Agriculture through Rose-Colored Glasses

by Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability

There has been an overwhelming amount of interesting writing recently around the topic of integrating food production back into our urban and regional awareness, and therefore our land use. This has taken many names and forms, among them Urban Farming, Community Gardening, Urban Agriculture, Agricultural Urbanism, Agriburbia, Agritopia … and related ideas such as farmland preservation, food security, the local food movement, community-supported agriculture, relocalization and many, many others.

One of the champions of Agricultural Urbanism has been New Urbanist leader Andres Duany, who has led the planning of numerous North American communities that seek to re-establish traditional village land use patterns that are based on integrated physical relationships between residential areas and surrounding rural lands. However in a recent presentation at the 18th Annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Toronto, he went beyond this concept into the new, more radical idea of Agrarian Urbanism, or the concept of a society concerned with the growing of food (0). This goes beyond the concept of land use into the idea of actual engagement of residents with their food production.

Attending the same event was James Kunstler:
”Among other things, the most forward-looking leaders in the New Urbanist movement now recognize that we have to reorganize the landscape for local food production, because industrial agriculture will be one of the prime victims of our oil predicament. The successful places in the future will be places that have a meaningful relationship with growing food close to home … Farming, at one level or another, is going to be your occupation.” (1)
One of the challenges of the architectural and planning perspective is the sense that we can use design to solve problems – in this case, really big problems like connecting people back to their awareness of food. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, “design it and they will come.” Agriculture has been called “the new golf”(2), now placed at the center of new development in lieu of recreational activities in places like Port Gamble WA (3) and Delta BC (4). But how successfully can we use land use planning to design communities that focus on farmland and expect that a steady supply of local food is the natural outcome?

Unfortunately farming isn’t quite that simple. There is much idealism associated with agriculture, which tends to be viewed through a lens of nostalgia for a past that very few of us ever have experienced. In addition, although farms can make for lovely-looking countryside, we venture into dangerous territory if we are now valuing agricultural land because of its aesthetic qualities and its marketability as the centerpiece of new development.

The practical realities of food production are considerable:
  1. Agriculture isn’t an optional accessory. Cities need farms, and farms need cities. If we’re serious about food security and a supply of affordable, nutritious food, we can’t just place farms where they’ll be nice accessories to suburban forms of development. We have to preserve all the viable land that we can within reasonably reached travel distances to our major urban centers. The NDP BC Government did a masterful job of agricultural land preservation with the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in 1973 (6). Even though this policy has been controversial since its inception, it has preserved over 18,000 square miles of potentially viable land primarily located in the Fraser River Valley that could easily have been consumed for suburban sprawl long ago.
  2. Food is seasonal. In the northwest and much of the rest of the country, this means that locally grown fruits and vegetables are abundantly available from May through November, and pretty much non-existent the rest of the year. Adjusting our expectations to this reality can be pretty challenging and requires the relearning of a whole new set of food preservation skills that our foremothers all knew. It also means that these centerpiece farms valued aesthetically for their verdant abundance, are going to look pretty sparse during a full half of each year.
  3. Prosperous farms aren’t necessarily pretty. Farmers who seek to make a living wage from their efforts are generally focused on food production, not necessarily keeping the 3-rail fences painted. Joel Salatin (5), the renegade farmer from Virginia and author of books such as You Can Farm, is very clear that profitable farms are often the worst-looking ones. This is because they’ve made an art form of frugality in order to survive without the crushing debt held by most current-day farm families.
  4. Growing food involves risk. There are no certain outcomes in farming. As if the risks of drought, flooding, lighting strikes, and pestilence weren’t enough, then there are the challenges of capitalization, competition, access to markets, community support and available infrastructure. So if a farm becomes the focus of a development, who assumes these risks? And what happens if the farm is not able to survive as a viable business?
  5. Farming is hard work. Creating a sustainable food supply isn’t the same as tending a p-patch. It takes physical labor, wisdom, and resources, and a commitment to be out there in the muck every single day from dawn til dusk if that’s what it takes. So in these planned communities, who is going to make that commitment? And how is this going to be more marketable than a golf course?
  6. The demographics don’t look very good. Not only is the average age of farmers in the United States is currently approaching 60 (7), but there is a critical shortage of young farmers willing or able to take over our existing farms. I once met a fellow who said that “every farmer is a closet developer”. Development of your land must look mighty seductive when you are 60 years old and your options are: 1) sell at minimal profit as farmland, if anyone is willing to buy; 2) keep farming until you die; 3) or abandon your land. Fortunately there are great non-profits like the PCC Farmland Trust (8) who have developed a creative financing model that allows farmland to remain in use while allowing land owners to cash out the development rights, while simultaneously creating opportunities for young farmers to get started.
On a recent episode of Jamie Oliver’s television show Food Revolution (9), it was sobering to watch an entire group of middle-class West Virginia first-graders who were unable to name a single one of the vegetables that the chef had brought into their classroom. Not even a potato or a tomato, not a single one. Clearly as a society we have serious work to do to re-awaken our lost awareness of what food is and where it comes from.

But I think we have an equal responsibility as design professionals to take the problems of our food supply as more than a simplistic equation of land use. Every one of us is a consumer, and every one of us has a stake in the health of our communities. Let’s start by supporting the work of groups that are already preserving, encouraging, and advocating for our small farmers, and be real about the challenges that these hardworking individuals face in continuing to feed us.