14 September 2010

Communities Get Gardening Bug

Reposted in full from The Ottowa Citizen, 24 August 2010

'New York City is dotted with more than 10,000 acres of unused land and Stacey Murphy would like to see it lush with tomatoes, cucumbers and arugula.

The architect-turned-urban farmer started a business in Brooklyn last summer that's turning backyards, vacant lots, and school property into organic garden plots.

With the motto, " You have the land, we grow the produce," Ms. Murphy's company, B K Farmyards, offers a new twist on sharecropping.

In exchange for some "seed" money and a sizable share of the harvest, her team will show up in private backyards and empty lots to install planting beds and irrigation systems, plant, and then tend to the crops for the growing season.

"Urban farming can have a direct impact on a very local community," says Ms. Murphy, a 36- year old Michigan native. "A lot of neighbourhoods don't have access to fresh produce." Her ultimate aim is to help create a financially sustainable model for urban agriculture with a large network of tiny farms throughout the city.

As little as 250 square feet can grow enough produce to feed four or five people for six months.

From two small backyard plots seeded in Brooklyn last summer, her business network has expanded to include a 50-hen chicken coop, rooftop honey-bee hives and a one-acre educational farm on the front lawn of a high school that sells low-cost produce to the community at a weekly farmer's market run by students.

Ms. Murphy's effort is part of a growing urban farm movement in cities across the United States.

While city gardens have often sprung up over the past century during economic downturns and wartime, the latest crop also has a new driver: food awareness and sustainability.

Many neighbourhoods in New York are "fresh food deserts," with no supermarkets to serve local residents.

In some communitie s , the dearth of food options besides convenience stores selling candy, ice-cream and soft drinks has led to chronic health problems for residents, a tremendous burden on the already financially ailing U.S. health-care system.

In New York, community gardens, which are typically cultivated on vacant lots owned by the city, have long helped fill that gap.

In most of New York's roughly 500 community gardens, members get their own plots to grow food to help supplement their needs.

Little is known about how much food New York's tiny gardens produce.

In an attempt to figure out the worth of the city's annual harvest, Mara Gittleman is corralling a group of volunteers with scales to weigh produce as part of a project she calls Farming Concrete.

"Quantifying how much farming is done would enhance the perceived value of these community gardens as public land and also give them a defined space in the urban food system," says Ms. Gittleman.

A similar project in Philadelphia found the city's community gardens grew around US$10-million worth of food in one season.

Typically, any profit generated by selling produce from such gardens at farmers markets is plowed back into the community gardens themselves.

Ms. Murphy's BK Farmyards launched last year is based on a different concept.

Unlike most community gardens, which usually only serve the needs of a limited number of residents, she wants to cultivate a network of tiny farms involved in high-yield food production, ultimately run by urban farmers who can make money at the ventures.

"Community gardens are an amazing resource," says Ms. Murphy, who grew up gardening in her mother's 2,000 square-foot plot in the Detroit area. "But it's a little different than what we're doing." Ms. Murphy says her company started out as a for-profit venture when it was mainly looking to convert people's backyards and other privately owned outdoor spaces into gardens.

One of her biggest projects to date is a youth farm in partnership with the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a mainly low-income neighbourhood with very limited fresh food options.

Over the next four years or so, BK Farmyards expects the one-acre farm on the school's front lawn to grow enough affordable and healthy produce for 80 families, as well as provide employment and educational opportunities for youth and adults in the area.

Because it's on public land, any money made on the farm goes back into the school and the community.

Now Ms. Murphy is weighing whether to split her company in two: a for-profit business, which would include her little farms on privately owned land, and a not-for- profit business that would focus on education and include her new partnerships on public lands, such as the high school project and city-owned public garden spaces.

"The logistics of having a for-profit business doesn't really fit well," she says. "When we're on public land, the big goal is to do education." More important than any profit, she says, "it's a basic human right to have fresh food."'

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