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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The End of Community Gardening as We Know It?

It may be that the winter doldrums are in full force but  it seems that everything I read recently or issues that come up about community gardening are changing what the term means. When movements mature they are often co-opted, commercialized or changed by various forces. Community Gardening has all of those forces at play. People want to call all kinds of things community gardening that maybe should not be. Urban Agriculture is the term du jour. Almost everyone loves talking about urban agriculture. Local food, locavores, artisanal food products are all words that get lots of play in the media as they point out the ways to commercialize urban agriculture. Community gardeners have been caught up in the wave and brought to the marketplace. A community garden that isn't selling some of their produce is not taking advantage of the opportunities out there to make money. All of the other value that community gardening brings to a livable city is overshadowed by the value of the produce that is sold.

There is a lot of conflict about selling produce grown on community garden land, not the least of which is the use of municipal land for 'profit'. I put profit in quotes because for the most part we are talking about relatively small sums of money and no one I know is getting rich selling tomatoes, basil or eggs from a community garden. Much like many farmers are operating on small profit margins and not getting rich or even paying the bills without someone in the family working off farm to provide health insurance or helping to pay the mortgage. Even so the city agencies that own the land are looking hard at the use of public land for profit. There great programs that work on high school grounds utilizing the garden to teach all kinds of subject matter and in some cases supplying food to school cafeterias. Once they begin to sell some of the produce at little farm stands to support the program there is now cash around and everybody wants a piece. A perfect example of how the community benefits of an urban agriculture project is trumped by how much money is made by the program.

Those touted as visionaries are the ones that are growing food on rooftops. Absolutely, there is a place for rooftop farms. They can make money by supplying fancy restaurants and selling at small markets but their inputs are higher than in the ground farmers so thy have to charge a higher price to make a profit. They also have to think big. The size of the largest urban farm keeps increasing from 40,000 square feet to now 100,000 square feet . There are economies of scale and  in terms of local food security these large projects are necessary to provide more than a fraction of a percent of the fresh food needs of the city.

Why all of the talk about rooftops? What is the connection to community gardens? Community gardeners see the notoriety that rooftop farming and urban agriculture is getting and once again see that their efforts and the benefits of community gardens are not valued. My concern is that city planners and politicians will decree that the only thing that matters is the bottom line. If taken to the extreme, it could get to the point where all government and foundation support vanishes and the land goes to the person or business that has the best plan for making money and being self supporting. Those most in need will be left fighting on the ground for the crumbs while those higher up off the ground both literally and financially will get the fancy crops.

I hope it does not come to this but once again community gardeners' volunteer time and effort must go to being constantly vigilant to what is going on around the city and not letting their efforts be disregarded.