In a world where smart phones and computers make it possible for people to forsake urban areas to work away from the office, even from homes in the country, the city of Baltimore is bringing the typically rural practice of agriculture to the city. The city's sustainability plan, developed in 2009, includes an entire chapter focused on establishing the city as a leader in food sustainability.
"The plan provides a blueprint for increasing the amount of land under cultivation; improving the quality and quantity of local food available to communities; and promoting the food to customers at local markets, schools, hospitals, restaurants and other places," said Holly Freishtat. She is Baltimore's food policy director, and is charged with increasing citywide access to healthy, affordable food.
The nuts and bolts of these issues play out in Transform Baltimore, the city's first effort to revise its zoning code in several decades. Sustainability measures included in the revised code would provide guidance on suitable locations and proper conditions for implementing urban agriculture throughout the city.
Transform Baltimore also differentiates between a backyard or community garden and a full-fledged farm. Community gardens are smaller-scale sites where individuals and families grow food for personal consumption or donation. Operated by either a for– or nonprofit enterprise, larger-scale, more intensive urban farms grow food for sale. The definitions fortify the city's vision for sustainability and its new zoning code, enabling Baltimore to move forward in improving the health of its residents by promoting a range of food policies.
These types of changes aren't only taking place in Baltimore. Farms are sprouting up in Detroit, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and other cities across the country. They feed those without convenient access to fresh and nutritious food, provide an income for hard-working and entrepreneurial people, and generate revenue for cities with dilapidated and abandoned properties crying out for a purpose.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that as much as 30 percent of the nation's agricultural production originates within the boundaries of metropolitan areas.
Urban agriculture also benefits the natural environment by reducing greenhouse gases emitted as a result of transporting food over long distances. More green space in a city also improves air quality and absorbs runoff that would otherwise pollute local waterways.
These are all reasons why the concept is taking off in Baltimore, recently reaching priority status when city officials realized that many of the challenges facing its residents — obesity, poor nutrition, quality of life and unemployment — might be improved by one common denominator: the production and sale of fresh and nutritious food.
"With the Sustainability Plan in place and Transform Baltimore in the works, we moved ahead last year with requesting proposals from farmers interested in leasing one-acre, city-owned vacant lots as a way of jump-starting urban agriculture in the city," said Beth Strommen, director of Baltimore's Office of Sustainability. To date, five farmers have demonstrated the knowledge of the practical and business aspects of farming required for these leases. The city has identified as many as 30 additional acres that might eventually be farmed.
This crop of urban farmers includes Real Food Farm, a project of Civic Works, which has been growing fresh produce in northeast Baltimore since 2009. Located at the site of a former school, Real Food Farm makes the most of its six acres to plant fruit trees, operate compost and irrigation systems, and grows a variety of vegetables. Leasing more land from the city provided an opportunity to pursue more of the same.
"Since we're still busy developing our original site, we're taking the time to prepare the soil at the new site with a cover crop that will aerate, fertilize and remediate for stresses and uses placed on the property over the years. We're also getting to know the neighbors," said farm manager Tyler Brown.
According to Brown, the city has been receptive to changes that would advance urban agriculture. "In the past, actions not clearly described in the city's zoning code were automatically dismissed," Brown said. "With Transform Baltimore under way, the city has been flexible and supportive, even helping us through the process of obtaining building codes for new structures like the hoop houses we use for growing many of our crops."
The city of Baltimore has a lot to gain from the work of city officials like Freishtat and Strommen and enterprises such as Real Food Farm. Often located on vacant lots in distressed neighborhoods, urban farms bring fresh, nutritious produce — and sometimes eggs and honey — to low-income areas where convenience stores and fast food restaurants are more common than grocery stores. These farms are also known for educating and even employing neighborhood residents in an effort to realize the economic and environmental benefits enjoyed from bringing farms to the city.
This is good for the Chesapeake Bay, which receives a mention in Real Food Farm's mission.
"Plain and simple, what we put on our crops ends up in the Bay, which is why we rotate crops, operate without pesticides or herbicides, and plant trees and shrubs to absorb and filter water before it reaches the watershed," Brown said.
Brown and his colleagues are seeking additional grant money to implement practices that would enable the farm to reuse water and further reduce runoff by dedicating a portion of the property to wetland habitat.
In a society that over many years has transitioned from agrarian roots into a culture of mass production, the goals pursued by the city of Baltimore and its emerging urban farms offer hope that every neighborhood will soon have access to high-quality, affordable and healthy food. To people like Freishtat, Strommen, Brown and others moving this forward, it's a formidable tool in feeding people and fighting the obesity epidemic in ways that leave a smaller footprint on the planet and keep watersheds clean. For them, it's the future of agriculture as we know it.