Check your favorite social media account the next time there is a storm brewing. Chances are you’ll see posts featuring empty shelves and jokes about how much French toast people could possibly eat, given the run on bread, milk, and eggs. We have grown so accustomed to food’s being readily available in quantity that we rarely stop to think of what it would mean if it were not.
The facts, however, tell a different story. Most cities have enough supplies on the shelves to last about three days. The continued supply of food depends heavily on a transportation network that both strains the environment and has several points of vulnerability that could leave destinations temporarily without food.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Urban agriculture, or urban farming, is one way that even city dwellers can increase the resilience of the food supply and make a positive impact on the environment and the health of the people in the community. Lisa Helm, founder of the Dayton Urban Grown Cooperative Incubator/Training Farm, is helping aspiring urban farmers learn how to make the Dayton area a little more sustainable.
Understanding Urban Agriculture
Many people enjoy gardening, and it is undeniably beneficial for individuals to grow their favorite herbs, vegetables, and medicinal plants. In recent years suburbanites have even expanded their efforts into keeping bees and chickens, where allowed by law.
These efforts are good, says Helm; but they aren’t urban farming, because they do not approach food production from an agricultural perspective. True urban farming uses these principles to grow mass quantities of food in a small space, while still respecting the need to build (or rebuild) the area soil and microbiome.
Helm started her efforts in 2008, with Garden Station, with activities such as a Sunday farmers’ market that allowed local food producers to sell their wares at a time when there was not a Sunday farmers’ market anywhere in Montgomery County. She also explored tool sharing and regular classes on agricultural skills, like beekeeping, composting, and understanding herbal medications. Her classes regularly attracted 70 or more attendees. Now that COVID-19 has moved training online, she has attendees from around the globe, including from as far away as Australia.
Her true goal, however, was to start a training farm; so when the relationship with Garden Station ended, she took her efforts in that direction with Dayton Urban Grown.
Dayton Urban Grown operates as a training farm, offering aspiring urban farmers a place to learn new skills, borrow tools, and volunteer to work the plots that provide a significant harvest every year.
The harvest really can be significant. Helm points to one small farm (1.5 acres) in New York that regularly boasts $400,000 in sales annually. Using the techniques learned at these farms, urban farmers can beat conventional farms by orders of magnitude. While conventional farms, based on methods that can strip the soil of nutrients, may bring in only $500 per acre for corn or soy, an urban farm can command $300,000 to $400,000 in the same space.
What is the difference? Urban farming is based upon the principles of regenerative agriculture. This means that efforts center not just around maximizing food production, but also on rebuilding the microbiome, the network of microscopic flora and fauna that truly makes soil “alive.”
Healing the soil brings a multitude of benefits—first, ensuring that the growth of healthy plants has an immediate positive effect on the climate, as plants take in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In effect, plants are a natural way to reverse the excess carbon dioxide that is building around the globe.
Second, food grown organically in healthy soil is more nutritionally dense than food grown through conventional agriculture. This has a positive impact on the health of the consumer. With an aging population, increasing chronic disease, and building strain on the health care system, good nutrition is an important and inexpensive way to improve overall population health.
Finally, remember those three days of food in the grocery? The more urban farmers the Dayton area has, the more resilience we have against any potential weakness in the food supply. Dayton Urban Grown, an all volunteer operation, is committed to educating as many new farmers as it can. There are numerous opportunities to help the organization out, including volunteering skilled labor to help build the training farm. A good start is visiting its heirloom vegetable sale on May 1 (see Calendar). Dayton Urban Grown has truly become a positive influence in the community, and its work has just begun.