July 15, 2016

Is Urban Farming All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

With the rural population dwindling, around 80 percent of American’s now live in urban centers. Many are raising their own food in community gardens or backyard patios, but a new movement is encouraging urban farming – and the research to back it up.

Most farmers turn to land-grand universities, such as University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for research, economics and practical advice on raising a specific crop or livestock. Today, the only land-grant university in the country with an exclusively urban focus is the University of the District of Columbia. Che' Axum, director of the 143-acre research farm in Beltsville, Md., spends most of the day farming, but he and his small team also spend a great deal of time applying experimental techniques and analyzing research. The goal of their farm is to research and test techniques in sustainable and organic agriculture, applying them to an urban agricultural setting.

Che' Axum stands in a hoop house at the University of the District of Columbia's Muirkirk Research Farm, a resource for urban farmers in the city. 
Just like Nebraska corn farmers who are Sustaining Innovation to grow more with less, one of the central questions of urban agriculture is how to grow more food in less space. Instead of vast fields testing dozens of varieties of wheat, Axum's research farm has raised beds, narrow hoop houses and even a shipping container. He gives growers advice on where to buy decent soil or how to compost their own, in case the land they plan to grow on has a seedy industrial past.

Axum says the urban farmers he is working with aren't looking to grow one crop for a commodity market, but enough crops to replace a trip to the grocery store or to fill a small farm box for customers. They need to know a little about a lot of varieties in order to make the most of small growing spaces. And, often, it's been a generation or two since anyone in their family has lived on a farm.
UDC grows crops hydroponically.
Growing crops is not the only form of urban farming popping up. The Dutch city of Rotterdam is planning to build a floating dairy on a barge. Forty cows would live on 1,200 square meters on the top floor. They would produce 1,000 liters of milk every day, which would be pasteurized and turned into yogurt on the bottom floor.
A concept of the Rotterdam floating dairy.

The goal with urban farming like this is to make cities like Rotterdam more agriculturally self-sufficient. While there are arguments on either side of agricultural self-sufficiency, no environment is perfect for raising ALL types of food. That’s why we have a global economy with important trade opportunities and partner with organizations like the U.S. Grains Council and U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Urban farmers and conventional (or do we say rural?) farmers seem pretty much alike. While urban farming might not be the most economical venture using land in a city to farm, both types of farmers are wanting to do a better job on every bit of land they have to raise food. They both have sustainability in mind with the practices they use and the idea of passing their farm onto the next generation. And they both want to have safe, affordable food for improving human health.

We’re all in this together – raising food for a growing world.

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