J. D. Heyes
You won’t see cornrows stretching into the horizon or amber waves of grain as far as the eye can see, but there’s a growing phenomenon in urban America – agriculture is “growing” in our big cities, and as a result, lawmakers and policy chiefs are taking notice.
And perhaps nowhere is the trend more evident than in Buffalo, N.Y., where, in 2003, a group called the Massachusetts Avenue Project turned a vacant lot on the city’s West Side into a sizeable vegetable garden.
Some 10 growing seasons later, the neighbors there no longer think of it as “weird,” says Diane Picard, executive director of the organization. And neither do scores of other Buffalo residents, because urban agriculture is, in a word, flourishing in the city.
A growing number of residents who, as the Buffalo News reports, “a taste for local food, a passion for living sustainably and a devotion to ensuring everyone has access to healthy, affordable food,” have started urban farms in several once-empty lots on both the city’s East and West Sides. And this growing season, the level of city farming is reaching new levels.
A group of young folk thereabouts in Buffalo took to buying vacant lots on Michigan Avenue and Peckham Streets. They’ve teamed up with others from yonder across town to form a farming cooperative, in fact. They aim to poll enough resources and skills to grow enough food to feed them and sell the excess at market stands they will establish.
Nobel, ingenious and entrepreneurial. All from the fruits (vegetables?) of a little labor of love.
Government catching on – and catching up
Normally, having government get involved in much of anything spells doom for the project, but in this case it might actually be a good thing. And, as it turns out, a necessary one at that.
In response to the growing numbers of urban farms, city officials have developed a “Green Code,” which is a total revamp of Buffalo zoning regulations that deal with everything from beekeeping in one’s backyard to selling produce grown by locals.
“It’s amazing actually,” Picard told the paper. “It’s so exciting now to see it start to be paid attention to. Policy makers and the movers and shakers are getting a handle on how this can be an economic development driver, a way to solve food security issues, a way to employ young people, and how it brings people together.”
And like taters on Wilson Street, Picard’s project has grown exponentially from its humble, ahem, roots, nearly a decade ago. Lot after vacant lot is being transformed into, well, productive land. Moreover, the concept is expanding into education as well.
One group, PUSH Buffalo, through its Growing Green youth initiative, young people are taught agriculture as well as business and job skills. In fact, the initiative has employed more than 400 young folks since it began.
“It also runs a farm stand and a mobile market in the summer and has ventured into tilapia farming,” said the paper.
A real growth industry
Like weeds in the onions, the effort is spreading.
In fact, more and more city residents are applying to Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, a group that helps facilitate community gardens on city-owned vacant lots, so they can grow veggies like zucchini, tomatoes and peppers instead of just flowers and shrubs.
Indeed, those who are transforming the city into a huge farming community – if that’s even possible – often see themselves as rebels with a cause. They call themselves Farmer Pirates (as in, Arrrrrr!) because they see themselves as fighting against the corporate food system.
They even have a song. Sung to the tune of “Home on the Range,” the first stanza goes like this:
Home, home in the ‘hood. There are things that I’d change if I could. Like taking the waste in this limited space and growing a product that’s good.
Nothing like vacant-lot corn on the cob to spruce up a mid-summer barbeque.