Urban agriculture: an emerging avenue

By Yogendra (Yogi) Raut, PhD, Soil Research Associatehydroponics
The information provided in this report is based on a visit March 14-17, 2017 at University of Illinois Extension, Chicago. This meeting was sponsored by the NIFA-North Central IPM Centers and Great Lakes Urban Agriculture IPM Working Group that includes The Ohio State University Research Foundation, The University Director’s Fund, and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE).  There were almost thirty participants attending this meeting from Ohio and Illinois.  Each participant was requested to have two oral presentations; one status report and two about the future strategies about the problems and issues with Urban Agriculture Farming. Each day, an educational tour was scheduled visiting successful urban farming operations in the area to discuss one-on-one about the problems and issues pertaining to the operation, maintenance, and marketing aspects of the system.  The objective of the meeting was to synthesize issues, problems, and learn about successes as well as measures to resolve some of the issues facing urban agriculture to guide future planning, monitoring, and evaluation systems. 

While environmental advocacy groups are protesting urbanization and real estate development mainly because of shrinking farmland, and when the efforts are being made in favor of using these urban lands for agricultural purposes, they go hand-in-hand and serve the interest of both these groups.  Urban agriculture can be defined as the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around the village, town, or city. Urban agriculture can successfully incorporate several components.  As suggested by the subject matter specialist during the meeting, these components must be cautiously undertaken on a small scale at the outset to be on the safe side financially.  However, most of the sites we visited had over several million dollars invested, indicating that Chicago has successfully developed several urban agriculture enterprises.  

Components of Urban Agriculture

  • Aquaculture: The farming of finfish, shellfish and other aquatic animals has become big business during the past 20 years.  Recent developments include production of aquatic plants, and fish/plant integrated systems.
  • Aquaponics: A combination of fish and plant production using aquaculture and hydroponics systems, aquaponics is moving from the realm of experimental to commercial.
  • Hydroponics: It is an enterprise growing plants in a nutrient solution root medium, is a growing area of commercial food production and also is used for home food production by hobbyists.
  • Livestock Production: Grass-based livestock systems for meat and dairy production (i.e., grass-to-glass production system), raising free-range chickens and turkeys and pasturing hogs have become viable alternatives for U.S. farmers, as reported by the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association  (APPPA).  The system concept is based on biodynamics, an ancient practice developed in 1920s.
  • Horticulture: Vegetable and fruit production
  • Beekeeping: well-known to all of us
  • Vermiculture: A practice of using earthworms for making compost.  Hundreds of small farms across the country are raising poultry on pasture, producing high quality meat and eggs and improving profitability because of low feed costs.  However, productivity on these farms is typically limited by seasonal climate and waste management. In most U.S. climates, the chickens can be outdoors only in spring and summer, creating indoor production challenges during cooler months.  At the same time, red worm composting, or vermiculture, has been shown to be an effective way to break down organic materials. The worms can eat 50 to 100% of their body weight in decaying wastes per day.  A combination of pastured poultry and vermiculture provides a synergistic effect in the integrated small scale farming system; the worms providing a natural digester of chicken manure and a source of food for the chickens.
  • Fundamental and Key Resources: Based on level of investment, energy and capital (i.e., fixed and liquid) are found be the key fundamental resources.  Depending on the locality, the level of investment, and personal suitability, the following energy alternatives can be chosen.

Needs: 

  • Education and Research: As long as urban agriculture is limited to small garden scale, the need of research and education is somewhat limited.  However, once the individual acquired basic understating and moved toward an urban agricultural farming system, the education and research sector becomes inevitable. The Chicago Urban Agriculture Meeting 2017 envisaged the need of this sector more than before.  The policy makers (i.e. Federal, States, and Municipalities including cities) need to rethink and reshape understanding about urban agricultural farming systems since there may be multiple areas of research and education systems including needs assessment, program/planning, monitoring and evaluation.
  • Subject Matter Specialists: Programs in urban agriculture are being guided by the Extension Educator personnel. Despite their knowledge, creativeness, and receptiveness, they disclosed the need for more subject matter specialists in the urban agriculture network, especially entomologists, pathologists, and soil scientists.

Potential impact of urban agriculture:  It is an emerging enterprise which would be a win-win situation for both environmental advocacy and urbanization and real estate development groups.  It is also envisaged to have a multiple positive impacts on social, health, economic, and environmental issues in urban areas.