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Urban farms grow as cities seek safe, cheap food

Farmers from around Albuquerque, New Mexico are introducing their own 'grow local' campaign to urban consumers concerned with food safety and high prices. And they are responding and relearning the value of local produce.

August 25, 2008  By Associated Press/International Herald Press

August 25, 2008

Albuquerque, N.M. Dan Schuster breezes down the road in his green and yellow John Deere tractor, passing fast-food restaurants and strip malls on his way to work.


August 25, 2008

Albuquerque, N.M. Dan Schuster breezes down the road in his green and yellow John Deere tractor, passing fast-food restaurants and strip malls on his way to work.

You might say Schuster is an urban farmer.

He does custom plowing for landowners in the Albuquerque area and manages Rio Grande Community Farms, a tax-dollar supported urban farm and education center.

Community gardening organizers and experts nationwide say growers like Schuster — and urban areas like Albuquerque — are bringing agriculture into cities and suburbs in new ways as people worry about the environment, rising food costs and food safety. City folks also are relearning how delicious homegrown food can be.

Drive down a six-lane highway through this central New Mexico city and you can see cows chewing their cud. Small farms in the city's South Valley along the Rio Grande are a short bicycle ride from downtown skyscrapers. And the city has a lenient ordinance about backyard chicken coops.

"We're so far behind, we're ahead," Schuster said. "When all those (other cities) were getting populated and built on, we were still growing food here to eat. We still had families that were feeding themselves because they couldn't afford food except for what they could grow."

The rural lifestyle of backyard horse stables, fresh eggs for breakfast, fruit trees and vegetable gardens that people take for granted in many Albuquerque neighborhoods is catching on around the country.

"The actual phenomenon of urban farming is absolutely taking off even more," said Taja Sevelle, founder and executive director of Urban Farming, a Detroit-based nonprofit that turns vacant lots into gardens. "People are worried about the environment, the rising cost of food. People feel safer about their food being grown closer to home."

Urban Farming started with three gardens in Detroit in 2005. This year they have 600 gardens and have expanded across the country into cities like New York, St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis and New Orleans, she said.

Greg Bowman, communications manager at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Penn., a nonprofit that promotes and researches organic farming methods, said urban planners are integrating sustainable agriculture into developments like retirement communities and subdivisions.

And local farmers — who in recent years have brought organic produce into farmer's markets, restaurants and schools where urban dwellers can try it — are choosing to plant vegetables based on nutritional value and taste, rather than making decisions based on a business contract or how long a vegetable can sit on a shelf.

"It kind of opens up people's imaginations of what can be done closer to home," he said.

In Albuquerque, KT LaBadie has started She trains urban and suburban residents to keep chickens in their backyards. The city has one of the most lenient ordinances affecting chickens in the country, allowing up to 15 chickens per household, she said.

"The urban chicken thing has really taken off," she said. "It's a draw to bring people to your cities and it's something that should be preserved."

Schuster, too, keeps chickens and sells the extra eggs to his neighbors, who leave 20 dollar bills on his porch periodically when they pick up their eggs. He also grows flowers that he sells at local shops and he allows a beekeeper to maintain a hive on his property from which he gets some of the honey.

But not everyone in Albuquerque is as optimistic as Schuster and LaBadie about local food production.

Water is a constant concern in this southwestern city, which has about 600 miles of irrigation and drainage ditches called acequias crisscrossing its neighborhoods near the river.

A lot of growers despair that small farms often are being subdivided into tiny lots — the water rights to the parcels lost.

Agriculture is "under incredibly heavy pressure from developers," said John Shipley, vice president of the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust. "Why can't they leave the farmland alone on the valley floor? The loss of agricultural water and farmland is a major threat to the continuation of farming."

As things stand now, Albuquerque produces only about 3 percent of the food that the city eats, Shipley said.

Michael Reed, president of the New Mexico Farmer's Marketing Association, owns a farm south of Albuquerque where he grows heirloom crops that thrive in the region's dry climate and where he demonstrates that a lot of food can be grown in a small area.

"If we could encourage one city block to have each neighbor plant a fruit tree, in a few years they would have more fruit than they would know what to do with," he said. "This isn't about subsistence farming, it's about creating healthy communities."


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