Urban Agriculture


Of all people skeptical of the backyard chicken fad, I’m sure I come across as an unlikely one.  So it is with great shame that I have to recommend this article in the New York Times from a few days ago:

“When Problems Come Home to Roost”

The author, Kim Severson, rightly characterizes the backyard chicken craze as a fad, like the potbellied pigs of a decade ago.  Like any fad, many people jump in head first without acknowledging the risk, commitment, or education and skill involved.  Severson rightly points out that a lack of attention to these issues by unprepared and inexperienced owners–as well as the unavoidably strange and unique biological climates that urban and suburban areas contain–often lead to some bumps in the road.  In the case of San Francisco, new diseases and other persistent health problems have emerged, and many unprepared chicken owners have begun abandoning their hens and roosters at animal shelters.  These unprepared and overly hasty owners have unfortunately given the movement a bit of a black eye.  No offense to the people featured in the article–I’m sure they meant well–but they are far from the victims in this story; the abandoned and sick chickens are.

Seriously adorable backyard hens in Toronto, Canada. Photo from torontochickens.com via http://www.blogto.com.

Personally, I grew up around chickens: picking them up from the post office at 5:00 AM in a loudly chirping, warm cardboard box, raising them, collecting their eggs, cleaning them, and butchering them.  I (with my younger brother) even won best in show for the Grant County Fair two years in a row, and have the trophies to prove it!  These were, in fact, the only two years we entered, marking a short and impressive reign in Southwest Wisconsin.

At any rate, I love chickens! They’re wonderful, intelligent, even affectionate creatures, and if I ever have the time and space to care for them, I’d do so in a heartbeat.  I do have an apartment with a private backyard in Brooklyn, and its physically able to handle a few chickens, but still I’d never attempt it here for a few reasons.

First, I’m a renter and I seriously doubt my landlord would approve.  Elena and I looked at an apartment in Red Hook where the landlord lived downstairs and had chickens in the backyard, but as the chicken owner also owned the building, the situation there was much more friendly.

Second, I’m more than a little worried about the microclimate that these chickens would be living in.  Brooklyn soils contain a lot of lead and other heavy metals, and anyone who knows chickens and has been around them knows that chickens spend a lot of time with their beaks in the dirt.

Granted we all have to start somewhere, and as far as chickens in backyards, go I’m all for this movement gaining ground.  It’s a spectacular and sustainable trend, and as soon as I am in a place to participate, I’ll do so!  Online communities such as Backyard Chickens and The City Chicken do a lot to encourage responsible urban chicken ownership, and more and more cities are realizing that they are beneficial creatures that should be legalized.

It’s clear that we’re headed in the right direction, and this I applaud!  But clearly, more education is necessary.  We saw this in tomatoes as well, just this year. The blight that affected the tomato crop this year was partly blamed on too high a demand for seedlings by too many amateur gardeners growing heirloom varieties for the first time.  This problem, I would surmise, has partly the same roots as the chicken diseases we’re seeing emerge.

So, please, if you’re planning on gardening or getting chickens for the first time next year, do your homework! Do more than you think is necessary, or even sane!  I’ve seen far too many tomatoes planted in the hard soil of full-shade tree pits in New York, and it really does sadden me every time. There are plenty of skilled gardners and urban farmers dying to warn you about that kind of thing, and you have to listen to them.  Thanks!

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Three prominent films have emerged in the last few years on the subject of food: more specifically on the subject of industrial food production.  Each has taken a deliberately different approach, and I’ve arranged them in order of optimism, with FRESH (the most optimistic of the three) at the top.

Each film is definitely worth seeing, particularly Our Daily Bread, the hardest of the three to find.  You might vomit about two thirds of the way through, but, honestly, its worth the punishment.  Watch the films, tell your friends, and start discussing.  Until people get outraged and start talking about these issues, nothing is going to change.

FRESH:

FOOD, INC.

OUR DAILY BREAD
In German

Happy eating!


(cross-posted on Dirt-Farmer)

At the end of this month, a number of local activist and education groups will be holding a national urban agriculture conference: “Pollinating Our Future.” This occurrence, at this time, in this fine city is (at the very least) fortuitous. As anyone who knows me can attest to, urban agriculture and urban food systems are my primary activist concerns, and I am in the middle of an independent study through which I hope to devise an avenue for urban agriculture as an economic development strategy in cities like Milwaukee.

Pollinating Our Future

As anyone who lives in a large American city can attest to, a sort-of food revolution has begun in small populations of Americans: whites with a certain level of income. However, the people who would be best served by an agricultural revolution that values quality over quantity, localism over the international trade of perishable food items such as rock hard tomatoes, wilted bell peppers, and iceberg lettuce, and an emphasis on seasonal eating, are being left out: the poor.

As incomes have dropped in America’s inner cities, vicious cycles have begun to develop as regards goods and services. Hospitals in inner cities (St. Michael’s in Milwaukee) have been forced to close and move to the suburbs in search of greater profitability, which is a different injustice for a different post altogether. And grocery stores have also moved to the peripheries of metro areas, leaving inner city residents–who largely get by on public transportation–without an affordable source of quality foods, and without a reliable source of health care: the brutal combination of which has had a devastating effect on the well being of millions of Americans in the form of increased Type II diabetes, asthma, etc.

As usually happens when we let the falsely titled “invisible hand” of capitalism rule over the business community, the poor are continually under-served. I believe that urban agriculture can provide good jobs, increase education among populations of Americans that no longer understand the value of good food or the consequences of a poor diet of processed food, decrease the cost of food for inner city residents (through decreased transportation, preservation, processing and handling costs), increase the availability of good food, help the city economy as a whole through import-substitution, and by providing an outlet for municipal waste (compost) that will help to close the nutrient loop that has been painfully, catastrophically severed since the onset of public sanitation.

If that last paragraph was a bit jargonistic, my apologies, but honestly, if things are going to be genuinely changed, they need to be attacked from technical (rather than amorphous, hippy-dippy, earth mother, divisive) language. Essentially, y’all should take a look at the conference website, check out the types of sponsorship organizations, speakers and workshops that will be happening. Its a good way to start understanding the causes of urban degradation in America, and to start looking at ways to remedy some of those neoliberal policies that have led to the shrinking middle class, the privatization and financialization of services, the resulting lack of accountability when the private sector gets involved in urban public policy formation, the increased efforts to get Americans to take on debt, and a number of other things that we as a society have refused–out of convenience, primarily–to see correctly: both the forest and the trees.

In addition, I will be adding to the links section of this site a number of urban agriculture websites and organizations that are helping to educate the public, that are trying to convince people that the separation of agriculture from cities, from urbanity was a catastrophic, artificial imposition.