They're growing like weeds, but often growing only weeds. Urban gardens and farms are appearing in backyards, schools and empty lots in cities all over the country. But people with the actual know-how and willingness to tend them – in other words, farmers – are far less abundant.
For Dan Allen, this is a critical problem. He's an urban gardener in Los Angeles, and runs a company called Farmscape that helps tend small-scale farms in the city. While there's clearly interest in the idea of making urban areas into not just consumers but also producers of food, Allen sees that interest as fleeting.
"For schools especially, I think the process of creating a garden is pretty exciting to people, so they build a coalition who get really excited and everyone shows up for the ribbon cutting at the garden, and then the hard work sets in," says Allen. "It's not just building the garden and doing that first planting, but also doing the diligent maintenance of the crops."
That diligent maintenance is, in another word, work — the kind of work that makes people sweat, gets dirt under their fingernails and maybe even gives them a sore back.
Allen says he's seen countless gardens and urban farms wither from lack of pruning, poor attention to irrigation schedules, and just a general lack of understanding about how to turn a plot of dirt into a producer of food. Neglect is rampant in backyard farms and even more so in farms at schools, Allen says. Often the downfall of school gardens is summer.
"Everybody goes on vacation and forgets about the garden. And then they come back and it's kind of run down, and instead of being this shiny new project they see that the garden's in shambles," Allen says. "It's a lot less exciting. So it's hard for them to get going with the project again."
What these neglected gardens need, he argues, is more consistent and trained minders who have the skills and time to maintain them. He points to the urban farming initiative in Cuba, where the state actively supports the infrastructure and the farmers who, in Havana, are producing an estimated 90 percent of the city's fruits and vegetables locally.
Despite growing official encouragement of urban farming from cities like Detroit, strong governmental support like that seen in Cuba is obviously a lot less likely in the United States. This is where companies like Allen's can become part of the picture.
Farmscape currently tends about 150 urban gardens a week in L.A. A handful of them are at schools but most are in the backyards of private residences. While some homeowners use the service as a kind of intensive tutorial on how to better work and understand their tiny farms, many of Allen's customers have simply outsourced the farming of their farm.
"There are sections of Los Angeles where I think people approach the landscape as something they're not really involved in and hire professionals of different sorts to come take care of it," Allen says. "Some people probably perceive us more like a landscaper."
The company's website claims its services are comparable to those of "mow-and-blow" landscapers, but with the added value of an expertise in organic farming techniques. His team – "half a dozen college-educated 20-somethings" – are filling the void of farmers in a city with a disproportionate supply of urban farms and gardens. Allen says demand for their services is growing in L.A., and probably many other cities as well.
"What we've found is there's a new generation of people who are interested in organic farming, and especially small-scale organic farming, who like the idea of living in a city," Allen says. "It doesn’t have to be someone who grew up on a farm out in the country."
And, if things go the way Allen hopes, the farmers of the future can also be grown in cities, just like their food.
Photo credit: Rebecca Cook / Reuters