Can Urban Farms Become “Too Big?”

21 Oct, 2012

by Christopher Weber, via Grist.org

Kids at Suzie's FarmEnvironmentalists have grown used to thinking of urban agriculture as something that occurs on pinched vacant lots in former industrial towns. But as farms of 20 acres or more start appearing in more cities, their owners are reworking the definition of “urban farm,” and causing some agtivists to question whether bigger really is better.

In San Diego, there’s the 140-acre Suzie’s Farm. In Albuquerque, there is 40-acre Skarsgard Farms. Not only are both located within the city limits, they both grew more than $1 million in organic produce this season.

The success of such farms, combined with urban agriculture’s broad appeal, is inspiring city officials to consider dedicating large chunks of vacant land to farming.

In San Francisco, redevelopment plans for the former Navy base on Treasure Island include an “urban agriculture park” of more than 20 acres, according to Michael Tymoff, the project director. In Cleveland, a 26-acre farming district has taken root where houses once stood. In Kansas City, Mo., leaders are considering turning a 420-acre former prison, or some portion thereof, into a farm.

“We believe that there is room for both food system-related uses as well as more ‘traditional’ types of development” at the site, says Gerald Williams, a planner with the City of Kansas City. Depending on how much land Williams and his colleagues ultimately dedicate to agriculture, they may be building the biggest urban farm in the country.

The average American farm covers 418 acres, far more than the largest of its city counterparts. Yet the expanding footprint of farms in the urban core underscores people’s interest in the aesthetic of farming, as well as the rising market for local products and the abundance of vacant urban land.

Detroit’s Hantz Farms is still a modest operation, but its outsized ambition has created a controversy of equal proportions. Businessman John Hantz originally proposed a for-profit urban farm of 10,000 acres.

But local outcry about the plan—including its size and Hantz’s low-ball offer for the land—forced him to downsize to a still-expansive 200 acres, which will be planted as a tree farm. The project’s website proclaims it both “the world’s largest urban farm” and “Detroit’s saving grace.”

The Hantz controversy highlights one of the most vexing questions about urban agriculture: How much land should cities properly devote to farming?

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