A Locavore’s Dilemma

On the Fantasy of Urban Farming

I have no idea where my food comes from, but I hope it’s shipped by rail from a California factory farm.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m an environmentalist, not an agribusiness executive. But I’m an environmentalist who can do math, and the numbers on locavorism, like much else in green-urbanist food ideology, don’t add up.

That’s why I’m skeptical about the urban farming craze that’s sweeping New York City. Inspired by the realization that New York is local to eight million people, farming enthusiasts are rushing to claim the city’s tiniest, most sterile slivers of real estate as if they were quarter-sections of bottomland. In its manifesto “The Potential for Urban Agriculture in New York City,” Columbia University’s Urban Design Laboratory identifies nearly six thousand acres in the five boroughs that it considers ripe for cropping, from NYCHA housing projects to traffic medians. There are rooftop farms, hydroponic farms, even skyscraper farms on the drawing board.

Boosters invoke the usual locavore rationale for growing New York’s food right where we eat it: by minimizing the food-miles from field to fork, urban farming reduces fuel consumption, shrinks the city’s carbon footprint, cuts out corporate middlemen and composts sinful food waste into life-giving fertilizer. But it’s a cure-all for just about every other discontent as well, according to UDL, a “synergistic solution” that alleviates food insecurity, fights diabetes, rehabilitates vacant lots, provides job skills, sparks economic development, and promotes “community empowerment,” “environmental justice” and “social interaction.” It will even soothe our neuroses, letting New Yorkers “reconnect with a food system that many feel is somehow out of their grasp.”

Politicians are listening. Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s FoodWorks white paper salutes urban farms as “vital community assets,” while Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s FoodNYC report vows to “establish urban food production as a priority for New York City.” Activists are clamoring for more city-owned land and farmer’s markets, free municipal composting, mandatory procurement of local food for schools and an “urban agriculture ombudsman.” Officials are backing many of these proposals; tax breaks and zoning preferments have been enacted and a registry of likely farmland established. Urban farming is gaining adherents, high-profile showcases, academic cachet, political clout and a heady aura of possibility: if farms can make it in New York, they can make it anywhere.

But can farming make it in New York? And should it? I’m not so sure.

For one thing, the linkage of local farming to efficiency and sustainability is dubious. The locavore obsession with reducing food-miles has been roundly debunked as a false economy that may actually worsen carbon emissions. That’s because the high-volume, long-haul food transportation perfected by industrial agriculture is fantastically more energy-efficient than the low-volume, short-haul shipments of locavore distribution systems.

A typical semi truck, meticulously packed and scheduled by corporate bean-counters, will carry 20 tons of food six miles or so on a gallon of diesel — that’s 120 ton-miles per gallon, in the jargon of freight fuel-efficiency. A freight train gets a whopping 480 ton-miles per gallon. Compare them with, say, the local farmers at the Union Square Greenmarket, whose light trucks and vans typically haul more dead weight — farm-stand, vehicle and driver — than produce. The most fuel-efficient farmer I talked to there reckoned that at peak harvest he burned nine gallons of diesel to bring two tons of potatoes 127 miles from Roscoe, N.Y., for an efficiency of 28 ton-miles per gallon. Hauling each spud from upstate thus requires as much fuel as moving it 585 miles by corporate semi or 2,340 miles by rail. Those disparities hold even for short intra-city trips: if a cargo van consumes just a gallon of gas hustling 200 pounds of tomatoes from a Brooklyn micro-farm to a Midtown market, it will burn more fuel per tomato than a fully loaded semi would bringing them up from Florida.

Transportation accounts for just 5 percent of the energy used by agriculture, so it’s the wrong place to look for efficiencies. Food production uses much more, but from that standpoint, urban farming gets the logic of nearness backward. A big rural farm is a marvel of efficient proximity, with hundreds of fertile acres bunched up against each other; when tractor drivers or tomato pickers finish one acre, they can start right in on the next. By contrast, urban farming works a far-flung, fragmented landscape, each cropped acre separated from the next by miles of crowded streets and buildings. Working those tiny, scattered city plots introduces huge dis-economies. Inputs like fertilizer and soil have to be hauled in pennypackets through stop-and-start traffic. Compost may be the best thing since holy water, but collecting, processing and distributing it in dribs and drabs burns fuel. Worse, the great expanses separating urban farmplots mean that labor and machinery can’t be efficiently deployed.

That won’t bother greens who think overmechanization is part of the problem with American agriculture. But low labor productivity has troubling implications for urban farming. Consider Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm that’s one of the best in the city; with harvests of one pound per square foot, its yields compare favorably to those of industrial farms. But coaxing those great yields from its expertly hand-tended beds, filled by premium dirt composted with bedding straw from the Preakness and Belmont stables, requires several staffers, a couple of interns and many volunteers, who dig, weed, pick and do other tasks that an industrial farm would pay Mexican migrant workers to do. That’s a lot of hands for just 2.5 acres, which is why so many go uncompensated.

The Grange isn’t unusual; according to Five Borough Farm, another urban farming manifesto from the Design Trust for Public Space, “even commercial farms rely to a large extent on unpaid interns for critical tasks.”

Unpaid labor would be the dirty secret of urban farmers if they didn’t shout it so loudly from their green rooftops. Brooklyn Grange’s website celebrates its creation during “six days of craning 3,000 lb soil sacks seven stories up to the roof” while “two dozen of our friends and family members shoveled in the sun and wind.” Volunteerism is not exploitation, but its prevalence raises the issue of scalability: how much can urban farming expand before the pool of joyful volunteer labor runs dry? And it undermines the credibility of farming as an economic development strategy. For while urban farms are grossly overstaffed, compared with other city enterprises they are job deserts.

Brooklyn’s Red Hook Community Farm is an example. It’s run by Added Value, a food-centered nonprofit funded in part by foundation sponsors that also has a farmer’s market, educational programs and a composting depot. In addition to some full- and part-time staffers, it employs a few part-time farm laborers at minimum wage during the summer and gives educational stipends to teens who help out. (Its website, of course, features an urgent standing invitation to volunteers.)

While Red Hook Farm is a dynamo by urban farm standards, when I visited on a cold Saturday afternoon in March, the one-acre plot was a graveyard: a silent, deserted tableau of wheelbarrows and dumpsters and mulchy mounds behind a padlocked security fence, as lifeless as the IKEA parking lot across the street. But the parking lot at least had an IKEA attached to it, which on that day was full of uncomfortable furniture, bickering couples, plastic houseplants—and hundreds of year-round jobs.

It may seem mean-spirited to judge Red Hook Farm during its late-winter hibernation, but that’s a telling aspect of urban farms. While they may be magnets for green charitable dollars, the business they generate on their own is too meager and spotty to do much for a neighborhood economy. We celebrate them for transforming vacant lots into verdant crop rows, but for much of the year they revert right back to vacant lots. They are the antithesis of sustainable economic development in a city neighborhood, which happens when people move in, apartments go up and businesses open shop with full-time jobs instead of seasonal volunteer gigs.

Hydroponic greenhouses are more economically robust, thanks to their astounding all-weather yields. Brooklyn’s Gotham Greens harvests 120 tons of leafy vegetables on just 15,000 square feet. Even allowing for the adjacent solar panels, that’s over 20 times the per-acre yield of a California lettuce field. Stats like those inspire “vertical farming” visionaries to imagine 30-story hydroponic skyscrapers feeding whole neighborhoods.

Yet even hydroponics isn’t a trump card for New York City farming. Babying the produce is a material and even a moral imperative in the industry — “our harvestable plants deserve the same level of comfort and protection that we now enjoy,” insists verticalfarm.org—but it costs energy and emissions. Gotham Greens heats its greenhouse with natural gas and gets half the electricity for its grow-lights, water pumps and computerized controls from the fossil-fueled grid; CEO Viraj Puri thinks the operation may do better than conventional farming in life-cycle energy usage, but he hasn’t done an audit. (Critics wince at the energy implications of vertical farming, which boils down to stacking up greenhouses so that they block each other’s sunlight.) Whatever the merits, it’s hard to eco-justify siting greenhouses in New York instead of some warmer latitude. They might miss the nightlife, but vegetables would feel just as comfortable and protected in a locale that requires less artificial light and heating.

But a New York location is indispensable for the up-to-the-nanosecond freshness that Gotham delivers to the groceries and restaurants it sells to, all located within eight miles of the greenhouse. That kind of freshness carries a premium price tag: $3.99 for a 4.5-ounce box of lettuce at the Union Square Whole Foods. Which works fine, because every customer there, I can solemnly attest, is a supermodel. (Gentlemen, seriously, this is the place to go when you want to be ignored by beautiful women.)

And if you are a supermodel, you want that mouthful of lettuce to be as fresh, delicious and vitamin-saturated as lettuce can be, because you won’t be eating anything else that day. But for less demanding shoppers, the benefits of hyper-freshness may be illusory. Fresh vegetables are no more nutritious than frozen or canned, and if they sit in your refrigerator for a week, they might as well have been sitting in a refrigerated truck (or in a toxic waste dump, if we’re talking about my refrigerator).

Unfortunately, the exorbitant cost of buying local prevails from the Whole Foods at the high end right down to the populist, communitarian — and rather cultic — wing of the movement known as “community-supported agriculture.” A CSA is an alternative distribution system that lets groups of consumers contract directly with a local farm for regular disbursements of produce. Cutting out wholesalers and supermarkets is supposedly a financial win-win for farmers and consumers, but the main benefits may be spiritual. Per the locavore mantra, a CSA lets you “know your farmer” and “know where your food comes from”; it gives New Yorkers in particular a sense of rootedness amid the anonymity of city life. We may not know our neighbors — Eliot Spitzer may not even know the women he sleeps with — but at least we can forge a deep personal bond with the farmer who feeds us.

Alas, that bond is one-sided to the point of abusiveness. CSAs are the worst food deal imaginable. To join Brooklyn Grange’s CSA, for example, you must pay $576 up front for 24 weekly deliveries of produce from May through October. And for that $24 a week, you get — well, no one knows what you’ll get. It depends on what’s in season and what’s thriving (or not), the member agreement explains: maybe radishes, turnips, kale and spinach in the spring; chard, eggplant, cucumbers and peppers in the summer; tomatoes, carrots, eggplant (again?) and scallions in the fall.

No one knows how much, either. The member agreement guesstimates that your weekly allotment may suffice to vegetate three or four dinners for two, but it pointedly stipulates “no guarantee on the exact amount or type of produce.” (In fact, if you want to get technical, a CSA membership is less a purchase of food than a speculative investment in produce futures; JPMorgan should open a trading desk.) And if you can’t make the 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday pick-up at the Navy Yard, then you’re out of luck: the Grange won’t save your vegetables — or refund your money.

That’s a pretty frustrating relationship to have with a produce vendor: aloof and noncommittal on its end; expensive and sternly regulated on yours. To stick with it, you need to be so devoted to vegetables — and not to any particular vegetables, but just to the food group in general — that you’ll pay for them months in advance, schedule your week around them and line up at a dispensary like a junkie at a methadone clinic. My neighborhood Key Food supermarket is a doormat by comparison, open all day at prices cheaper than locavore fare. For two dollars less than a Grange ration, I can buy 10 pounds of potatoes, two pounds of carrots, 20 ounces of green beans, two cucumbers, two tomatoes, two onions and a head of lettuce — produce that I like, and way more than I can eat in a week. Maybe CSA food tastes better; I’ll never know, because I can’t afford it.

None of this speaks well of the oft-trumpeted promise of urban farms to guarantee “food security.” Locavore theorists — and now city officials — believe that nudging low-income consumers toward farmer’s markets and CSAs will increase their access to fresh produce, but it will likely do the opposite. A pricey, horribly inconvenient CSA membership is a terrible way for working families on tight budgets and schedules to get their vegetables. Indeed, the whole notion of fresh, secure local food is an oxymoron. Fresh produce never existed in New York during the yearly famines we call “winter” —until transcontinental railroads brought it here.

The industrial food system has its problems — and enormous advantages that locavore schemes can’t beat. But what’s most frustrating to me about the urban farming movement is its gaping obliviousness to New York’s real environmental virtues.

Consider some iconic acre of Brooklyn vacant lot. You could grow food on it — or you could throw up a 30-story apartment complex housing 600 people. That’s 600 people who won’t be settling in low-density exurbs where they would be smeared across 60 acres of subdivision; in turn, those 60 acres of vacant exurb could remain farmland or forest. Using communal laundromats and lacking basements to put junk in, those new Brooklynites would lead lives of anti-consumerism. And because they would use mass transit instead of driving everywhere, their carbon footprints would be roughly a third as large as the average American’s. That fundamental land-use equation is the key to understanding how cities promote global sustainability. By concentrating high-density housing, business and lifestyles inside its borders, New York lifts enormous burdens from the ecosystem outside its borders, but that potential is squandered when we consign pristine brownfields to low-density crop-growing. We may root for the community gardeners in their eternal battle with real-estate developers, but it’s the developers who are, despite themselves, the better environmentalists.

I’m not saying we should pave over every garden bed. Urban farming has its place in the New York tapestry. It’s a fun hobby for horticulturalists and a viable business niche for luxury brands supplying status food to gourmands and green fanatics; if it burns through interns like diesel fuel, well, that’s as quintessentially New York as overpriced chow. Or we could think of it as public art with benefits: the eco-system services that Brooklyn Grange’s green roof provides by cooling the heat island and sponging up storm runoff may well repay its $592,000 city grant, but even if they don’t, that’s still less tax money than we might have dropped on a Christo installation. Above all, urban farming is a scene—a classic New York cultural fantasia that’s “about” farming in roughly the same proportion that Oklahoma! is about Oklahoma.

Urban farming won’t add appreciably to New York’s sustainability or its food security, and too much of it could actually subtract from both. We should prioritize real economic development over gardening and supermarkets over farmer’s markets. The New York City Housing Authority should build housing, not shovel compost. Good jobs and lower rents will let New Yorkers buy a lot more vegetables than we can grow.

And let’s remember that New York’s sustainability lies in its sidewalks and subways, in the stupendous density that puts the world within strolling distance and makes driving impossible, in the teeming high-rises that pen people in spaces small enough to cramp a veal calf. The result is a triumph of eco-engineering that leverages extreme communal efficiencies to conserve land, minimize carbon emissions and abate all the toxic externalities of civilized life far more effectively than boutique agriculture can. New York doesn’t need more farms to be sustainable, it needs more apartments, more offices, more factories, more skyscrapers — more New York. By being the grayest city in America, it’s also the greenest.

Will Boisvert is a freelance writer living in New York. This article originally appeared on the New York Observer.

Photo Credit: hitokoo.wordpress.com