying someone to maintain land on which no one pays taxes is a total loss, is it not?

      --
      We've finally beat Medicare! - Houseplant in Chief