Farming Beyond Farmville
 Alibi V.23 No.24 • June 12-18, 2014 


Farming Beyond Farmville

The pros and cons of urban agriculture

As oxymorons go, “urban agriculture” gets a blue ribbon. Cities are places where we can get on with our non-agricultural business because the food production happens somewhere else. Separating population centers from food production allowed vast advances in all areas of specialized knowledge; cities could not exist otherwise. In other words, if Aristotle had spent his days farming, he wouldn’t have had time to invent philosophy. Lately city dwellers are dabbling in agriculture under many names which begin with "urban” and end with -ing: gardening, farming, mini-farming, homesteading, beekeeping, composting, chicken ... ing. Even ducks, goats, pigs, fruit trees and beneficial insects have become darlings of a DIY movement perhaps best described as “back to the land, without the land.” Why are urbanites so keen to grow their own? And how can you jump on the bandwagon?

Just watching grass grow

Ever the creature of comfort, one of the best reasons we like to grow is that it is relaxing. There is a soothing rhythm to tending plants, a tranquility rarely felt in modern working life. Sure, we can get food or flowers more easily from stores than from the backyard, but there is no gradually escalating cycle of anticipation and reward. In any case, gardening is less stressful than learning about the latest consumer upset in our food supply and provides a reassuring sense of control—or at least contribution—in how we nourish ourselves. As a bonus, when our plants sprout and leaf out and bloom, we get to feel the pride of accomplishment.

Gardening is not farming, though. In the words of John Garlisch, a Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service agent, “Farming is an art and a science. Gardening is a hobby.” The biggest difference, or perhaps most pressing, is that the hobbyists may risk time and money, but never their livelihood or ability to feed their family. A farmer relies on the output of the land to live, whether that means collecting the food to eat or selling the farm’s product for income to support and continue the enterprise. If locusts destroy all the seedlings, gardeners are annoyed, but farmers can be ruined. A farm is a business and often carries debt to finance the necessary supplies and equipment. When a crop fails, ability to repay those debts fails as well.

Quality control

Wildfire headlines of foodborne illnesses and deaths, anti-hygienic food handling facilities, animal abuse, ingredients of questionable desirability and the unsustainability of the way we produce food might shake anyone’s faith in the industrial food chain. If you grow your own, you know precisely what has been done to it and why. Any applied substances are your choice, as are handling, storage and preparation. Homegrown produce can also be harvested at the peak of ripeness and flavor, without concern for long distance transport, the hazards of handling ripe produce or the spoilage which often plagues these activities.

Before you log in to—no that’s not a working URL—and place your order, stop to put that rubber clog on the other foot for a moment. Unlike store-bought food, home grown is not regulated. It is not checked for contaminants, and if a food handling error results in a health situation, there will be no settlement forthcoming. The food we buy generally has been planted, grown, picked, packed and shipped by people at companies that do nothing else, which means they have considerable facilities, experience and risk management available. None of this is meant to dissuade beginners, only to highlight that this isn’t as easy as it looked when the Obamas cut the ribbon on their new organic garden in 2009. For starters, they employ professional gardeners, plural.

Lately city dwellers are dabbling in agriculture under many names which begin with "urban” and end with -ing: gardening, farming, mini-farming, homesteading, beekeeping, composting, chicken ... ing.

The idea of having help is a good one, by the way. Free help is available to you all over the city. One of the greatest resources is the Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service. The USDA Extension Service program, hitting its centenary this year, is a liaison between the land grant universities and people engaged with agriculture. Its agents disseminate the latest scientific advances in agriculture and bridge gaps between those who own and work land, and those who create policy and best-use practices for the land. You probably have heard of their youth educational arm, the 4-H, as well as the Master Gardener program.

Bernalillo County agents Cheryl Kent and John Garlisch are both deeply knowledgeable about all things land use around here and cheerfully realistic about how to grow things. When asked for beginner’s advice, Kent mentioned the challenge of Albuquerque’s eight distinct micro-climates, and Garlisch smilingly agreed that, “Mother Nature can turn the most experienced gardener into a novice ... every year.” The two also agreed that, garden or farm, success at growing means accepting failure ... because “failure will happen.” They recommend beginners “start small, not too ambitious, and keep learning, use facts and science, and keep trying.”

Andres via flickr
A Henny Penny saved

Does the going price of a dozen local, free-range, farm fresh, hormone and drug-free eggs seem crazy? You may have noticed people talking about keeping chickens in their backyards, collecting eggs fresh every morning and generally lording their superior eggs over the rest of us. You might be tempted to jump on that bandwagon. Unfortunately backyard chickens just don’t lay eggs for free. Healthy egg-laying hens can cost as much as $30 each, and they must be fed, housed and looked after every day, even if you go on vacation. They also can be loud, smelly and require veterinary care from time to time. If you can reconcile yourself to the fact that you’ll never get free eggs, here are a few things to do before trading your late-sleeping habits for a rooster.

First, make sure chickens are allowed where you live. Check with the city zoning office, your landlord, HOA and the neighbors. Ask your neighbors how they feel about the sounds and smells of chickens. If you personally are unaware of the sounds and smells of chickens, visit a henhouse to find out. Include the rest of your household in this decision—this is a physical and financial commitment to a group of animals for their entire lives. No, you can’t have just one chicken; they are flock animals, and they will also need to be protected from dogs, cats and other animals in your area.

Hey! There’s cacao DNA in my peanut genes!

When you buy produce that turns out to have an unappealing flavor, texture or aroma, this is not a sign that Big Ag is doping your fruit with platypus genes on the sly. It is far, far more likely that industrial growers have given up on crops with the best flavor and texture in favor of those with the best chance of getting to market intact. This type of decision is a form of selective breeding, and that’s how we got the plants and animals we eat today: We only grow the plants that meet the growers’ needs. So far, none have required special labeling. In terms of standing the test of time, the results are unambiguous. For example, modern wheat is a 10,000-year-old hybrid of three different, largely inedible grasses, and is a crucial staple food worldwide.

The real bugbear of GMOs is gene splicing, which takes advantage of the universality of DNA. All life forms on this planet are built of the same materials, therefore having sufficient common elements to allow gene swaps. The identical percentage (e.g., humans share at least 95 percent DNA with chimpanzees) is a metric of how much of those species’ DNA is interchangeable. These areas of overlap are doorways for gene-splicing experiments. The memorable ones read like the playbill for a freak show: mouse milk to feed human babies, spider DNA in goats, glow-in-the-dark plants and animals, tomatoes with flounder genes. These projects get funded because the increasing population/finite resources rap really is hard to beat, and someone had a good story about how cabbages could improve the human condition, if only they could produce scorpion venom. The gene splices most used in the world today are exactly those we least want to give up, namely cereal grains, cotton and tobacco, all of which have been modified to allow increasing yields under worsening conditions. (Those fishmatoes were never sold, by the way; the project was abandoned, as was the potato plant that kills Colorado potato beetles.)

That said, as a budding urban agrarian, you can look out for the genetic integrity of your chosen stock by acquiring heirloom varieties of the plants and animals you want to raise. The folks who distribute these tend to take a long view on the custody of those genes, which means there won’t be surprise Monsanto DNA markers or unexpected eye stalks popping up in your crops. Cheryl Kent advises choosing local types whenever possible, as they are likelier to survive and thrive, while seeds and plants from those sexy gardening catalogs may not. Plants started in other places (like those endless trays of seedlings you see at the home improvement stores) can be very challenging for this reason.

Organic is a means of production; natural is an adjective.

Organic is a federally regulated term encompassing the facilities, practices and long-term viability of food production methods, and is defined in great depth of detail. Organic certification, ie., the right to market foods as organic, is awarded only with a federal inspector’s sign off. Natural, on the other hand, is just a nice word. Neither the USDA nor the FDA even defines the term, much less exercises any regulatory authority over usage. The FDA offers the deep insight that, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.” []

In weighing the pros and cons of purchasing vs. growing your own food, it is worthwhile to learn what is regulated and how. That information will, in turn, inform your purchasing decisions or reinforce your commitment to growing your own. You won’t be able to grow all your own food, but what you do grow will carry peace of mind. Homegrown food is not automatically organic, however. The same criteria of organic certification for any commercial farmer still needs to be met in order for homegrown to be considered organic, but at least the home grower need not worry about the packaging and handling after harvest.

Cheaper than therapy

John Sparks, owner of Chispas certified organic farm in the South Valley, says that as a business, the farm is not a golden goose; but in terms of building community, it’s a real peach. Chispas farmers grow loads of heirloom fruits and vegetables, but the soul of the farm—the reason Sparks continues operating Chispas—is that it is inherently optimistic and humanitarian in character. The very act of growing food is a show of faith in the future, and getting friends and neighbors involved spreads that sense of future-positivity. If you truly believe the end is nigh, you are never going to plant a seed, wait for it to sprout/grow/bloom/ripen. Sparks characterizes this faith in tomorrow’s tomorrow as a specific remedy to the “prepare-for-the-worst, unending messages of fear” America has known since the 1960s, and that anodyne is something he actively seeks to create in the world where his daughter is growing up.