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Penn State and NYU to Launch Study to Investigate State of Urban Agriculture in US

August 21, 2012 |

News Release – UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Farming in the city is a hot topic in some circles, but an exact picture of urban agriculture has not yet been painted.

However, researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, along with faculty from New York University, soon will begin a study to examine the state of urban agriculture in the United States today.

The project, titled “The State of Urban Farming in the United States: Enhancing the Viability of Small and Medium-Sized Commercial Urban Farms,” is funded by a $453,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Urban agriculture — also known as urban farming — includes enterprises located in urban or urban edge areas that most often grow high-value crops and sell their products to direct markets in urban areas, such as restaurants, farmers’ markets or through community supported agriculture efforts, often called CSAs.

Urban agriculture also is diverse in production methods. For example, crops may be grown in vacant lots, on rooftops, by hydroponic methods (growing plants without soil) or in high tunnels (a type of greenhouse; also known as hoop houses), among others.

Lydia Oberholtzer, senior research associate in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education and one of the project’s leaders, said that while urban agriculture is gaining increased attention from many, accurate statistics indicating what is happening in the field are not yet available.

“We think it’s increasing, and we want to look at the innovation happening on the ground,” she said. “We also want to develop and disseminate information that can help these producers mitigate their production and marketing risks.”

The study will examine trends in urban farming by surveying producers and interviewing key stakeholders in 15 cities.

John Byrnes, director for Penn State Extension in Philadelphia, is part of the advisory group for the research project and has implemented urban agriculture projects in that city.

“We’ve gotten progressively more involved in urban agriculture on a number of levels,” he said. “New projects are happening every season.”

Byrnes has worked with Bill Lamont, professor of vegetable crops at Penn State, to bring agricultural technology to Philadelphia. For example, they have helped implement several high tunnel programs, starting with a structure at W. B. Saul High School, which is focused on agriculture. Currently, there are 10 operations with high tunnels in the city.

Byrnes said there are several reasons why urban agriculture has become more popular. He noted that it is a business, but profit is not the only motivation to become involved.

“Most of the time growers are motivated toward improving community health or improving access to healthy food, or to introduce teenagers or those out of work to new job skills,” he said. “The impact is much deeper and much more complicated than just making money. Once we get to that conversation, urban agriculture becomes a much more dynamic and inclusive topic for discussion.”

With urban agriculture, young farmers may have a chance to put unused land in the cities into production, according to Oberholtzer.

“Urban agriculture can provide an economic opportunity and is a community development tool,” she said. “It can provide green, open space and a place for community in an urban area. It also can affect access to food for many folks where access to fresh local produce is an issue.”

She added that urban farmers may face barriers such as soil pollution, soil quality, nutrient scarcity and challenges in marketing products.

City policies and zoning also can be a barrier to urban farming.

While those barriers exist, Byrnes noted that Extension’s strong history and energy in working with agriculture helps.

“The common need is what the college has to offer: big-picture thinking when it comes to entrepreneurship, production and land-use issues,” he said. “It really taps into the heart of the strength of Extension — having a local focus, trying to stay relevant, listening to what people need and drawing from strengths to serve growers and operations.”


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