City Farmer: Weighing the Benefits and Challenges of Urban Agriculture
Each morning, I ride my bike less than ten minutes from my home in the densely populated Old North End neighborhood in Burlington, Vermont to my farm, weaving my bike through a break in the stream of morning traffic and down a steep hill. To my right is a Shell gas station, straight ahead is Dunkin Donuts, and to my left is a gritty business that services tractor trailers (and, conveniently, has replacement parts for busted hydraulics on a tractor). I swerve around potholes going down the hill, bump over the train tracks, and as the road levels out, I wiggle my fingers to fight off the morning cold-induced numbness. A gray-bearded man with an old external frame backpack walks towards me, heading up into town from his sleeping spot near our farm, yanking on the leash of a dog that lurches towards my bike. The man curses at the dog, ignores me, and continues to shuffle up the hill.
The term “agriculture” is strongly associated with Vermont, but “urban” is usually not. However, our neighborhood of farms is one of the few areas in the state to which both terms apply. Located in what is known as “The Intervale” (“between the hills”), we are within easy walking distance of Vermont’s densest population center, and are inside Burlington city limits. The prime agricultural soils of our farm were never built on–and can never be—because we are located in a floodplain. Native Americans farmed and hunted on this land as early as 3000 BC; evidence of early corn cultivation is present from 1450 AD. Early white settlers also farmed the land with dairy cows, corn, and hogs. But in the midst of an urban boom in the 1980’s, the land became an informal dumping area full of unsavory characters. Even today, couches and electronics appear regularly in our fields (just last week, a TV and couch sprang up overnight near our hoophouses), and there is a constant effort to keep the land clear of unwanted junk. Today, the responsibility is in our hands; a community of enthusiastic, idealistic, energetic farmers strives to reap the rewards of farming in close proximity to a supportive customer base while we simultaneously fend off the bizarre frustrations of farming in an urban environment.
Our farm grows over 25 acres of vegetables, but we don’t own a delivery vehicle. In fact, I rarely leave the farm during the day, and when I do, it’s often just an excuse to go buy pastries for our staff. As we harvest our vegetables, they are washed and packed into reusable containers, which travel less than fifty feet between the cooler and our CSA distribution area. Each Monday and Thursday afternoon during the summer season, we stand in the shade and greet hundreds of customers as they arrive to gather their produce and harvest from the four acres of pick-your-own crops that we grow as part of their share. A broad spectrum of people arrive at the farm on any given day– some are in business suits, smelling of airy colognes, with tiny, pale creases under their eyes from staring at a screen all day. Young children arrive with their hair tousled and wet, their mothers in sundresses slung over bathing suits, their faces a mix of baffled amusement that they just spent another day in the strange harried world of parenthood. Then the young hipsters arrive, leaning their fixed-gear bikes against the barn, filling their panniers with vegetables like fennel and poblano peppers. A few older couples shuffle through the barn, leaning a cane against the tables to reach into bins for carrots or potatoes as they ask us when the string beans will be ready. In my favorite moments of a CSA pick-up, arms wrap around me as my dear friends arrive for their vegetables, and their children grin with delight when I hand them carrots. We don’t have time to catch up on our lives during these intersecting moments, but by coming to the farm, they know what I have been doing all day, and I know exactly what they will be eating for dinner.
Farming so close to the city allows our farm to provide food for a wide array of people, including those who might not otherwise be able to access it. We are one mile away from a busy emergency food shelf that is always thrilled to see a truck full of veggies roll up. Two elementary schools with primarily low-income populations are within walking distance of the farm and make regular visits to help harvest carrots in the fall. Many of our CSA members use their EBT cards to pay for veggies or apply for our internal supported share program. Although our farm still struggles with reaching the populations that are desperately in need of healthy food, we are fortunate to have a location that makes that gap a little less difficult to bridge.
Urban farming also shapes the personal life of a farmer in pronounced ways. I don’t own the land I farm, I don’t own any equipment I use, and I live a mile away. My home is on a busy street in a gritty neighborhood, and for a couple of years, I didn’t own a car. Sometimes, evenings involve a quick shedding of farm clothes, a hasty shower, and a walk to music in town in a very different outfit. Life has a funny duality, one that is sometimes confusing and sometimes a relief. There are times when I want nothing more than to own the place that I farm and to live in a small, quiet home there. Other times, I love biking up the hill at the end of the day and having closure to my farm day. I am energized and refreshed by the diversity of urban farming.
In the Intervale, rural life bumps hard into urban life; as I drive the tractor with a wide implement down the road, it’s not uncommon that I encounter runners, bikers, and dog walkers, who seem irritatingly leisurely on their summer strolls while I am hurrying along. Pickup trucks belonging to hunters park at the edge of our fields, their owners illegally hoping for deer. Inspection stickers rarely last more than a few months before they are stolen off of our trucks (although we’ve learned to slash them with a razor blade), catalytic converters disappear, and this season, the thieves hit a new low by stealing our old Farmall cultivators and hefty aluminum irrigation fittings.
The vandalism and theft inherent in urban farming is intensely demoralizing. It speaks of a larger problem that plagues Burlington and much of the country; it is desperation for money, often driven by addiction, that sparks this infuriating creativity. Even though what is stolen from us doesn’t hold much street value, the thieves still go to great effort to steal an odd array of things. In the middle of the summer, noticing suddenly that important irrigation fittings are missing is costly to our operation in ways that far exceed the simple replacement value of the part. Even more frustrating is my own lack of confidence when night falls and I am alone on this farm that has been my grounding place for ten seasons; I know the texture of the soil, the shapes of the fields, the wind of the river, and the way the light hits the land, but if I am alone past dark at the farm, I take little comfort in my solitude in this beautiful place.
I fell in love with farming because I love nature. Urban farming offers little in the way of the beauty that shakes me to my core, but it moves me in a different way. It provides an intersection of worlds that is hard to come by; people wandering through during lunchtime or bumping into me while I’m washing greens, who ask a few questions and soon enough join the farm themselves. Or kids who only know the urban life of Burlington, but can still come to the farm to wander through the strawberries and flowers. There is tremendous comfort and gratitude inspired by this piece of land, so close to a city, but emblematic of so much more. It embodies the full arc of agricultural history, from the Native Americans and early white settlers who farmed here, to us, the most recent wave of farmers, who plant vegetables and invite people to take part in this land that belongs to all of us.