April 13, 2012 | Dan Allen
The following is a guest post from Dan Allen, the CFO of Farmscape Gardens, a Los Angeles-based organic garden installation and maintenance company that since its founding has become the largest urban farming venture in Southern California.
Urban farming has a dirty secret: the vast majority of garden plots in backyards, schoolyards, community gardens, rooftops and vacant lots are in a state of disrepair. Weeds outnumber thriving vegetables, soil nutrient levels are depleted, and irrigation is irregular at best.
This reality clashes squarely with the presentation of urban farming by journalists, academics and activists. The noble objectives of these urban farming projects means that those covering urban farming tend to overlook the harsh reality that most are neglected, ravaged by pests and withered from irregular irrigation.
This failure can be traced back to two key variables: poor infrastructure and poor management. Let’s start with poor infrastructure.
Vegetables require nutrient-rich soil that drains well and has high levels of soil organic matter. This ideal soil composition takes many years to develop. Nevertheless, most in-ground vegetable gardens are planted in areas which have been drained of nutrients by decades of unsustainable landscaping practices without adequate rehabilitation of the soil ecosystem.
In other cases, gardeners will setup raised beds and import soil to their site to circumvent the need to understand the existing soil at the site. Most annual vegetables require at least 18” of soil depth to thrive. The most commonly sold raised beds are 11” deep. Suboptimal soil depth predictably begets suboptimal yield.
Finally, annual vegetables flourish with a relatively consistent watering schedule. Unlike perennial plants that are able to develop large root systems which increases their drought- tolerance, annuals have shallower root systems. More than 90% of garden projects that I have encountered do not have automated irrigation systems. Without this automation, even the most fastidious gardener will inevitably miss some scheduled waterings and yields suffer.
Infrastructure shortcomings, however, pale in comparison to the the shortcomings in farm management. Infrastructure receives the bulk of the investment. When building a garden in their front or back yard, homeowners tend to view the garden as a one-time landscaping expense, while grants and donations support construction of school and community gardens. There is funding for a farm but no funding for a farmer.
A couple years ago, I began researching how my venture, Farmscape, could best help school garden projects. As part of that process, I met with dozens of people involved in Los Angeles school gardens. They all said the same thing: the hard part wasn’t building the vegetable garden, it was keeping it thriving. Everybody loves a ribbon cutting but the projects would flounder when key teachers got busy or moved, and students of key parents graduated.
Some community gardens have attempted to solve the challenge posed by departures of key participants by relying on collective management structures. Over time, however, effective management breaks down. As one veteran community gardener summed it up in an interview with NPR: “Our experience is, it’s an unequal participation, and an unequal sharing.”
An urban farm without a farmer is like a school with no teachers, a hospital with no doctors, a stadium with no team, or a city with no mayor. Anarchy reigns.
With all due respect to the cause of guerilla gardening, we need farmers, not seed bombs. Farmers are stewards of the soil, experts at maximizing the productive potential of a plot of land, and keen appreciators of effective infrastructure investments. Farmers turn a plot into a farm with their hard work throughout the season.
The food system is changing. The population of rural farmers is aging and a new generation of would-be farmers can’t afford to purchase land. Surging farmland prices are resulting in ever greater consolidation of farms. Meanwhile, consumer preferences are changing as appreciation for local, organic, and heirloom produce grows.
In building a successful network of urban farms, we must properly understand and anticipate the importance of ongoing maintenance. Each farm needs a dedicated farmer, whether volunteer or professional. Ignore this fact, and we’ll keep spending a lot of time and money preparing plots for weeds and aphids.