What is an Urban Farm?

a homemade sign at an urban farm


Editor’s note: When Dan Susman first reached out to me about giving some attention to his documentary on urban agriculture, he offered to write a guest post… and I took him up on it! Dan and film making partner Andrew are getting really close to their fundraising goal, so if you’re intrigued by their work after reading this post, consider kicking in a donation.

After traveling to more than twenty cities and visiting over eighty urban farms across the country for my documentary film, Growing Cities, you’d think I’d be able to sum urban farming up in one sentence; be able to say exactly what it is, who does it, and why. But, I can’t. I’ve met tons of city farmers, from backyard chicken keepers to community gardeners, and seen people growing food in the most unlikely of places. Nonetheless, I still can’t find a neat and tidy way to describe the urban agriculture movement.

Growing Cities follows my friend Andrew and I on our journey across country meeting people who are revitalizing their cities by growing food. The film is currently in post-production and we are raising money for its completion via Kickstarter.com (only a few days left to reach our goal – you can watch our trailer and make a pledge here). Our goal with the film is to inspire and empower people to grow food no matter where they live or what type of experience they have.

But let’s get back to definitions. The best I can do is urban farmers are people growing food in the city. And that is quite obvious. So obvious, that I rarely define it at all. When Andrew and I set off to make this film over a year ago, we thought we knew what we getting ourselves into. We had read about, watched, talked to, and generally harassed nearly every urban farmer we could get a hold of. But what you don’t get from all that is the feeling on the ground; how the vibes from one city to the next or even one block to another are so diverse.

And it’s these diverse stories which make Growing Cities more than just another foodie movie but a tale of both farmers and of the American spirit during rough times. We meet both everyday people and farmers on the cutting-edge of this revolution, showing that anyone anywhere can grow food. We found this grassroots movement takes many forms – from those growing food in backyards to make ends meet; to educators teaching kids to eat better; to activists seeking a meaningful alternative to the industrial food system, and more.

Alone these reasons why people are growing food are compelling. However, it’s their synergy that makes this movement so resilient and what attracts people of every age, race, and socio-economic background. And let’s be honest, it sure doesn’t hurt that what they are growing is food – the object that has bound us together since the beginning of our existence.

a rooftop farm
Rooftops have become popular spots for growing food

Yet, what’s most exciting to me is that urban farming allows people to re-imagine what’s possible in cities. City farmers challenge us to get beyond the urban-rural divide and really think about how we can all be producers in a society that is driven by consumption. It might be this quality more than anything else that is capturing so many people’s hearts and minds.

I don’t think I’ll ever really arrive at a neat and tidy definition of urban farming. That said I can tell you what it is – a backyard garden, a mom concerned about what her kids are eating, a tomato in a windowsill, an organizer demanding access to fresh food for her community, and everything in between. Together, these parts make a movement; one that is creating Growing Cities across the country – communities that are healthier, more sustainable, and socially just. The only question left is, “What are you growing?”

Dan & Andrew are currently running a Kickstarter campaign and need to raise $5,000 in the next week to complete their film. Watch their trailer (and make a pledge) here.

You can also follow their journey on their website, Facebook, or by joining their mailing list.

Images courtesy of Growing Cities

  1. Jeff

    Urban Farming no – Urban Gardening yes. Farming implies that it is the primary use of the property and that their is either 1) subsistence family farming, or 2) use as a revenue source which urban “farming” is neither, it’s supplemental at best.

    I could envision large warehouse rooftop farms in urban areas that could feed, say a local farmers’ market with specialty locally grown foods, but on a porch, empty 1/10 acre lot or otherwise I think we’re talking garden. My grandfather used to have a great garden, but I wouldn’t call it a farm, and it was probably larger than most rooftops in urban areas.

  2. Dan

    This is a good point, and yes, ‘garden’ vs. ‘farm’ is a good distinction to make. However, when it comes to ‘urban agriculture’, this term has come to stand for a movement. Until the last five or ten years we had many separate ‘urban farming’ movements – there were backyard gardeners, community gardeners, beekeepers, market gardeners and more. What we’ve found is the term ‘urban farming’ is unifying – it’s a way that this movement can ‘flex it’s muscle’ giving all of us growing food in cities a collective voice. When you have a collective voice you are stronger. And stronger means healthier, happier, and more sustainable cities.That is why we use the term…some farmers we met along the way might disagree, but I think all would understand why we are starting to talk about it in this way.

  3. Kate B

    I don’t know why someone would want to get into a semantics argument about a really cool movement but ..whatever. I suppose attempting define something maybe invites that argument? Regardless everyone who can do what they can to source their food as locally as possible is doing a great thing for their family, their community, and the environment. We all will likely need to be more resilient in the future and this is a great start that anyone can do at whatever level they are capable of given the space that they have. Personally I live on .15 acres in a downtown urban neighborhood. I have goats, chickens, bees as well as vegetable garden space, 11 different tree fruits, 4 kinds of berries, and the starts of medicinal herb garden space growing a dozen plus herbs that will help me in my herbalist endeavors. I think I call that urban farming. But I think that someone maintaining a community garden plot is an urban farmer too. It is a mindset that has little to do with traditional definitions and to each their own.

  4. Roxanne Christensen

    What is a farmer? It’s easy to grow food. It’s quite different to grow consistently, in significant volume, at commercial grade. Ironically what has gotten lost in our zeal to connect with the source of our food is that farming is an occupation. It requires talent, training, knowledge and business savvy. It is no different than any other highly-skilled profession.
    The leap people are having difficulty making is that commercial farming has a place in cities. That is because there have not been any economically viable crop production models that were appropriately scaled for cities. But in the last few years new farmers in the US and Canada have been having success with SPIN-Farming, which is an organic-based, small plot farming system that outlines how to make money growing in backyards, front lawns, neighborhood lots and rooftops. An urban agriculture industry that can compete successfully with agribusiness can’t be built based on community gardens and social programs. It needs to be professionalized. The next important step in rebuilding local food systems is to convert some of the energy and enthusiasm surrounding urban farming into viable farm businesses. Real food needs real farmers.

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