Urban Agriculture on the Rise

by kespeland on July 31, 2008

In the shadow of the brick buildings and barbed wire gates of the old Vogt industrial complex, Greg Graft is farming. His greenhouse sits on a once empty lot behind a company that used to make machine parts in the early 1900s. It’s on the edge of West Louisville, just south of downtown, and the perfect place, Graft says, to grow greens for local restaurants.

“It’s pretty much shipped right out the door every single day, so we have a very little time of it actually spending any time in a cooler or storage facility. So it’s much pretty much from the channel straight to the chefs,” Graft says.

Graft talks about this successful agricultural venture between rows of hydroponic herbs and lettuce. Tubes of water feed into the slender trays holding more than 13 thousand greens. And Graft says he can grow his products more quickly, and closer together, than he could if he were farming in soil—a good scenario for an urban operation. While he may be one of the city’s few, Graft says economic conditions as well as a growing interest in local food may inspire more urban farmers.Hydroponic lettuce and herbs growing in Grateful Greens\' Greenhouse

“Just in the last two or three months, I’ve had this really kind of a gut feeling that there’s going to be a lot more people getting into urban agriculture or trying to get in to the inner city. The farmers’ markets have really started to expand, you’ll really, even in the Louisville area, start to notice there’s just so many more that have popped up,” says Graft.

His gut feeling may be reality. The Windy city just launched the “Chicago Fresh Initiative,” which, in part, aims to start growing food on vacant city properties. The Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture offers city farmers a spot in a communal greenhouse. Seattle’s P-Patch community gardens now supply nearly 10 tons of food a year to city food banks.
Hydroponic lettuce and herb seeds get their start this way.
While community gardens and farmer’s markets have long histories, new attention is being paid to urban farming as a viable way to feed families. Michael Levenston started the educational organization City Farmer in Vancouver, British Columbia nearly 30 years ago.

“The recognition of it as a subject worthy of people’s interest is the huge change. It’s being studied by students at university, being looked at by mayors as something to think about. This is dramatic change,” Levenston says.

Louisville has not yet seen that dramatic change. There’s a city effort underway to bring more food from nearby farmers to the city, including plans for a year-round downtown farmers’ market. But there’s no official effort to increase food production within the city. Still, County Cooperative Extension Service agent Denise Peterson says she’s getting more calls than ever from individuals wanting to join a community garden or needing gardening advice.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of participants. A lot of first time gardeners, or people that perhaps haven’t done it for quite a while who now with the higher food prices and fuel prices have decided to put in a garden,” says Peterson.

Peterson says the waiting list for community gardens is three years long, but the city isn’t tapping all of the resources it could to meet that demand.

“We have a lot of unused property. We have a lot of unused potential of humans that would really like to grow a few things and supply their community,” Peterson says.

The city owns a long list of vacant or unused lots. But it’s up to developers—and the city—how those lots are used. Nonprofits that want to put in a community garden can lease lots for only a dollar. The city probably won’t see the kind of large scale production rural farms put out. But it is seeing a growing number of community gardens, commercial growers, and even individual balcony and back yard gardens that are producing enough to feed many mouths. But urban gardeners beware: the soil in older parts of town could be contaminated with lead. Best to have it tested, or farm in raised beds.

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PJ Chmiel July 31, 2008 at 5:56 pm

A very pertinent topic given the vulnerability of our “global” food supply, thanks for giving it some airtime. I became interested in urban gardening and permaculture this year and have a rooftop garden outside of my apartment in Old Louisville. The city of Louisville has thousands of vacant lots that could be used for urban agriculture, not to mention the “golf green” front- and backyards at most residences. There’s a shameful amount of wasted or under-utilized space in the city…but that could be seen as a good thing, as long as we move toward using it for good rather than leaving it abandoned or developing it in careless ways.

I just finished a poster on this very subject, you can see it by clicking on my name/website. It’s free for download if you’d like to print one out and display it, and I’m also screenprinting some to sell. Please continue to cover this issue, we really need to start providing more for ourselves and getting our food much closer to home. Thanks!

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