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The Future of Urban Farms

June 25, 2014


Urban Farming

Urban farms have been popping up in cities all over the world with benefits ranging from local food production and neighborhood beautification to job creation and crime reduction. But what happens when the funding used to start these farms runs out? Political science prof Christian Hunold, PhD, is examining that issue in his new research project, “Benchmarking Performance for Sub-Acre Farms,” with Sabrina Spatari, PhD and Patrick Gurian, PhD from the College of Engineering. Joining them is USI Fellow Yetunde Sorunmu, a CAEE doctoral candidate originally from Nigeria. Sorunmu is completing her PhD in environmental engineering with a focus on biomass and bioenergy.

Their project is part of Drexel’s new Urban Sustainability Initiative (USI) Fellows Program, which was created to build the University’s collective capacity to address the challenges of creating sustainable, equitable and healthful urban communities. After reviewing proposals from across the University, the USI Fellows Program awarded eight teams $7500 in funding, covering up to nine months of research.

Hunold’s team will determine what makes sub-acre farms sustainable in order to establish realistic expectations and guidelines for future farms. We spoke with him to learn more…

Q: First of all, what exactly is a sub-acre farm?
A: A sub-acre farm is really just what it sounds like: a farm under one acre in space. There are dozens of sub-acre farms in the Philadelphia city limits and around the Philadelphia area. The Department of Parks and Recreation in Philadelphia owns about 11% of the land in the city; Philadelphia is becoming more committed to using these city-owned spaces for urban agriculture, and encouraging the success of sub-acre urban farms is a big part of this initiative.

Q: Why do we care about benchmarking performance for these farms?
A: Urban agriculture may be undertaken for a number of reasons including profit, job training, improving diet, building community cohesiveness, etc. The wide range of goals for which these farms are started can complicate efforts to find the right agricultural activity for a particular setting. For an urban farmer with a small piece of land, agricultural activities could be anything from growing crops for a community-supported agriculture program, small storefront or farmers’ market operation, to setting up and stocking a small, on-site nursery. It really just means developing or adapting your sub-acre farm with some particular end-goal or end-product in mind rather than trying to do many things with very limited resources. So, by benchmarking how well urban agriculture accomplishes different objectives, we hope to develop guidance for practitioners so they can select the right agricultural activity, given their goals.

Q: What goes into the benchmarking process?
A: Benchmarking performance involves taking models of the revenues and expenses in the literature to establish reasonable expectations for the performance of very small farms. We are also planning to have urban farmers in Philadelphia review these benchmarks and provide their assessment of how realistic the values are.

Q: What is the ultimate goal of your work?
A: Our immediate goal is to help guide the efforts of Drexel’s Urban Sustainability Initiative. By identifying the frontiers of knowledge regarding urban agriculture, we can strategize where USI’s research and community engagement can make the greatest contribution.

Ultimately, we want to learn what conditions are necessary to make urban farming—especially on limited amounts of land—viable and sustainable. Most sub-acre-farms were not meant to be businesses, in the sense that they were not originally started for profit. Many began as a hub for social services or for educational purposes, or grew naturally out of the beautification movements of years past, which focused on cleaning up and beautifying the neighborhoods. Furthermore, quite a few sub-acre farms were started with non-profit funding or grants. While that’s very useful for start-up costs, non-profit grants and funding are not available for years on end; it’s not a stable source of funding.

So, when the funding “moves on,” so to speak, small urban farms often have to change into something else or something bigger. Some become urban farms with grocery stores attached, some add nurseries onto their original plan, but many simply die off.

This leads us to two questions, really. First, what does it take, precisely, to make urban farming sustainable? Second, how and at what point do urban farms contribute to the community, to residents, and to business owners and moneymakers?

Eventually, we hope that USI will develop a research portfolio that includes work on urban agriculture, which can provide guidance to two groups: 1) urban farmers as they make choices about which activities they will pursue and how they will pursue them, and 2) city planners and policy makers as they seek to foster the benefits of urban agriculture in their communities.