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Jerk in the Boston Globe

November 7, 2008

By David Thier


The Boston Globe recently ran a particularly idiotic collumn railing on the possibility of Harvard starting a farm, railing on the actuality of Yale having a farm, railing on the uselessness of using any urban land for agriculture, railing on the uselessness of agricultural reform, and, more likely, railing about some deep fear of castration or desire to re-enter the womb.

There’s a whole lot wrong with that column, most of which doesn’t merit the slightest repetition or refutation. I’ll stick with one sentence: 

If Harvard had any economists in its employ… these experts might explain the folly of trying to grow food on expensive urban land.

The idea, basically, is that urban agriculture is useless and we would be much better off cramming more Starbucks and Urban Outfitterses on every street corner. That, is, I think, wrong.

The occasionally embarrassing slow-food advocate Joel Salatin has been quoted saying that we don’t really need places like New York City, but the majority of us rational food reformists don’t take such a radical view. Not only are cities a fact of modern life, they seem like they will only grow and grow. The trick then, is not only figuring out how to feed cities, but how to help cities feed themselves.

Urban farming is a thriving field, and has been getting a lot of media attention being called the future of agriculture. Projects don’t only include the obvious – reclaiming vacant lots for agriculture, backyard gardening and the like, but also the more inventive: living walls with cantaloupes hanging off of them, skyscraper greenhouses that bring to mind a modern day hanging garden, growing roofs that help to insulate buildings as well, and even growing on unlikely places like highway medians. The key is not to imagine a city as vast expanse of asphalt, but rather as a large amount of land with large buildings in it. Just because the buildings are bigger doesn’t change the land around them.

The problem is that people like the idiotic columnist don’t see urban agriculture as a future: they see it as a graft of the past onto the present. This isn’t a romanticized dream of being an Italian peasant being played out in a Brooklyn lot, this is the city of the future. A living, productive city will draw on traditional agricultural knowledge, modern technology, urban studies, and most importantly, the commitment and involvement of city dwellers themselves.

Despite all of his accusations of elitism, there could be nothing more elitist than assuming that the current paradigm of food in cities is working, Obesity rates are skyrocketing and deserts without healthy food are gaping across slums. Urban farming is not about artisanal cheeses and beautiful peppers, it’s about the economic and physical health of the inner cities, and its about growing food where it can be grown because it can be grown there.

Yesterday at WLH, the YSFP sponsored a conversation about the future of urban farming with nonprofit managers from Holyoke, New Haven, and Detroit. Programs like Nuestras Raices in Holyoke are discovering that not only can urban agriculture actually produce food, it can also revitalize immigrant communities, give financial viability to people without other kinds of expertise, and re-focus local economies around businesses that actually help communities instead of just sucking labor and capitol without giving anything back. Also, Puerto Ricans in Holyoke seem to have figured out that if they want fresh aji dulce peppers, they’re just going to have to grow them themselves.

There’s just no reason to put a foot down and say cities are for starbucks and the country is for farming. We live in a fluid world here, and what’s needed is adaptability, not inflexibility. We currently have grand systems in place, largely based on oil, and they are crumbling apart. The old paradigms will not hold, and the question is not can we make them work, it’s what we will do when they fail. Yeats poem was not a statement, but a question, and it’s up to us to provide an answer:

“What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 7, 2008 5:07 pm

    Thank you for connecting the dots that Alex Beam failed to connect. I do think his views, however annoyingly expressed, represent a mainstream disdain for the progressive and innovative projects that elite schools like Harvard and Yale have the support to carry out.

    That’s why advancing your big-picture ideas about growing food in urban environments is so important. The more you can talk about–and work with–the multiple groups who can benefit from urban agriculture, the better.

    Keep up the good work!

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