Can Urban Farmers Make a Living?

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From rooftops to schoolyards to hydroponic greenhouses, urban agriculture has become mainstream in New York City. While these initiatives work to provide educational opportunities, improve visibility of food origins and increase food access, a local food expert aims to answer an important question: is urban agriculture profitable, or is it just a compelling concept?

Carolyn Dimitri, an associate professor of food studies at New York University, received a USDA grant to study urban agriculture in the U.S. Urban agriculture has been evaluated from social justice and food access perspectives, but as an applied economist, Dimitri was more interested in whether farmers can make a living in an urban setting.

NYU Libraries hosts a Salon Series that focuses on research conducted around campus. Last week’s topic was “Urban Farming: Sowing Seeds, Sowing Money.” Dimitri, a former USDA employee, discussed her research findings to date.

Dimitri began with a brief history of the cultural heritage of agrarianism in the U.S. She referenced important quotes like Thomas Jefferson’s “while the farmer holds title to the land, actually it belongs to all people, because civilization itself rests on the soil” and de Crevecoeur’s “soil is foundational to who we are as Americans.” She also played the Ram Trucks Super Bowl commercial that features excerpts from Paul Harvey’s 1979 “So God Made a Farmer” speech.

In the mid-1800s, we had a series of local food systems in the U.S.—8ū49the farmers had to be near their consumers. With advancements in transportation and refrigeration technology, the national food market emerged by the early 1900s. With this came the rise of large-scale commercial farms, which was later met by the land conservation movement.

Dimitri described the modern sense of agrarianism as being stewards of the land, farming in harmony with the environment, with an emphasis on organic and sustainable practices. She acknowledged the ethical and moral views of the food system and discussed the contemporary drives for food justice and access, social justice and fair labor wages, and farm profitability to support local farmers.

The promises of urban agriculture are far-reaching. Ideally, urban farming initiatives develop local and regional food systems, enhance food security, reduce food waste, provide green spaces and increase property value. But Dimitri noted that urban farmers face the same pressures all farmers do, and she highlighted some failures of the idealized agrarian vision including costs of land ownership, farm debt burden and bankruptcies.

To examine whether urban agriculture is viable, Dimitri and her team took a three-pronged approach to research by exploring census data, surveying farmers and interviewing urban farming stakeholders.

There were some common themes that distinguished urban farmers from rural: urban farmers tended to be younger, operated their farms for fewer years, grew vegetables rather than grains, oilseeds and livestock and were more likely to have the farmers market as their main market. When examining whether urban farmers in commercial and nonprofit settings earned a living, Dimitri found statistically significant differences: 66 percent did not earn a living.

Dimitri is working on statistical analysis before finalizing the study, so stay tuned. By exposing the issue on a national level, she hopes the results contribute to widespread support of urban farms, which will in turn afford farmers the living they deserve.

Dimitri’s view is that we cannot rely on urban farms “to make a dent in our food supply.” She acknowledged, however, that they provide services other than commodities, like connecting people with nature, “instilling a sense of agrarianism,” and contributing to regional food hubs, social-based food businesses and nonprofits devoted to food access. For these reasons, NYU has an urban farm on campus and offers an urban agriculture course. While these benefits are substantial, she shared her personal priority: “I’d like to see farms make money!”

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