FUTURE FARMS - DREAM - Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)

Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)



When you dream outside the present urban matrix, you think of the future, as you do when you grow food for others on microfarms integrated into communities. These farms, in the most utopian sense, should connect cities and communities directly with their food sources, specializing to some degree, rotating their annual crops from farm to farm each season, and be designed as concentric, radial “farm belts” fanning out from a common urban or suburban center. The garden city movement in the late 19th century proposed something similar. In Ebenezer Howard’s groundbreaking Garden Cities of To-Morrow, published in 1902, he conceived of a wheel-shaped urban model that was entirely self-sufficient, with a balanced mix of residential, industrial, and agricultural lands. The new utopian ideal would be to assimilate healthy, organic food access into residential urban and suburban planning, a kind of “farm city.” Unlike the failed model of the outlying suburban cul-de-sac, where the only way to get anywhere is to drive, or the urban reality of separation from food sources and the carbon debt of shipping and trucking food into urban centers, the new farm city movement would make healthy food access a priority and an intimate part of everyday life.

We keep wanting the cheap and plentiful resource party to last, of course; for the long, ecstatic binge to continue without a hangover. But the days of seemingly unlimited natural resources are behind us. Nonrenewable means just that. The farm of the future will need to be far more sustainable than its current iteration. With increasing demand and fewer resources, future farms will have to be smarter, more efficient, and far less exploitive.


In the last half century, we’ve become very efficient at farming large tracts of synthetically managed monocultures that feed millions, but we’re completely incompetent at managing our food security, biodiversity, soil health, and natural environment. The strongest argument for taking back our food supply from the “agropoly” of industrial agriculture, besides the obvious human health concern, is environmental degradation and food security.

By growing organically, we build sustainable nutrient systems in the soil that are biodiverse, we decrease the fossil fuel emissions that are inherent in chemical farming (eliminating synthetic nitrogen alone reduces fossil fuel consumption by 33 percent), and we sequester more carbon in the soil as organic matter, which removes CO2 from the atmosphere. These practices have a significant impact on climate change. According to the 2008 Rodale Institute study Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global Warming, moving away from synthetic and toward organic agriculture is one of the most effective strategies for mitigating the effects of CO2emissions.

In fact, it’s an environmental emergency as much as a human health crisis that shapes many of the arguments for a global shift to organic agriculture. According to IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), “Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved… .” Sounds right to me.

Farm cities, of a sort, are beginning to flourish on urban rooftops and in reclaimed school-yards, and empty lots, giving urban communities access to local food. These rooftop farms build awareness and local access and can be vital oases of fresh organics in an urban food desert. Though many of these urban efforts struggle with contaminated soils and water, high levels of atmospheric lead and mercury (leafy greens are particularly vulnerable to contamination by heavy metals in urban environments), or tenuous rights to land use, they are moving in the right direction.

Some urban centers are also served by community gardens, usually cultivated by neighborhood groups on vacant lots. There’s a long history of this type of land use, beginning in the late 19th century with Detroit setting aside plots, or “potato patches,” for residents in an effort to stem urban hunger. There were other movements that followed, usually in response to war or economic crises, including the school gardens movement (1900-20), garden city plots (1905-10), liberty gardens (1917-20), relief gardens (1930-39), victory gardens (1941-45), and community gardens (1970-present).

The developed world has been very good at crisis management with our food supply in the past, but the slow and looming emergency that haunts us now is more complex and, ultimately, harder to solve. Climate change, population growth, land depletion and pollution, water shortages, and the dependence of industrial agriculture on nonrenewable and dwindling petroleum supplies means whole paradigms will need to change.



With US Census Bureau data showing that 82 percent of Americans are now living in cities and suburbs (the global urban rate is 52 percent), that means that more than three-quarters of the US population shares just about 3 percent of the US land, and these are the places at greatest risk of food instability. The more “farm city” urban and suburban planning we can begin to introduce now, the better shape we’ll be in by midcentury, when the US population will have swollen to census estimates of 439 million (an almost 40 percent increase from today). The only way to feed that many Americans a decent, healthy diet is to put more land into production, or even to turn some of our sacred federally protected land into arable use. It’s not just land use, of course, it’s also other resources like energy and water that will be tapped out by increasing population demands. A portent of the looming food crisis can be found in California, the nation’s leading agricultural producer, which has been breaking drought records (2013 was the driest ever) and will continue to see severe droughts as a result of climate change. Their primary water source for their agricultural irrigation, the Colorado River, is only a trickle of its former self, with 78 percent of its vitality diverted to grow crops, according to the USDA. It used to run, massive and wild, from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez, carving out the Grand Canyon in its wake. It now ends in a mudflat somewhere in the Mexican desert.


Outside of urban centers, some progressive developers have begun to build residential communities around working farms, a sort of “agri-burbia” where there are fields of Asian greens and organic kale and farm-to-table restaurants instead of golf courses and tennis courts. Dozens of these developments have sprung up across the country, fueled by the local-food movement, with evocative names like Prairie Crossing, Hidden Springs, Harvest, Serenbe. Residents share in their locally grown produce, take vegetarian cooking classes, and often volunteer on the farms. Though this is a new—and rare—suburban model, it’s an encouraging alternative to the SUV-bound developments that burden residents with long drives to Costcos and Walmarts for their food.

In parts of northern Europe, zoning restrictions won’t allow new housing developments to be built in a food-access vacuum, and they are mandated to be within walking, cycling, or public transport to a market. Europe is more bound by laws and more populous, of course, and the cultures are more abiding, so what works there may not work within the free-market opportunism of the United States. It’s the entrepreneurs in this country who are left to conceive of and build an “agri-topian” option, motivated as much by profit as by any kind of sustainable idealism. These are still the suburbs, mind you, but unlike the usual nondescript clusters of sameness in the middle of nowhere, these communities are centered around and connected to the shared, progressive idea of access to local, organic food.

Food should not only bind us intimately to the rhythms of the natural world, but should also bring us together collaboratively, creating systems of supply that work for all. Food urbanist and architect Carolyn Steel proposes in her book Hungry City that food access is a way to reconsider cities and the way we live in them, and she calls her new urbanism “sitopia,” a reimagining of utopia. Sitopia is a word she cobbled from the Greek word for food (sitos) and the word for place (topos), so sitopia is a “food place.” And unlike a utopia, which means “good place” or “no place” (a Platonic ideal that is ultimately unattainable), urban places that are shaped by fair access to healthy food are a workable goal.

Allotment gardens are a form of “sitopian” idealism. Allotments, or Schrebergärten in German, are small plots of land affordably leased for gardening and growing food outside of urban centers. Almost unknown in the United States, allotments are common in Europe, where access to fresh air and food is considered a civil right, not a luxury.

There are millions of small, patchwork, 50-square-meter plots of productive land cultivated by individual families throughout Europe. You see them on the outskirts of cities—bordering rail lines or encircling suburbs; in Italy, I’ve even seen orchards and vineyards flourishing on highway medians. These microfarms not only improve the quality of life for urbanites but also serve as a form of social cohesion and added food security. Outside of Berlin alone, there are nearly 900 allotment garden complexes. From the air, Berlin’s urban center seems to be intimately woven into a beautiful checkered tapestry of food.