Thuppal: Urban farm aid

By Hay Thuppal

Instead of taking notes during class, a friend recently began tilling his land and harvesting… Instead of taking notes during class, a friend recently began tilling his land and harvesting his vegetables. I am, of course, referring to the land and vegetables he owns virtually on the popular Facebook application called FarmVille.

FarmVille, since its launch in June, has become the most popular application in the history of Facebook. More than 62 million people operate their own cyber-farms. But this seemingly distant world of blueberries, barns and bunnies is not as remote as you might believe.

If you were hoping to read about the latest FarmVille cheat codes, I’m sorry. I speak of a different type of farming — the urban kind.

Urban agriculture has been around for quite a while longer than its computerized counterpart but hasn’t caught on nearly as quickly.

Urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating food in or around a city. Although people have grown food in cities for centuries, this type of farming is taking an increasingly important role as cities expand in population and land area.

When it comes to energy efficiency and quality of food, urban agriculture beats industrial farming, hands down. This alternative combats the known shortcomings of factory farming, including depletion of soil nutrients, water contamination and the excessive use of fossil fuels.

In the recent success of urban farms like Growing Power in Milwaukee, we can see the potential that urban agriculture holds. Not only can it produce necessities for an urban population, it can also revitalize communities once considered dead.

Will Allen, a professional basketball player-turned-businessman-turned-farmer, started Growing Power 16 years ago and continues to helm the organization.

Located in one of Milwaukee’s most economically distressed neighborhoods, Growing Power’s main farm operates on 2 acres of land surrounded by grocery stores filled with beer, cigarettes and processed foods.

Such bleak prospects haven’t stopped Allen. His dedication to providing his community with healthier choices created an enthusiasm for farming in Milwaukee residents.

Nearly 2,000 residents volunteer, allowing Allen to focus his attention on integrating techniques such as aquaponics and vermicompost to improve the quality of Growing Power’s harvests.

This isn’t just another passing green trend.

In September, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Allen a $500,000 grant that gave him the resources to dream bigger and make Growing Power more energy independent.

The success of Growing Power has inspired other farmers from all over the country, including here in Pittsburgh.

Grow Pittsburgh, started in 2005, is dedicated to growing food, farmers and the community. Its projects range from teaching kids the basics of farming to working in the greenhouse of the Frick Art and Historical Center.

Like other urban farms across the nation, Grow Pittsburgh’s Braddock Farms rejuvenate the city’s neglected neighborhoods.

A booming business district in the 1950s and ’60s, Braddock has fallen on hard times, leaving its residents, young and old, jobless.

But the plot of land located behind U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Plant has provided job opportunities for young people as well as fresh, nutritious produce.

The most exciting part of urban agriculture is that we’ve yet to test its limits.

The goal behind “vertical farms” is to bring farming into the heart of a city. With limited space in cities like New York and Shanghai, the logical agricultural option is creating farms that shoot several stories into the sky.

Population increases might eventually leave traditional farmers without much land. But the vertical farm concept could help combat that problem, not to mention the harmful effects of traditional farming like excess agricultural runoff and deforestation.

Ultimately, the most appealing aspect of urban farming isn’t necessarily fighting economic injustice or saving the environment.

It just might be the prospect of being able to produce our own food right in our metropolitan backyards. Maybe that’s why so many of us are interested in applications like FarmVille.

It might be a bit late in the growing season to start your own garden or have a major impact on local urban agricultural initiatives. But the spring could provide us the opportunity to bring our virtual aspirations into the real world.

E-mail Hay at [email protected]