Small urban farms benefit environment, human health

By Lauren Kelly

Where does food come from? The grocery store, of course.

Our experience of buying and consuming food is much different than it has traditionally been for most of human history. We are far removed from the growing process and don’t often consider the reality of where food comes from and what it took to get it from the ground to our plates. Many children think that food simply comes from Jewel and are amazed when they find out it grows naturally in the ground. Even many adults don’t fully understand what goes into the production of food.

The truth is, farming is a big business and has become a massive industrial operation. It is nothing like the simple family farms we like to think of when we imagine where our fruit grows.

These large farming companies have negative effects on our food supply and environment. There are many environmental problems resulting from large-scale farming, which is responsible for roughly 1/3 of the gas emissions causing climate change, according to an April Mother Jones article. The techniques used by many large farm companies also deplete the soil and damage the Earth because of how much is grown in a short time. In addition to environmental effects, there are health concerns to worry about when eating industrialized food. Much of it is infused with preservatives and many crops are sprayed with pesticides that have questionable effects on the human body.

Farmers need to feed billions of people, which is no small feat. But the art of farming is an ancient skill that anyone can learn, and food production doesn’t have to be controlled by big corporations. Even though land is limited, it is possible for city dwellers to be involved in farming. People can have small gardens on their decks or in their yards, even something as simple as a tomato plant. It’s also easy to grow herbs on a windowsill.

It is definitely easier to have gardens and farms in rural areas where land is available, but surprisingly, there is a growing trend in cities to start medium-sized farms. Chicago is home to a few farms and organizations that make use of unused land to grow food, such as City Farm and Green Youth Farm, which were recognized by Natural Home magazine as being two of the top 10 urban farms in America.

People with busy lifestyles who don’t have time to participate can still support local operations by making an effort to buy their products. Chicago has dozens of farmers markets that sell locally-grown produce, not necessarily grown in Chicago proper, but mainly from smaller surrounding towns in Illinois and surrounding states.

There are many benefits of investing in and promoting urban farms. They provide people with the opportunity to eat local food and be more connected with the farming process. Eating locally-grown produce is also better for the environment. Because it doesn’t need to travel long distances, local produce has less of a need for preservatives.

Supporting local food production also eliminates hundreds of miles of transportation waste and cuts down on fuel consumption.

Farms are sometimes started in vacant lots or on unused land. This idea may greatly benefit cities such as Detroit and Chicago, where vacant lots are plentiful.

There are many ideas about how to grow large volumes of food with limited space. One such idea is vertical farming, a technique described in an Aug. 24 New York Times op-ed by Dickson Despommier. Vertical farms are multi-story buildings dedicated to growing produce that would use hydroponics systems to provide nutrients to the plants, which would save space and not harm the Earth. This is a very real possibility that would make food production a sustainable venture for cities.

People everywhere, especially those in urban areas, need to reconnect with their food. Although small urban farms could never be the main source of food for large cities because of their populations, they are a good addition to food production that benefits everyone involved and gives people a renewed connection to what sustains life.