Sun. Feb 25th, 2024

by Ana Grarian

On our trip through the Midwest we visited many Community Gardens and Urban “Farms”. (quotations mine) About halfway through the trip I became very frustrated that we weren’t seeing any of what I would label “real farms”. I wrote in my journal
“I am so lonely for farm country. Who would have thought that an agrarian road trip would include so many cities. Will we talk to real farmers and get their perspective on how it came to this? Will we meet those who have successfully beat the storm? We will need farms and farmers growing ethically to fully feed our population. Urban gardening will not be able to do it all.”

I want to make it clear that I fully support the Urban Gardening/Farming movement. Growiing our own food is an empowerment that folks need to prevent us from continuing to blindly follow industrial food production to a path that may ultimately see fit to fill our plates with “Soylent Green” (1) The ability to connect people with the soil that is our life source, and the weather which nurtures the growing food is imperative to the understanding of where/how food becomes available. Physically working in the soil is life affirming in itself, and a pathway to physical and mental health. The additional abilities of Urban Farm/Gardens to build relationships between neighbors, community involvement and hope, are immeasurable.

A young man from West Virginia pointed out to me the official government definition of a farm…….

a farm is defined as any place with any combination of sales, potential sales,
and government payments totaling at least $1,000. (2)

We shared the irony of how that definition can skew the statistics when the government, or industrial ag wants to show how many “small, family, farms” still exist in the US. I also wise-cracked that I probably knew people who were growing that much in “herbs” under a grow light in their basement.

Now I understand that many farmers and ranchers would tell me that my little farm wasn’t a farm “it’s the backyard , little lady”, and I can appreciate that attitude. Still I had hoped to meet some folks who were managing to make their living from a sustainable small farm. I suppose that would be a hard venue to find as most small farms are only making it because someone is working off farm.

As a matter of fact we did visit a lovely little organic farm just outside Maryville TN., Liles Acres Organic Farm (3), a year-round working farm and educational facility, producing eggs, fruit, vegetables & honey, llama & Angora Rabbit yarn, compost and generating (green) solar energy.
Sheri and Russell Liles are indefatigable promoters of healthy living and agriculture. Bubbling over with enthusiasm they showed us around their farm explaiing what they were doing and why. The Liles are also in the forefront of new community gardens being developed at the Highland Presbyterian Church in Maryville, TN. (4) They also are employed off the farm.

Dr. Richard Olson, our guide at the Sustainable and Environmental Studies (SENS) program at Berea College in KY (5) pointed out that in order to provide the nutritional needs of a city the size of Philedelphia (6), it would need considerably more land than the 500 acres currently seen as a goal for garden development.

To think of it another way- If we farmed all of NYC’s Central Park (843 acres), that is not water (150 acres) or forest (136 acres), we could feed 4456 people (557acres * 8 people/acre). That is a far cry from the estimated 1.6 million people living there.

I was impressed to find that in the cities we visited there are a large number of single family homes with lawns that provide the potential for supplementing the family food budget with a significant amount of home grown produce. In the northeast I am accustomed to even small cities where real estate is too “valuable” to not be covered by concrete and macadam.

So yes, my fish out of water, experience in the big city did find me desperate for the fields and woods of home, and we did find some of that further on in our travels. And as much as I wish we could have visited small farmers who are managing to preserve a life style of sustainable family farming, I learned a lot. And like I have learned in my quest to prevent hydrofracking from destroying the environment of rural CNY – we need a coalition of people from all sides of the equation to affect change. The folks from more urban environments have the power of numbers that politicians listen to. If we can pull together we can preserve a way of life and provide a healthier life, for all.

As Wendell Berry says:

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”


(2) In 1975, USDA, the Offi ce of Management and Budget (OMB), and the U.S. Department of Commerces U.S. Census Bureau agreed on a definition of a farm that is still in use today. A farm is currently defined, for statistical purposes, as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural goods (crops or livestock) were sold or normally would have been sold during the year under consideration (Glossary, 2005). USDAs National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) also includes government payments as sales. In other words, a farm is defined as any place with any combination of sales, potential sales, and government payments totaling at least $1,000.00



(5) Richard Olson , Director of the Sustainability and Environmental Studies Program at Berea College, explores pathways to a sustainable future through his courses in ecological design, environmental justice, and sustainability. He played a key role in the design and operation of the Berea College Ecovillage including an ecological machine wastewater treatment system. He works with students on natural building projects, aquaculture and greenhouse food production systems. Olson is a founding member of the Berea Outpost, a citizens group working to transform the city of Berea into a sustainable community.


By AFarmer

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