Thursday, May 08, 2008

URBAN FARMING GROWS INTO A BUSINESS

TRACIE MCMILLAN, NY TIMES For years, New Yorkers have grown basil, tomatoes and greens in window boxes, backyard plots and community gardens. But more and more New Yorkers are raising fruits and vegetables, and not just to feed their families but to sell to people on their block. This urban agriculture movement has grown even more vigorously elsewhere. Hundreds of farmers are at work in Detroit, Milwaukee, Oakland and other areas that, like East New York, have low-income residents, high rates of obesity and diabetes, limited sources of fresh produce and available, undeveloped land.

Local officials and nonprofit groups have been providing land, training and financial encouragement. But the impetus, in almost every case, has come from the farmers, who often till when their day jobs are done, overcoming peculiarly urban obstacles. . .

The city's cultivators are a varied lot. The high school students at the Added Value community farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, last year supplied Italian arugula, Asian greens and heirloom tomatoes to three restaurants, a community-supported agriculture buying club and two farmers' markets.

In the South Bronx a group of gardens called La Familia Verde started a farmers' market in 2003 to sell surpluses of herbs like papalo and the Caribbean green callaloo. . .

The city's success with urban farming will receive international attention on Saturday when, during an 11-day conference in New York, 60 delegates from the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development are scheduled to visit Hands and Hearts, the Bed-Stuy Farm and two traditional community gardens in Brooklyn.

There was not always so much enthusiasm for city farming, though.

John Ameroso, a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent who has worked with local farmers and gardeners for 32 years, said that when he first suggested urban farm stands in the early 1990s, city environmental officials dismissed the idea. " 'Oh, you could never grow enough stuff with the urban markets,' " he said he was told. 'That can't be done. You have to have farmers.' "

But local officials have come around. . .

On a fringe of Philadelphia, a nonprofit demonstration project used densely planted rows in a half-acre plot and generated $67,000 from high-value crops like lettuces, carrots and radishes.

In Milwaukee, the nonprofit Growing Power operates a one-acre farm crammed with plastic greenhouses, compost piles, do-it-yourself contraptions, tilapia tanks and pens full of hens, ducks and goats - and grossed over $220,000 last year from the sale of lettuces, winter greens, sprouts and fish to local restaurants and consumers.