Urban Farms Are Thriving Amid the Pandemic

Spanning about an acre, New York City's Battery Urban Farm gardening project is the largest educational farm in Manhattan. littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock.com

With much of the world locked down to prevent the spread of coronavirus, most of us are looking for any good news we can get.

Global air pollution has plummeted. Even wildlife seems to be bouncing back.

But let's face it, these developments likely won't last long once humans venture outside again.

We may, however, be able to take lasting comfort from one trend emerging from these viral times: The number of people growing their own food at home or forging a direct relationship with local farmers has surged in recent weeks.

"More people are thinking about where their food comes from, how easily it can be disrupted, and how to reduce disruptions," Kotchakorn Voraakhom, the architect who designed Asia's largest urban rooftop farm in Bangkok, tells Reuters.

"People, planners and governments should all be rethinking how land is used in cities. Urban farming can improve food security and nutrition, reduce climate change impacts, and lower stress."

To be clear, the coronavirus isn't likely to have an impact on grocery shelves. Lockdowns in both Canada and the U.S. don't include food transportation. And while there may be concerns about some harvests falling short due to a lack of labor, there's still plenty to go around. If store shelves appear empty at a given moment, don't blame the supply chain. Blame the guy who loaded up three carts of produce because he figured the world was about to end. Indeed, in times like these, panic buyers are the real threat to food security.

The rise of urban farming

Urban farming is pretty much what it sounds like: a farm in an urban setting. That setting could be as modest as a window sill or even a rooftop. Some urban farmers even sell their wares to people in their community.

And backyards aren't off-limits either. Why waste all that sunlight on grass when you can have gourds and green peppers and golden potatoes?

In healthier times, community farms — urban spaces shared and tilled by neighbors — would also fit the bill. There's also an even bigger kind of urban farm that has long been building momentum. Community Supported Agriculture operations, known simply as CSAs, are flourishing amid the pandemic, Civil Eats reports.

The definition of a CSA can be broad, but essentially it's a network that connects a community more closely with farmers. That more direct relationship often results in boxes of in-season produce being delivered directly to your doorstep.

As Davida Lederle, a blogger and podcaster for the Healthy Maven, describes it, "Each CSA looks a little bit different. Some don't deliver right to your door but you have to pick them up. Others feed 2 people, while some are built to feed a full family. Some pick all of the fruits and veggies for you, while others allow you to pick and choose options."

It should come as little surprise that the number of people relying on CSAs has tripled in parts of America in recent days, as The New York Times reports. After all, who wants to compete with the panic-shopping thongs, risking not-so-sanitary shopping carts and humans in the check-out line? Urban farms all but eliminate fear and loathing at the grocery store.

Tomato plants on a terrace.
Even a few tomato-bearing plants can offset what you need to purchase at the store. ChiccoDodiFC/Shutterstock

The thing about urban farming, whether you grow your own food or have a local farmer on speed dial, is that it's always a good thing — even when we're not living in pandemic times.

"Having some extra food coming in this summer sounds like a pretty good idea, rather than having to worry about paying for our next meal," an urban farmer in Ontario, Canada tells Maclean's magazine.

It's the same steady refrain heard across this quarantined continent.

"I decided that I would grow a garden because we're finding in my work related job that there's going to be some food shortages, so I wanted to prepare for my family," Michelle Casias of Fargo, North Dakota tells KVRR News.

Of course, this wouldn't be the first time a nation has turned to hyper-local farming in times of crisis. During the lean years of World War II, so-called "victory gardens" emerged in yards across the U.S. By the end of the war, America boasted nearly 20 million victory gardens, generating enough fruit and vegetables to feed 40 percent of the population.

If we had built on that homegrown momentum — rather than letting large-scale rural operations almost entirely take over food production — fewer neighborhoods would have become food deserts.

London victory garden in a bomb crater, 1943
This victory garden was grown in a London bomb crater during WWII. (Photo: U.S. Library of Congress)

Urban farms won't feed entire cities. Large-scale operations still do a pretty good job of that. Nor are they necessarily better for the environment. Urban growers probably don't use pesticides and fertilizer as carefully or as efficiently as their big-scale brethren.

In an essay for Gastronomica, Jason Mark sums up the real value of the urban farm:

"Spend a few months taking a broccoli from seed to harvest, and you'll soon have a much deeper appreciation for the natural systems on which we depend. Our connection to the earth becomes gobsmackingly obvious when you watch the crops grow (or fail). The garden produces a harvest of teachable moments about what it means to live in an environment."