When the US government rationed food (and everything else) During World War II, American citizens turned their backyards and front lawns into “victory gardens” that supplied 40 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. Could we as a nation ever do that again, or even improve on it?
Wanting to scale up regional food systems and stop giving farmers an incentive to expand into prairies and rain forests seems like a great idea. Why not to grow a considerable amount of our produce right in our cities or suburban communities? Reuniting humans with nature to solve many of the problems directly attributable in the stress of intense urbanization is a beautiful concept.
It may be like spraying a hose of cold water over our utopian dreams but the hard truth is that populations nowadays are so much bigger than a century ago that economies of scale make commercial agriculture the only truly viable way to meet the modern world's growing demands for food. Somewhat sadly, it’s just a very different era that we live in today.
But while homegrown gardens will never be able to compete with major agriculture as either a massive source of food or a major money making industry if you look at it closely you’ll discover the modern homegrown food revolution (which is well underway right now) provides us with profits that - while not measured in monetary terms - are clearly significant.
Involvement with home & school gardens can turn people of all ages into good ecologists (and better people in general). All it takes is spending a few months bringing a broccoli plant from seed to harvest to gain a much deeper appreciation for the natural systems that everyone depends on for our basic survival.
Our intimate connection to the natural rhythms of the Earth becomes plainly obvious when you watch your crops grow (or not grow). Gardens, regardless of how prolific they are, never fail to produce a harvest of teachable moments about what it means to live in and be connected to the greater environment. As a urban-centric nation most Americans have grown ignorant of the complex realities of successful agriculture, and home and urban mini-farms have the potential to re-enlighten us to the environmental trade offs involved in all of the choices we make.
Perhaps even more importantly, creating home & urban gardens grows better citizens. Gardens teach people to work together to nurture something equally as vulnerable as our own lives. A garden project provides an object lesson in the value of food, and in the benefits of interpersonal communication & cooperation.
Homegrown agriculture is also surprisingly valuable in how it compels us to be more conscientious about all the people who help feed us: the farm workers, the truck drivers, the processors and the packagers, the prep cooks, the grocers, all of whom work hard, and usually for very little, and have no time themselves to literally dig the personal joys of working with the soil.
Although most modern urban farms are not making any major amounts of money their work is undoubtedly improving our communities. For years the ‘Common Market’ in Philadelphia has employed youngsters to work in neighborhood gardens that make blighted land beautiful, gives kids a role and a responsibility in their community, and instills a lasting appreciation for the healthful goodness of fresh produce. If you’ve never had one before tasting a fresh picked organic strawberry is a memorable lesson in the joys and rewards of home/urban gardening.
Certain urban farms are actually quite profitable from selling their produce at premium prices to local restaurant chefs. In the heart of one of Canada's biggest cities there’s Lufa Farms, which started a rooftop greenhouse operation in Montreal and has been steadily turning enough profits to attract venture capital for expansion across the country. The Brooklyn Grange has made NYC rooftop gardening profitable by combining high end food sales with a sort of agro-tourism by hosting rooftop weddings and garden parties. It’s estimated that a well run urban garden with greenhouses for winter growing can turn 1.5 city acres into net profits of between $38,000 to $65,000 a year, which while not a fortune is certainly a self sustaining figure.
Mini-farm projects can reconnect urbanites who live in a paved over world to the rhythms and beauty of nature. As the home grown food revolution proves successful enough to spread, young people will be able to take summer jobs working on farms without ever leaving the city. Rooftop gardens will insulate buildings, using the sun’s energy rather than the building absorbing it. And gardens can trap and use storm water that might otherwise just go to waste or flush pollutants into lakes, oceans, or rivers. Mini-farms will create oases of fresh air, biodiversity, and natural splendor amid a sea of concrete.
Then there’s another significant form of successful urban or homegrown agriculture - aside from those supported by nonprofits and the high-end gourmet farms - and that originates with all the regular folks who plant food in their backyards never expecting to make money off of it or to be paid for their time (other than getting some real savings at the grocery checkout counter). Time spent in their homegrown garden might never be turned into a basket of money, but it can surely yield enormous personal satisfaction as well as measurable physical & mental health benefits, and in the end isn't that what defines real wealth?
These micro-farms help knit communities together: Someone’s garden is always producing more than they can eat themselves, happily forcing neighbors to seek each other out with baskets of tomatoes, bundles of fresh herbs, or loaves of zucchini bread.
And this abundance then kick-starts stronger & happier social relationships, often resulting in community members gladly reciprocating with personal help or even professional services. Give your local car mechanic, insurance salesman, or dry cleaner brimming baskets of fresh veggies and watch the cost for their services get better and their level of truly useful help go up. Sharing abundance is good, and somehow giving always seems to beget more giving.
So Let's Get Growing!
(FYI there’s even a new web service, called Ripenear.me that’s designed to help you connect with neighbors whenever anyone has too much fresh produce).