An Environmentalist on the Lie of Locavorism

Urban farms are lovely but they aren't actually green.

Transportation accounts for just 5 percent of the energy used by agriculture, so it’s the wrong place to look for efficiencies. Food production uses much more, but from that standpoint, urban farming gets the logic of nearness backward. A big rural farm is a marvel of efficient proximity, with hundreds of fertile acres bunched up against each other; when tractor drivers or tomato pickers finish one acre, they can start right in on the next. By contrast, urban farming works a far-flung, fragmented landscape, each cropped acre separated from the next by miles of crowded streets and buildings. Working those tiny, scattered city plots introduces huge dis-economies. Inputs like fertilizer and soil have to be hauled in pennypackets through stop-and-start traffic. Compost may be the best thing since holy water, but collecting, processing and distributing it in dribs and drabs burns fuel. Worse, the great expanses separating urban farmplots mean that labor and machinery can’t be efficiently deployed.

brooklyn grange 2- anne rafalko
Brooklyn Grange. (Photo: Kristine Paulus)

That won’t bother greens who think overmechanization is part of the problem with American agriculture. But low labor productivity has troubling implications for urban farming. Consider Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm that’s one of the best in the city; with harvests of one pound per square foot, its yields compare favorably to those of industrial farms. But coaxing those great yields from its expertly hand-tended beds, filled by premium dirt composted with bedding straw from the Preakness and Belmont stables, requires several staffers, a couple of interns and many volunteers, who dig, weed, pick and do other tasks that an industrial farm would pay Mexican migrant workers to do. That’s a lot of hands for just 2.5 acres, which is why so many go uncompensated.

The Grange isn’t unusual; according to Five Borough Farm, another urban farming manifesto from the Design Trust for Public Space, “even commercial farms rely to a large extent on unpaid interns for critical tasks.”

Unpaid labor would be the dirty secret of urban farmers if they didn’t shout it so loudly from their green rooftops. Brooklyn Grange’s website celebrates its creation during “six days of craning 3,000 lb soil sacks seven stories up to the roof” while “two dozen of our friends and family members shoveled in the sun and wind.” Volunteerism is not exploitation, but its prevalence raises the issue of scalability: how much can urban farming expand before the pool of joyful volunteer labor runs dry? And it undermines the credibility of farming as an economic development strategy. For while urban farms are grossly overstaffed, compared with other city enterprises they are job deserts.

Brooklyn’s Red Hook Community Farm is an example. It’s run by Added Value, a food-centered nonprofit funded in part by foundation sponsors that also has a farmer’s market, educational programs and a composting depot. In addition to some full- and part-time staffers, it employs a few part-time farm laborers at minimum wage during the summer and gives educational stipends to teens who help out. (Its website, of course, features an urgent standing invitation to volunteers.)

While Red Hook Farm is a dynamo by urban farm standards, when I visited on a cold Saturday afternoon in March, the one-acre plot was a graveyard: a silent, deserted tableau of wheelbarrows and dumpsters and mulchy mounds behind a padlocked security fence, as lifeless as the IKEA parking lot across the street. But the parking lot at least had an IKEA attached to it, which on that day was full of uncomfortable furniture, bickering couples, plastic houseplants—and hundreds of year-round jobs.

It may seem mean-spirited to judge Red Hook Farm during its late-winter hibernation, but that’s a telling aspect of urban farms. While they may be magnets for green charitable dollars, the business they generate on their own is too meager and spotty to do much for a neighborhood economy. We celebrate them for transforming vacant lots into verdant crop rows, but for much of the year they revert right back to vacant lots. They are the antithesis of sustainable economic development in a city neighborhood, which happens when people move in, apartments go up and businesses open shop with full-time jobs instead of seasonal volunteer gigs.

Hydroponic greenhouses are more economically robust, thanks to their astounding all-weather yields. Brooklyn’s Gotham Greens harvests 120 tons of leafy vegetables on just 15,000 square feet. Even allowing for the adjacent solar panels, that’s over 20 times the per-acre yield of a California lettuce field. Stats like those inspire “vertical farming” visionaries to imagine 30-story hydroponic skyscrapers feeding whole neighborhoods. 

An Environmentalist on the Lie of Locavorism