This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Dig for Victory, first released on June 16, 2020. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CYNTHIA GRABER: So, I think we need a little introduction here. We for the first time ever have about a 4×5 square bit of sunny dirt.
TIM: Sunny old abandoned city urban dirt. Oh boy. We’ve got lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, chives…
GRABER: I really, really, really wanted lots of dark leafy greens but they appear to be impossible to get this year because everybody is planting.
TIM: Rich looking soil there, huh, some organic topsoil from Brentwood, New Hampshire. Smells nice…
ARCHIVAL SOUND: Remember what Grandpa says: No work, no garden. No work, no turnip, no tank, no flying fortress, no victory. Bear that in mind, all you victory gardeners, and work for victory!
NICOLA TWILLEY: Remember what Grandpa says, Cynthia. No work, no garden! I hope you know what you and Tim are letting yourselves in for!
GRABER: I’m not sure, but I did get a sunburn that first day, despite my sunscreen. We were outside in quite hot sun for quite a while!
TWILLEY: As you may have guessed, dear listeners, like so many others in this time of COVID, Cynthia recently decided to work for victory and grow her own veggies.
GRABER: My partner Tim and I had grown some tomatoes and herbs in plastic buckets before, but now we happen to have a really tiny patch of yard that we think gets about four hours of sun in the middle of the day. So we figured, why not?
TIM: Looks like some big roots already
GRABER: I hope so.
TIM: All right, godspeed little shiso. Our first plant down.
TWILLEY: In case you’re confused, this is not an episode of “Gardener’s Hour.” It’s still Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley—and yes, I too grow some fruit and veg.
GRABER: And I am Cynthia Graber, and while I’ve eaten some of Nicky’s garden bounty, I’ve never had any space to try it out myself ‘til now. But as you listeners all probably know, I’m certainly not alone these days in deciding to give home vegetable gardening a try.
ANCHOR: Victory Gardens played a big role on the homefront during the dark days of World War II. But now, Tracy Smith tells us, they’re back.
SMITH: This week, the flowers at Roger’s Gardens in Newport Beach, CA, are in full, dazzling bloom. But these days, it’s only the bees seem to be interested in flowers. Right now, nurseries like this one are selling out of vegetables.
TWILLEY: So what’s with the military language when it comes to growing fruit and veg? Which war are my tomato plants fighting in exactly?
GRABER: What were those Victory Gardens of the early 20th century, from World Wars I and II? Did they actually make a difference, did they actually feed people?
TWILLEY: And what about today—can vegetable patches, community gardens and urban farms make a difference? Can they feed cities?
GRABER: This episode, everything from your typical backyard tomato plants to skyscrapers growing hydroponic lettuce under special high-tech lighting. There’s lots of hype around these new urban farms, but there are also a lot of skeptics.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, low tech community gardens have a lot of fans, even Michelle Obama is on board… but are they really the panacea our food system needs?
GRABER: This episode was made possible thanks to generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics, as well as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.
GRABER: To get to today’s urban gardens, let’s go back in time to the founding of the U.S. There were certainly major cities—Philadelphia, New York, Boston. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that more and more people moved to cities, and urbanization in the U.S. really got underway.
TWILLEY: These are people who would have grown almost all their own food before, but now they live in a city, they can buy food at the market. So how many of them kept up gardening in their new urban homes?
ANASTASIA DAY: A lot of food production went on within city boundaries well through the start of the 20th century. There were lots and lots of urban livestock because people were raising pigs and cows and chicken for food within city limits.
GRABER: Anastasia Day is a historian at the University of Delaware, and she’s working on a PhD about Victory Gardens.
DAY: It’s only really during the City Beautiful movement in the progressive era that cities start passing ordinances that actually outlawed these forms of local food production in the name of cleanliness and sanitation and these middle-class standards of respectability. Because only poor people grow their own food.
TWILLEY: The City Beautiful movement was a big deal during the 1890s and 1900s—wealthy urbanites saw all this rural migration and immigration and, of course, the rising inequality and poverty and tenements in their cities and they were not happy. They tried to clean the city up—they built big boulevards and parks with monumental fountains and, eventually, they also introduced strict zoning laws.
GRABER: And chickens and vegetables patches were not part of these new beautiful cities. Urban agriculture—something poor people needed—it had to go. Some cities, over time, had already banned maybe herding animals in the streets, or even keeping certain animals within city limits. But this really solidified during the City Beautiful movement. Cities started to enact ordinances that said no farm animals in the city at all—and no front yard vegetables, either.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, the poor had more pressing concerns than how the city looked. Frequently, when bad harvests and economic fluctuations raised food prices, they could not get enough to eat. There were dozens of major food riots in American cities throughout the 1800s.
DAY: The first urban gardening movement starts in 1893 in the town of Detroit. Because of this panic of 1893, there were lots of panics in those days. The stock market was very new, very volatile, and, long story short, suddenly, basically overnight, 43% of Detroiters are unemployed in what had been a booming city. And the mayor, Hazen S. Pingree, has to find some way to answer the cries of his constituents. So what he does is he starts the first urban farming movement, which is ironically happening at the same time that many productive activities within the city are being outlawed in other cities.
TWILLEY: Urban leaders didn’t want farms in their cities, but they also didn’t want riots. And so letting poor people grow some food on vacant land was seen as an acceptable temporary band-aid in times of shortages.
GRABER: The Detroit Plan was called the Potato Patch Plan. And it had pretty impressive results—by 1896, seventeen hundred families were farming more than 400 acres in the city.
DAY: And there are letters there from local Detroiters writing into Mayor Pingree saying, thank you so much, I was able to grow food for my family. And lots of the people that wrote in—it’s heartbreaking because these letters are hardly legible. They’re in broken English. Many of them were recent German and Polish immigrants who were taking advantage of this program to grow foods that connected them to their home as well as to feed their family.
GRABER: The Potato Patch Program was seen as a success, but it was never meant to be permanent. In less than a decade, when the economic situation in Detroit started to improve, the urban farms kind of petered out.
TWILLEY: Until the next big crisis. Which was World War I.
GRABER: The City Beautiful movement had stamped out urban gardening, the Detroit potato patches were gone, but suddenly there was a huge need both for food and for kind of coming together in a patriotic sense. At least that’s how Charles Lathrop Pack saw it.
DAY: He was a lumber Baron from New Jersey. And early on in the days of the European conflict, he wrote to the U.S. government and said, People should be raising food. It would help them contribute to the war and help stop shortages. And the USDA promptly said, Sir, we’ve got better ideas going here, for better uses of fertilizer and seed supplies. So, thanks for your input. And no thanks.
TWILLEY: Charles hadn’t made his fortune by taking no for an answer. So he took that fortune and started a liberty garden movement himself.
GRABER: And he quickly found a whole group of rich people who wanted to join him in getting Americans gardening again to support the war.
TWILLEY: Charles and his friends created a movement. There were Liberty Gardens on Boston Common and in Union Square in New York and big corporations like Eastman Kodak and General Electric set aside land at their factories for employees to grow, and Boy Scouts even had a garden at Grover Cleveland’s childhood home in New Jersey.
GRABER: Even the government caught the Liberty Garden fever, and they created a school program to teach budding young home farmers how to grow food and support the soldiers. It was actually one of the first nationally promoted curricula in the country. The Liberty Garden movement seemed to really catch the public imagination.
DAY: However, there was no infrastructure for collecting numbers. The only source we have is Charles Lathrop Pack himself wrote a book called The War Garden Victorious in 1917. And he claims that the movement sponsored 5 million gardens.
TWILLEY: Which at a time when there were just over 6 million actual professional farmers in the US, is kind of impressive. But remember, Charles is our only source for this number. And he might have been biased.
DAY: So it’s really incredibly hard to say, but, despite its hold on the national imagination, it had nowhere near the impact of World War II gardens, in terms of sheer amount of produce grown, sheer numbers of people participating, sheer difference it made in the global war effort.
GRABER: And that’s probably why you listeners, at least in the US, you don’t use the term liberty garden when you’re talking about home gardens, you probably say Victory Garden.
ARCHIVAL SOUND: There are many, many ways we who have stayed home can fight this war. Many ways for us to give our time and energy and loyalty and devotion to the battle for freedom. But of them all, none is more appealing than this. And year in, year out, if need be, with our own hands, we can grow gardens of victory!
TWILLEY: In World War I, the government didn’t initially think “Oh I know, gardening will win us this war!” That’s why the Liberty Gardens effort was led by private individuals.
DAY: World War II, there was enthusiasm for gardening right off the bat. So Pearl Harbor launches the United States into the war December 7th, 1941. Within two weeks of Pearl Harbor, they have assembled a national taskforce, comprising governors, private industry, media folks, and federal bureaucrats to organize a national gardening program. This was a complete about face. This time they were determined to not let themselves fall behind private individuals in promoting what turned out to be the most successful, homegrown food movement of the 20th century.
GRABER: Part of the reason it was such a success is the government hired top public relations firms and artists, and they created pro-gardening propaganda.
DAY: And so there are all sorts of newsreels. There are advertisements. There are promotional videos and pamphlets being handed out that are encouraging people to get out there and grow as much as you can as efficiently and as well as you can.
ARCHIVAL SOUND: This then is a challenge to every loyal American citizen. What can we do to help win the war with food? The answer to that challenge comes from Washington from the Office of Civilian Defense: Victory Gardens! That’s the answer.
TWILLEY: Heck yeah! People were encouraged to grow food in their own backyards, in vacant lots, and everywhere else besides.
DAY: People grew food anywhere they could. People grew food, yes, literally in window boxes in cities, people grew food on rooftops in cities. People grew food on the greens and lawns in front of city halls. There were people growing Victory Gardens even at their workplaces, corporate factory campuses were renting out plots to workers. There are fantastic pictures of people growing Victory Garden plots on railway easements, where they’re getting strewn by coal from the trains as they go by and people are growing Victory Gardens there. There are few places that people did not grow food in World War II on the U.S. home front.
GRABER: But even though everyone was responding to the call to grow food, there were some challenges. It’s not like the government can say, “Hey everyone, grow some food!” And the food appears. Remember what grandpa told me: No work, no garden. But it takes some know-how to even know what work to do.
TWILLEY: Anastasia says there was actually a fair bit of media panic about how Americans were so urbanized they had forgotten how to grow food. It was like, wait, how do we do this again? People thought the Victory Gardens movement had the potential to be a gigantic fiasco.
DAY: Oh my gosh. I’m going to pull up a poem written by Ogden Nash that absolutely made me laugh out loud the first time I read it.
GRABER: Ogden Nash was a poet who was particularly famous for his rather silly verses.
DAY: Today, my friends, I beg your pardon, but I’d like to speak of my Victory Garden. With a hoe for sword and citronella for armor, I’ve ventured forth to become a farmer. I toiled with the patience of job or Buddha, but nothing turned out the way that it shoulda. Would you like a description of my parsley? I can give it to you in one word, ghastly. Something crawly has got into my chives. My lettuce has hookworm. My cabbage has hives. And I mixed the labels when sowing my carrots. I planted bird seed. It came up parrots.
TWILLEY: Fortunately, the government was here to help. There were demonstration plots outside city halls, and public workshops and gardening classes and pamphlets galore.
GRABER: And it worked. People not only gardened all over the U.S., on all kinds of plots of available land, but they even managed to harvest a lot of vegetables.
DAY: The results were prodigious. Over 43 percent, according to the highest estimate from the USDA I’ve found of the fresh produce eaten by Americans in 1943, came from their own efforts. Which is absolutely incredible.
TWILLEY: According to polls at the time, a full two-thirds of Americans answered the call and participated in Victory Gardens. It was huge.
GRABER: So if this was so successful and so popular, I’d imagine that even once the war ended that people would have just kept right on gardening. But that’s not what happened.
DAY: Whoosh! They disappear almost overnight. It’s incredible how they just dry up.
GRABER: Again, this seems bizarre to me. Wouldn’t all the gardeners have been reveling in this great local food, wouldn’t they have wanted to keep it around?
TWILLEY: But Anastasia says that wasn’t how people were thinking about their Victory Gardens.
DAY: The way that people talked about gardens in World War II might seem completely alien to people from the 21st century. A lot of activists today look to gardening as being inherently anti-capitalist or inherently the opposite of a factory. What could be more diametrically opposed than a huge smoke stack, billowing clouds of black factory, and a lovely bunch of plants coming out of the ground. But in World War Two, these were presented as being the same sort of thing.
TWILLEY: This imagery of the factory tells you something really important about the Victory Garden movement and its goals.
DAY: The Victory Garden movement was not about creating any sort of a permanent localized food system. Quite the opposite. The Victory Garden movement was a way of teaching American consumers what it meant to try and produce food. And that they had to do it scientifically. They had to copy the big industrial producers as precisely as possible. And so the logical results of such a Victory Garden program is that as soon as people were able to logically outsource that labor to companies who could do it more efficiently, to industrial agricultural interests, who could grow fields worth of Brussels sprouts instead of a row at a time, that they did so happily. Gardening is hard work, and frankly, lots of them were burned out on it after a few short years. They were very ready to embrace, as they actually did, frozen foods, canned foods, premade, pre-packaged TV dinners.
GRABER: And this is exactly why there are almost no Victory Gardens left today. There are a couple—one’s in Boston, one’s in Chicago—but Anastasia says that’s it.
TWILLEY: Post World War II, it was boomtime in America. For a lot of families, making sure they had enough to eat was definitely not a struggle anymore. That prosperity led directly to the suburbs and lawns and a whole different way of living.
GRABER: Vegetable gardening never died out entirely, but there was no national movement, and people weren’t growing those vegetables because the government told them to or to mimic the industrial food system. In some ways it was exactly the opposite, like the counter-culture movement of the 60s and 70s that was protesting, among other things, both the government and industrialized agriculture.
TWILLEY: Picture hippies going back to the land—moving out of San Francisco to Humboldt County or out of New York City to the Catskills to live on a commune, smoke weed, and grow their own organic vegetables.
GRABER: People did grow vegetables in cities throughout the later half of the century, but the population of the cities was changing. The white population was leaving the urban centers, it was called White Flight, and the reasons for this mass exodus are complicated. It has to do with racism and with all sorts of laws that prevented African Americans from having equal opportunities.
TWILLEY: And in turn, these racist restrictions led to crumbling infrastructure and a lack of public services and all the things that gave inner cities such a bad reputation in the 70s.
GRABER: And of course those cities are just where African-Americans were moving throughout the Great Migration, because they didn’t have an option.
LEAH PENNIMAN: But, of course, you know, our folks care so deeply about the land, about farming, that they brought those traditions with them. And when they got to the cities in the urban North tried really hard to get a hold of land in order to garden and farm.
TWILLEY: Leah Penniman is the farm manager and co-director at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, in New York state. She’s also the author of Farming While Black, which includes some of the often overlooked history of food growing in African American communities.
PENNIMAN: But, you know, those structural barriers came up again this time in the form of red lining and other forms of housing discrimination. And people certainly did their best. I mean, they would, you know, farm in vacant lots and on their stoops, but there was never the ability to get the foothold of land ownership that they needed to truly enjoy food sovereignty and self-sufficiency.
TWILLEY: Leah says that the community gardens that African Americans did build in the 70s and 80s were oases in the increasingly grim cities.
PENNIMAN: They were cleaning up vacant lots, you know, planting sunflowers, making raised beds, cleaning up toxic soil.
GRABER: There were some long-standing community gardens in Tulsa, in Atlanta, in New York City. But urban agriculture didn’t really take off again nationwide until the 2000s.
TWILLEY: And once again, Detroit was a pioneer. The renaissance there had its roots in a program that started all the way back in the 70s.
TEPFIRAH RUSHDAN: We had a program that ran for some time in Detroit called the Farm a Lot program that was under Mayor Coleman Young.
GRABER: Tepfirah Rushdan is a co-director of an organization called Keep Growing Detroit. She goes by Tee.
TWILLEY: In the 1970s, Coleman Young became the first African American mayor of Detroit and, like Tee says, he launched this ambitious “Farm a Lot” program—the goal was to give Detroit citizens the resources and support they needed to transform 3,000 empty lots in the city into urban, food-growing gardens.
GRABER: Like Detroit’s potato patches in the 1800s, the Farm a Lot program of the 1970s was a success. But it didn’t last.
RUSHDAN: Toward the 90s, things got pretty bad in Detroit and we lost a lot of our funding, our city funding for recreational activities. And so some non-profits came together to ensure that people still had resources for gardening. And that turned into the garden resource program that I work for today.
TWILLEY: Tee personally got involved in growing food more than a decade ago.
RUSHDAN: For me, very personal story I was… I mean, you know, lots of people get started in different ways. For me, I was in Detroit. I was in my 20s and I was very, like, super revolutionary, trying to figure out ways to overcome some of the injustices in our system. And being very frustrated and kind of rebelling against the system. But I was doing that in a very theoretical way, I would say.
GRABER: In the midst of Tee’s personal rebellion, Detroit had a blackout and she was off the grid for a couple of days. And she says she felt really vulnerable.
RUSHDAN: And I really didn’t have as much of a clue as I thought I did about being independent.
GRABER: Tee thought about what could really make her genuinely more self-reliant, and she started to learn how to forage, and then she learned how to farm. And she joined a real renaissance of urban agriculture in the city.
TWILLEY: In 2003, when the nonprofit that Tee now works for took over the farming programs from the city, there were 70 gardens in Detroit.
RUSHDAN: And today there are eighteen hundred gardens in our program. So is a pretty, pretty big thing in Detroit. There’s D-Town, which is probably the largest. There’s Brother Nature who is in the heart of the city, growing salad greens. There’s Fisheye Farms doing some very innovative things. There are a lot.
GRABER: Detroit is already growing quite a lot of food within the city limits, nobody knows exactly how much but, based on the last time they weighed the harvest, Tee and her colleagues estimate that it’s about 5-10 percent of the total produce eaten in the city. But they think Detroit can grow a whole lot more.
RUSHDAN: Actually, our mission statement is food sovereignty, which is the majority of fruits and vegetables in our markets. Fifty one percent. And so there are some folks at the university level who have crunched some numbers for us who say that we can do that. I think we’re a little bit far from that in terms of supplying every resident with food, but it is our goal, albeit a little lofty.
TWILLEY: Detroit is the poster child for urban farming in the U.S.. TV cameras have descended on the city, to report on the phenomenon and to figure out how they’re growing so much food.
HOST: Hey, what’s up man.
FARMER: What’s up man.
HOST: This is real back-to-basics farming. And some think, part of a new green revolution. The amazing thing is, we’re not in deepest, rural Pennsylvania, or even suburban New Jersey. This is where Will farms. The inner city of Detroit.
GRABER: Detroit is at the forefront of a movement that’s happening around the country. Gardens and farms are popping up in small backyard plots, in abandoned city lots, on rooftops, even in hightech skyscrapers.
NARRATOR: Across the world, the future of farming is being brought into cities. You have Kimbal Musk, brother of Elon Musk, and co-founder of Square Roots, that has a shipping container farm in Brooklyn. And under the streets of London, there is a shelter that has been converted into an underground farm. There are tiny farms under Michelin star restaurants in New York City. And a Tokyo office building which has its own rice paddy field in the lobby.
TWILLEY: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have heard some of this hype. Urban farming is going to feed cities, stop climate change and basically save the world. So what does the science say? Can at least some of these wonderful things possibly be true?
GRABER: The first thing to know when we try to figure out whether urban farming can save the world is: it’s hard to figure it out. In part because the USDA doesn’t separate out small urban farms from rural ones in its data collection, and if the farms don’t sell at least a thousand dollars worth of produce, they’re not counted at all.
TWILLEY: But there are a handful of researchers trying to pin down the data. At Johns Hopkins, Raychel Santo was frustrated by all the fuzziness around urban farming. So a couple of years ago, she dug through all the papers she could find on the topic—more than 200 of them—and she published a report. We have a link on our website.
RAYCHEL SANTO: One challenge in terms of quantifying is that some of the benefits just can’t be quantified. So for a lot of the socio-cultural benefits, I mean, it’s really hard. But there are tangible benefits for anyone who has participated in a community garden or farm of getting to know your neighbors, meeting people from different backgrounds, meeting people of different age groups and interacting with them on a regular basis and being involved in something productive together. And that’s really what, for us, shone out of the literature, the vast majority of literature, that one of the key benefits of urban agriculture are these socio-cultural benefits, but they are hard to quantify in numbers.
TWILLEY: They may be hard to quantify in numbers but Tee agrees that doesn’t make them any less real.
RUSHDAN: People come at it from so many different angles and there’s so many things that gardening touches. So, you know, whether it’s like exposure to the environment, you know, getting outside in nature, diet, increased food access, relationships. And for us in Detroit a big part of it is beautification of neighborhoods—you know, people are seeing a vacant lot and wanting to make it look better. So there’s all of these different angles that gardening hits. And then in Detroit in particular, and, you know, I would say also across the nation, but I can speak for folks here in Detroit, is there is for a lot of people a strong justice undertone of why they’re growing food. It’s a strong feeling of, you know, kind of kickback against the system. Also, like, there’s a strong feeling of self-reliance and understanding that these systems aren’t always designed for people of color, right. They’re not always designed to benefit people of color. And sometimes we get the short end of the stick.
GRABER: And Leah says this benefit to non-white urban gardeners and farmers, in particular to African-Americans, it can’t be underestimated.
PENNIMAN: Hearing from the folks who have done this gardening, you know, it’s not just the food. Of course, it’s the food. You have this nutritious, fresh, 20 feet away from your table, custom-grown food. That’s amazing, amazing. But it’s also the opportunity to get exercise, to be outside and feel connected to the earth, to have a meaningful activity, to engage with your loved ones, with your children, all of this. And then I would add to it, an unexpected benefit that we’ve seen is actually healing from trauma. There’s for many people this visceral reaction to land because land got mixed up and confused with the oppression that took place on the land. So the land was named criminal, right? We ran away from her. But to have a garden, to have a small farm on your own terms, to grow food for your community, that you find delicious, right? This is the process of healing from that trauma, and being able to reclaim a dignified relationship with the land and to reclaim this autonomous relationship with food. So that, I actually think is even more powerful in some ways than how much vitamin B and zinc and stuff you get from the kale that you grew.
GRABER: But of course we do get vitamins and minerals from kale and other veggies, and Americans don’t eat nearly enough vegetables and we don’t get enough of those vitamins and minerals in our diet.
TWILLEY: So the question here is: can growing vegetables in cities help boost how many of those vegetables we eat?
SANTO: That is one of the claims that is often made. And I do think that from the literature I’ve reviewed, at least there is evidence to support the fact that there is greater fruit and vegetable consumption by people who are actively participating in urban agriculture. So whether it’s a household participating in a community garden or has a backyard garden, there’s a substantial amount of research specifically on youth who are participating in garden programs being more likely to want to try fruits and vegetables, if they had a role in helping grow them.
GRABER: And not just kids, there’s evidence in general that people who grow vegetables tend to eat more of them. And in fact, research from World War II shows that people ate more vegetables—at least in part from their Victory Gardens—than Americans have ever eaten before or since.
TWILLEY: But that boost doesn’t seem to extend out beyond the people actually growing the veggies—Raychel says the data doesn’t back up the claim that just because you have a community garden or urban farm in your neighborhood, selling local veggies, that you will actually eat more of them.
GRABER: But many urban farms do have programs to try to get their community involved and then get them to eat more vegetables.
TWILLEY: What researchers also know, from looking at urban farming and backyard vegetable growing in many cities in the Global South is that these kinds of urban farms can be really important in terms of nutrition.
GRABER: They might only provide like 20 percent of a family’s calories, but it could be about 80 percent of the vitamins and minerals they need from fresh vegetables, and that they’re not getting anywhere else.
TWILLEY: The other big benefit to having community gardens in cities is environmental. Raychel found a bunch of evidence backing up their environmental benefits. Urban farms and gardens are like all urban green spaces—they increase biodiversity and they improve rainwater drainage and they can even have a cooling effect on hot days.
GRABER: But there’s another huge benefit from these urban farms, and that’s in creating more resilient cities. We saw this just a few months ago when COVID hit, that suddenly shelves were empty, and some of that was because the supply chains got totally messed up. And local farms stepped in to meet the demand.
TWILLEY: Not to be the voice of doom, but we can actually count on seeing more of these kinds of disruptions coming down the line thanks to climate change—there’ll be floods, fire, pests, drought, and yes, more, infectious diseases—
PENNIMAN: Here’s the thing. The industrial food system was always pretty messed up. It’s just that this pandemic has laid its cracks bare. So whereas people might not have been thinking before about how fragile and tenuous these food supply chains are, suddenly they get to a grocery store and they see an empty shelf and think, Oh my goodness, you know, I was relying on this permanency, but in fact, one interrupted shipment, you know, or one closed down meat processing plant has these huge repercussions in this very centralized, very scaled food system. And I think it’s just been a wake up call to what was already there.
NEIL MATTSON: So currently the U.S. has a very centralized food system where, you know, small areas of the U.S. are used to grow the majority of the produce that we consume.
GRABER: Neil Mattson is a professor of horticulture at Cornell University, and he’s halfway through a three-year study of urban farms.
TWILLEY: Neil is not studying the kind of low-tech community gardens and vacant lot urban farms that Leah and Tee work with. Because given all the benefits of urban agriculture, in the past decade or so, there’s been a lot of excitement about the idea that we could grow even more food locally, using technology.
NARRATOR: It might look like we’re inside of a spaceship, but this actually a farm. The crops here are grown mostly by machines, with the help of just a few humans, like this woman.
GRABER: Neil’s studying whether cities can grow vegetables year-round, and that means looking into the benefits and costs of greenhouses and high-tech vertical farms. There’s a lot of hype about these in particular—people grow vegetables inside buildings, on multiple floors, and the plants might never see the sun. Instead, the sun’s light is provided by light bulbs, and everything, the water, the nutrients, it’s all really tightly controlled.
TWILLEY: Neil and his colleagues are looking at three different places and three different types of farms. The places are New York City, Chicago, and California. In the cities, Neil’s comparing greenhouse growing and then also these more high-tech vertical farms. And he’s also looking at vegetables grown outdoors, in a field in California, as a control.
GRABER: One of the big questions about these higher tech farms is the carbon footprint.
MATTSON: One of the things that we’ve found is that if we look at like New York City, production in a greenhouse had very similar energy use and carbon footprint to growing in California and shipping 3000 miles. It was ever so slightly higher, but just a few percentage points higher than field production. However, a vertical farm had about twice the energy cost and twice the carbon footprint of growing 3000 miles away.
GRABER: That’s surprising—as we said, a lot of people are looking to vertical farms to solve a city’s food needs. But it does actually make sense. In a greenhouse, you need energy to heat it up. But in a vertical farm, you need even more energy to get the right humidity inside and then, this is the biggest issue, to power all those lights that take the place of the sun.
TWILLEY: This is why some people, including also me, get really frustrated about all this talk of shiny skyscraper farms feeding the city.
TAMAR HASPEL: I’ll take annoying urban agriculture for 200, Alex! Vertical farms I think are overhyped because there’s some great things about them. They use much less water. They have many fewer inputs. They can happen right at the source and bring fresh foods into communities. But the problem is that they’re taking a unit of energy from the grid and turning it into food rather than taking a unit of energy from the sun and turning it into food. And replacing the sun is a really big job.
GRABER: Tamar Haspel is a freelance journalist and a Washington Post columnist.
HASPEL: I’ve spent the last, what, dozen years or so, experimenting with every kind of DIY food under the sun. We raise our own livestock, we grow plants, we hunt and fish. I mean, we’ve made our own sea salt. And I wrote about it for a long time. I had a blog called Starving Off the Land.
TWILLEY: For now, Tamar and I are right to be annoyed by skyscraper farms. Neil’s research does show that they are less energy efficient than growing your lettuce in sunny California—or even in a greenhouse in New Jersey—and then shipping that lettuce into the city.
GRABER: Of course, this calculation could change in the future. If the energy source for all the lighting and the heating is renewable, like from solar power, that would make a big difference. Also, the lights themselves have continually gotten more efficient. And dramatically better lighting could tip the balance.
TWILLEY: And energy is not the only piece of the climate equation. Like Tamar said, there’s also the question of water.
MATTSON: When we looked at water, we found that growing in either a greenhouse or a vertical farm used about 10 times less water than field production in California.
GRABER: And the availability of water might become even more of an issue as the world heats up.
MATTSON: So one might think of like water availability in California could affect our ability to grow tomatoes and lettuce in fields there. And with changes in climate, we may have to think about where we grow food.
TWILLEY: Another variable when we think about where we grow food is how expensive the land is. That’s something Neil and his colleagues are looking at too—can high-tech urban farming be economically viable?
MATTSON: We looked at production in Queens, New York, where land is absurdly expensive compared to costs that a normal farmer would pay for land.
GRABER: So in New York City, sure, a smaller rooftop garden or a small farm in a long vacant lot might make some sense, but what often makes even more sense, at least economically, is to move a greenhouse to maybe an hour outside the city. There’s a long history of this so-called peri-urban agriculture.
MATTSON: It could be just an hour or two drive outside of a city gets you to much cheaper agricultural land.
TWILLEY: But land is not the only big expense for an urban farmer.
MATTSON: So when we looked at the economic costs of greenhouse or vertical farm production, it turns out that the largest cost and more than half the cost of production was actually labor. And the systems that we looked at were very un-automated scenarios. So very much using hand labor to seed and transplant and harvest.
GRABER: Neil says more and more of those jobs in high-tech urban farms are becoming automated, which could bring the costs down to where they’re nearly equal to the cost of shipping produce from California.
TWILLEY: Automation means fewer jobs, of course—but they’re better jobs. Year round, more skilled, and less backbreaking.
GRABER: The future is likely a blend of all different kinds of farms. Greenhouses are great, and vertical farms might make sense someday, but we’ll also always have outdoor more low-tech urban farms. They work, and they bring all sorts of benefits to the community that we’ve already talked about, benefits that basically don’t even exist in the context of the higher-tech farms.
TWILLEY: So this is great—it’s a new era for urban farming. But can cities actually feed themselves? Can we actually grow all the food we need where we live, most of us anyway?
HASPEL: I’m so glad you ask because this is like my favorite subject. So if you think about a human needs to eat about 2000 calories a day, give or take, and if we eat our full complement of vegetables, which is, you know, five servings, and of course, almost nobody does in this country, but if you do, that’s about 20% of those daily calories, maybe. Often it’s probably closer to 10, actually. So you get 10% of your calories from fruits and vegetables.
GRABER: City farms mostly aren’t growing wheat and corn and oats and lentils. And Tamar says that these foods, at least if we eat them in their whole form and not heavily processed, they should be the backbone of our diets because they’re easy to grow, they provide a lot of calories and nutrition per acre, they’re easy to store, they’re climate friendly.
TWILLEY: And so, because that’s what we should be eating and that’s not generally grown in the city, we shouldn’t expect cities to provide all our food. But even though veggies only supply maybe 10 or 20 percent of calories, we rely on them for up to 80 percent of our micronutrients—the vitamins and minerals we need to stay healthy.
GRABER: So can cities at least grow all the vegetables we need?
SANTO: That literature is, is pretty promising. I mean, there are a few studies showing that you know, during spring and summer and fall, even in certain areas, depending on what city you’re looking at, a substantial portion of residents can get their fruits and vegetables sourced from the city, or at least their vegetables and maybe their honey sourced from the city.
GRABER: Tee told us studies show that in Detroit they could theoretically grow more than half of their vegetables—one study said as much as 65 percent.
TWILLEY: It’s the same in Cleveland. Just based on land that is currently empty, Cleveland could actually grow half its demand for fresh vegetables, and if you throw in most commercial rooftops and a small amount of residential land, that goes up to 100 percent—plus 94 percent of the city’s eggs and chicken.
GRABER: So it sounds like many cities might be able to grow most of the vegetables they need, which is great. And on top of that, growing at a smaller scale could help keep our food even safer than it is today.
TWILLEY: One of the downsides of our current industrialized and centralized system is that if there’s an E. Coli outbreak and it gets into spinach and that spinach all comes from the same place and has been shipped across the nation, then it’s hard to trace all the infected produce. And it’s hard to find a replacement source for that much spinach.
GRABER: A smaller, decentralized system could help deal with those issues and make our food system more resilient.
TWILLEY: But there are critics. Even though the benefits of urban farming are real, some people feel that growing veggies in the city is not a panacea and that all the hype and focus on urban farming takes away from other, maybe more important issues in the food system and with our diets.
HASPEL: What annoys me about the claims made for urban farming is that I think that those claims can end up being the enemy of the success of urban farming. And I would say almost the same thing about local farming because there are so many great things about it, but when you ask urban farming or local farming to sort of fix the food system, you’re asking it to do something that it can’t do. You’re asking it to punch above its weight class.
GRABER: Tee and Leah think that these two things can and should coexist, supporting and participating in urban farming and trying to fix the broader food system.
RUSHDAN: Yeah, well, we do have to do both. We have to make time to focus on, you know, more local production, and then we have to make time to address the larger systematic issues.
PENNIMAN: I mean, I hope people have an attention span like wider than that of a flea. I’m outside all day doing small-scale farming, and I sign my petitions and I vote and I donate to important causes and call my Congressperson. And I just trust the intelligence of my fellow Americans enough that they can both feel good in their garden and grow food for their grandparents and their children, and also participate in civic life. So I think it’s really a false choice.
GRABER: They both say focusing on urban agriculture isn’t a distraction because it can actually help connect growers to the food movement.
RUSHDAN: The more people that are growing their food and see how much work actually goes into producing that one tomato that came to your plate, like the more appreciation there is for the work that farmers do. And without that kind of real knowledge, we’re going to perpetually be in this system of, like, you know, underpaying farmers, underpaying farm workers, not valuing, you know, the things that are coming to our plates. We have to be involved in the production of it.
PENNIMAN: And my hope is that this time of pandemic will not just result in this temporary fad of gardening, but an awakening as to the type of structural changes that we need to make to have an equitable and just and sustainable food system.
TWILLEY: Hear, hear. No argument from me there. But another argument that critics of urban agriculture make all the time is to say that these small farms can never work economically. That’s an argument that Neil is showing is not necessarily true for high-tech and greenhouse growing.
GRABER: Of course we do want to point out that Neil is evaluating high-tech operations that mostly grow higher end produce like baby greens. Focusing on more expensive crops will make the outfit more successful economically, but it’s not going to help a vertical farm feed the community, which is what a lot of lower-tech urban farms are trying to do.
TWILLEY: So what about for low-tech community gardens— can they be successful?
PENNIMAN: I mean, success is so hard to define. and certainly in a capitalist society, success usually looks like, uh, are you in the black, you know, have you met the bottom line? And I looked at a recent study that said that smallscale agriculture—this doesn’t count gardens—95 percent of small scale farms actually rely on an outside income just in order to make ends meet. And the small farms I know that are successful are generally no exception. There’s usually a side hustle. And so for us at Soul Fire Farm the side hustle is our education programs. It’s our consulting, our public speaking, our pay-a-fee for program type things. You know, some people do agritourism, value-add products, CBD oil and so forth. But by and large, it is very, very challenging unless you scale up to about, I would say 20 to 40 acres of vegetables, mechanized, it’s very difficult to just sell your veggies or just sell your eggs and actually turn a profit that’s enough to make a living wage.
GRABER: There are ways to make small, urban farms more viable, more likely to succeed financially. Leah pointed out that Costa Rica pays farmers for how they care for the environment, for growing plants that support native pollinators, for recharging aquifers.
PENNIMAN: We have the opposite in the United States, where very large scale farmers are paid millions of dollars to trash the planet. And so we need to look at our subsidy structure, what we value as a society and figure out how to make sure that farmers can actually be paid just for doing the work of feeding the world, which is arguably the most important work that there is.
TWILLEY: And the other thing that’s important to remember is that different urban farms are going to have different goals—they might be focused on providing some of those community benefits rather than on profit. They might be focused on beautification rather than boosting nutrition. It’s not a one-size fits all model.
GRABER: And so there might be different economic models for the success of these farms, because all of those benefits have a lot of value for a city. So much value that they even raise property prices around the gardens and farms.
PENNIMAN: So, you know, what urban farmers and community gardeners are dealing with right now is gentrification. They’re dealing with the fact that, you know, as soon as it becomes more profitable for the city to sell off that plot of land to an unscrupulous developer, they will, you know, yank that resource right away from the community that has actually in some ways contributed to the upliftment of the neighborhood and its attractiveness to the developer by planting these gardens and cleaning it up.
SANTO: Because I mean, one of the things is even if these, these operations provide a lot of benefits to the community—socio-cultural, environmental, food security—those aren’t often tangible in terms of economic output. So it can be challenging for a farm or garden to have enough money to combat a developer’s bid for a high value piece of land. And so I think that’s one of the biggest challenges cities are facing is how to create mechanisms to help people keep the land once they’ve spent the time and effort to maintain it and bring it to life through growing food.
GRABER: Those kinds of mechanisms, like land trusts, government interventions, they could keep urban agriculture going and in fact growing.
TWILLEY: And there are some other basic things that could be fixed that would really help.
GRABER: Remember those City Beautiful zoning laws that kept front-yard vegetable gardens and farm animals out of the city? Those need to be reconsidered. Tee is working with the city government in Detroit to allow farm animals back into the city. Right now, they’re still banned.
TWILLEY: Another thing that would definitely help is investment in gardening and farming education, like there was in World War II. Making school gardens part of the curriculum, funding extension specialists, all of that.
GRABER: At the beginning of the episode, we talked about these World War II Victory Gardens and what a success they were, and education and training was a huge part of that success and should be funded now—but those gardens were really different from urban gardening and farming today.
TWILLEY: Today’s urban gardens—and even the COVID-19 vegetable growing boom—they’re about creating an alternative to the industrial food system, and a path to resilience and even food sovereignty. Which is not exactly what the Office of War Information had in mind back in 1941.
GRABER: Anastasia has spent years studying those Victory Gardens. She’s a gardener herself. And she says despite the differences, there’s something these two vegetable gardening movements might have in common—and that’s that this experience may well have a profound impact on people trying gardening for the first time, and they in turn can have a profound impact on the country. She told us she’s not surprised that the children who grew up with Victory Gardens turned into adults who celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970.
TWILLEY: Everyone we spoke to thinks that the current COVID gardening trend is going to lose some steam eventually. But Anastasia is optimistic that it could still leave an important legacy.
DAY: I think that this is going to turn into a lifelong hobby for some and an unfortunate experiment for many, many others. I do hope that this helps orient people toward the natural world. I hope that we can see rising interest in the climate crisis, in the problems of the agricultural food system, in questions of food equity and food justice, in the plights of migrant farm workers who help keep our broken systems running. I hope that those are the ways we will be able to see any long term impact of these coronavirus gardens.
GRABER: This episode was made possible thanks to generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics, as well as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Anastasia Day, Rose Hayden-Smith, Leah Penniman, Tepfirah Rushdan, Tamar Haspel, Raychel Santo, Neil Mattson and Robin Marsh—we have links to all of their books and research and gardens on our website gastropod dot com.
GRABER: A huge thanks to Sonja Swanson, who is a Gastropod fellow for the summer, and is already completely and totally indispensable. And a final thanks to listener Graham Savio who recommended we speak to Leah Penniman!
TWILLEY: We’re taking a little break to tend our COVID gardens and prepare a fresh new season for you all, we’ll be back in 5 weeks. Send us your homegrown veggie pics in the meantime, we’d love to see them!