When did urban farming begin in the United States? The answer is: it was introduced by the first settlers and it never stopped. Definitions, missions, economics and techniques evolved according to time and place. In colonial times when urban areas sprawled, pigs roamed the streets and home food gardens flourished. As cities populated and open space diminished, food gardens adapted to maximizing produce in minimal space. Much is written about the growth of urban food supply: farmers markets, thriving seaports, ethnic grocers & supermarkets. Urban farms thrived under the radar.
Today we view urban gardeners as champions of sustainability. That was not always the case. In the 19th century mainstream America considered urban gardens economically unimportant and socially backward. Food historians confirm many of these gardens were cultivated by new immigrants. In the early 20th century urban gardens were used as teaching tools, social behavior modifiers, urban beautification projects, wartime food supplements, school lessons, forced labor, and academic challenges. Modern sustainable urban gardens first surfact in the 1970s. California is generally credited for launching this movement but local newspapers chronicle similar efforts in major cities throughout the USA.
[19th century: Immigrant experience--transplanting home traditions]
"In the nineteenth century, immigrant Jews carried their goose-farming tradition to America, establishing urban poultry farms in the East Side tenements. Several decades later, Italian immigrants brought their treasured home gardens to urban America, now reconfigured as a tenement window box. In wooden planters made from discarded soapboxes, Italian homemakers grew oregano, basil, mint, peppers, tomatoes, and lettuce. (The more ambitious urban farmers planted their gardens on tenement rooftops)."
---97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, Jane Ziegelman [Smithsonian Books:New York] 2010 (p. 216) ?
[1895: Factory redux--retraining lost agricultural skills to unemployed city dwellers so they can go back to the farm.]
"The City Farming School is now being fostered by the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, and the benefits are expected to reach far beyond the temporary help afforded. An order was given today for 1,200 bushels of seed potatoes, and during next week letters will be sent out asking assistance...'The mere matter of giving the poor something to eat...is only part of the plan. We hope to accomplish more than that; to teach the people a useful occupation and enable them to keep themselves. If they learn agriculture they will be inclined to go to the country and thus help solve the problem of city poverty. It is our aim to make practical farmers out of the men who apply to cultivate the small patches of ground allotted them. Every assistance wil be given. The soil will be prepared and feritlized to the highest degree, seeds will be of the best quality and all necessary tools provided. By the end of the season we expect to have hundreds of men who hae not only raised food for their families, but have learned much. Meanwhile the association will endeavor to find places for the men on farms throughout the State. For years the cities have been draining the country of its population and constantly adding to the helpless mass of tenement dwellers. How to send them back has been a great charity problem, which we hope now the city farm scenario has partly solved."
---"Farm Scheme Grows: Potato Raising By Gotham Poor Assumes Definate Shape," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 24, 1895 (p. 3)
[1910: amateur farming for food & fun]
"...I am a farmer, as I own and occupy a piece of ground, roughly sepaking, 50 feet by 110 feet, located toward the northern part of the Bronx...the balance of the ground is taken up by the house and agree--not lawn. I have cultivated this garden for the past sixteen years, and for the most part after my day's work elsewhere was over. The soil was very poor and unpromising when I started in, but what with nohes digging and manuring it became in three or four years fairly good, and now after sixteen years' cropping the soil is in fine condition, fit to grow almost anything, and I can surely say that there has not ben one in all these years when I have not been amply repaid for the labor and money expended. Last year we had from an asparagus bed 14 feet by 6 feet enough of that vegetable to satisfy a family of four, and the supply lasted nearly two months. We had four dozen tomato vines, and we had such a crop that it became an economic problem in a small way to knwo what to do with them in order to avoid waste...we gave them away to friends and neighbors...The we had three rows of sweet corn and three rosws of bush lima beans, which I raised from beans costing one cent each (ten beans) the previous year...We had also beds of lettuce, seed onions, leeks, and parsley. There are about a dozen grape vines...My object in writing is to give encouragement to amateur gaardeners, and som prevent much good land within the porporate boundaries of Greater New York from being misused or not used at all...--Amateur Farmer." ---"City Farming," New York Times, February 21, 1910 (p. 8)
[NOTE: this farmer lived in the Bronx but does not indicate exactly where. This outer-borough might have been less urbanized than the one we know today.] ?
[1913: Social service agencies promote urban farms to raise living standards of the poor.]
"City farming is no experiment. Back yards, back lots, vacant lots, and plots of ground in and about the city have been used for farming purposes for several years. Philadelphia, Detroit, and many other cities in this country have well defined plans for encouraging the farming of plots of ground within a resasonable radius of the city home. These cites have what are known as 'Vacant Lot Gardening associations,' Their object is to outline plans for gardening on a small scale, so as to make the enterprise bring a good financial return. They provide a set of rules governing the conduct of the tenants who assume the obligations of cultivating certain tracts, or plots, defining all privileges and punishments for failure to comply with the regulations. Farming in the city can be made practicable and predictable. It can be converted into a moral and economic form. It can be made a potential factor in preserving practical sanitary conditions in and about the homes in the cities, especially the homes in the poorer sections. It can be used to raise social and ethical standards of a community, thereby awakening an active and earnest interest in social betterment. It increases the value of real eastate, strengthens home ties, and stimulates civic pride..."
---"Farming in the City," W.A. Evans, Chicago Daily Tribune, May 25, 1913 (p. F4) ?
[1914: Children's urban farm initiative teaches ethics, economics and socal responsibility. It also cleans up urban "eyesore" real estate.]
"Thre greatest truck farm in the world may be seen inside the city limits of Chicago within the next rew years if the Austin communtiy garden experiment has the desired result--a farm that will produce more than $1,000,000 a year for the poor of the city. If less than half of the people of the city had back'yards, and if they used them for raising garden truck this farm would cover an area of 240,000,000 square feet. Mr. Swits of the Austin Y.M.C.A. started the Austin community gardens with the intention of teaching the children how to cut down the cost of living by raising vegetables. The children are shwon in the demonstration garden the methods of gardeneing, what to plant, and how to plant it, and how to rotate the vegetables in order to get the best results. They are taught to keep accounts which show what the seeds cost them, what thye received for everything they sold, and what the vegetables used for the famiy were worth. By doing so the child is able to figure out how much he made by his labor. The children who are allowed to make gardens in their own back yards then trot home and become little farmers, but the ones who are not able to make a garden of their own at home are given plots 15X18 in the community garden...Plans for the garden, showing just where to plant each kind of vegetable, and instructions where to buy the seeds and what to pay for them are given to the boys...The boys who have their own gardens soon resent trespassing by other boys on their farms, and as a result they have more consideration for the property of others. They boys will lead an outdoor life while working...Back lots that are now an eyesore...will be clear and beautiful...The cost of living will be cut to some extent...Small prizes are to be awarded to the child who has the best garden, and who gives it the best care."
---"City Gardens Aim of Austin Experiment," Chicago Daily Tribune, June 28, 1914 (p. D6)
[NOTE: We wonder...how many of these boys' sisters participated (without recognition) in this project.] ?
[1918: WWI Economic Admninistration promoted urban gardening to combat rising prices.]
"Announcement of prize awards and honorable mention in the community war garden comepetition in Chicago was made yesterday...First prise of $100 was awarded the South Chicago Y.M.C.A....Second prize of $50 was awarded to the Rogers Park Defense leage, which 'made it possible for hundreds of families to grow all the vegetables they will need for the entire year'...The stockyards community gardens, Forty-seventh street and Kedzie avenue, and the City Gardens association were placed first on the list of competitors."
---"Prize Awards Made to City's War Gardens," Chicago Daily Tribune, August 25, 1918 (p. 14) ?
[1920: Post WWI hunger & inflation. Government iniatives focused on helping urban families feed themselves.]
"Recent action taken by the Federal Fair Price Committee insures a plentify supply of vegetable seeds for distribution in Los Angeles...launching..a campaign to increase production and to fight the cost of living by the planting of home and community gardens in all parts of the city. This campaign will be carried on through the medium of the Home Gardens Association, which will distribute seeds free to applicants...'The present high cost of living...has been attributed to several causes, chief of which are the following: Subnormal production, abnormal spending and extravagance, hoarding and profiteering...This campaign to increase the number of home and community gardens in Los Angeles through the distribution of seeds the remedy to be applied to the first cause...During the war, hundreds of war gardens and victory gardens were grown in Los Angeles under auspices of the Home Gardeners'; Association, for the purpose of increasing production of food-stuffs. Since the armistice, these gardens have decreased by about 20 per cent. Through this campaign efforts will be made to bring production back to a war-time basis, and if possible to exceed the war record. If this can be accomplished, it is believed, that a big step toward combating the high cost of food products will have been taken."
---"Garden Drive's Seed Provided," Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1920 (p. 15)
[1927: Institutional activity: school children & prison inmates grow & harvest food; NYC farm census]
"The harvesting in New York City commences among the most youthful agriculturists. Their farms are not far to seek. In Summer they lifted feathery green of carrots, ruddy tops of beets and waving tassels of corn in the city's congested districts, and there in due season harvest festivals are held. The flourishing condition of these tracts when Autumn comes testifies to faithful care from the school children, whose interest outlived plowing and planting and survived even vacation's distractions...Harvesting on a school 'farm' sends a thrill through its neighborhood. Long lines of boys and girls in single file, excused from classes for the occasion...The young farmers taking part in this particularly harvest number nearly 2,000. Under the direction of the City Parks Department, 1,000 pots for school children to farm are laid out in Thomas Jefferson Park, at 111th Street and First Avenue, and 400 in De Witt Clinton park at Fifty-second Street and the North River Corlears Hook and Corlears South Street, has 350 plots; Seward Park at Canal and Jefferson Streets has eighty-five. In the Spring they pots are assigned, and the holders, many of whom had never seen a plowed field before, were drilled in spading and raking, making furrows and sowing seed...The first harvest came in the Spring. The school farms altogether, it is estimated, yielded more than 18,000 bunches of radishes, half that many bunches of scallions, and nearly 25,000 heads of lettuce...Of a different order is the harvest that comes from across the river. Almost underneath a giant span of the Queensboro Bridge, hemmed in by the towers of the City Penitentiary on the one hand, by numerous other institutions on the other, spreads the two-and-a-half-acre farm of Welfare Island. From the first of the year to the end of September it produced about 17,000 pounds of beets, 13,000 pounds each of spinach and carrots, 7,672 ears of corn, 4.000 pounds of string beans, 3,000 heads of lettuce, 3,000 pounds of rhubarb, 500 bunches of radishes, 400 pounds of leeks and 100 pounds of parsley. In addition, 4,000 stalks of celery remain in the ground awaiting the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts of city institutions. Still another harvester, more in earnest than either school children or prison inmates, go to the field within the limits of Greater New York. Toward the northern end of Manhattan Island the plow still finds its furrow. Along Kings Highway in Brooklyn and on the way to Coney Island vegetables and chickens are raised for market. The outskirts of the Bronx and the valleys of Staten Island bring froth yearly crops, and in Queens, off the beaten track, behind the solid rows of single-family houses that face the boulevards, one may run into an onion field, a cabbage patch or a pond alive with white Peking ducks. New York City, according to census returns, had 436 such farms, with more than 10,000 acreage, valued at more than $10,000,000. Queens appeared as the city' chief farming borough, its 191 farms averaging 30 1/2 acres each. Richmond's 159 farms represented an increase of 38 over the preceding census. The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce in a recent account reported 40 farms within that borough averaging 7 1/2 acres each. For the Bronx 41 farms averaging 18 acres were reported. Manhattan's 5 surviving farms, averaging 14 acres each, yielded 2,700 bushels of potatoes, some cabbage, lettuce, onions, sweet corn and tomatoes, 7.300 gallons of milk and 750 dozen eggs."
---"Harvest in City has Gay Aspect," New York Times, October 27, 1927 (p. X17)
[NOTE: Regarding school gardens, this article suggests the children gladly volunteered for this activity. It does not specify who received the food (institution/families/public), how it was distributed (at school, social service agencies, local markets), or where the proceeds (cash) went.]
[1927: Urban farming promoted to supplement food supply, encourage family bonding, and keeping idle hands busy. Fresh local produce promoted for better taste.]
"The experimental stage of city gardening has been passed...the city garden movement will not have achieved its full purpose until all suitable lands are utilized and every family table is fully supplied. 'The city back yard or vacant lot garden provides supply of vegetables at home without transportation or handling costs. Vegetables from the home garden are fresher and more palatable than those brought from a distance. many persons who work in offices, stores and factories have time mornings and evenings that may well be devoted to the cultivation of a garden, thus utilizing spare time and idle land for food production. The home vegetable garden should be a family interest, and all members of the family who are able to do so should take part in its cultivation. There is no better form of outdoor exercise than moderate working in the home garden and few lines of recreational work will give greater returns for the time employed' City gardens are of three generally types--back-yard gardens, vacant-lot gardens and community gardens. The first mentioned is to be preferred, as a rule, because it is convenient and easily guarded. But just because you have a back yard do not jump to the conclusion that it can be converted into a good garden. It will not be worth bothering with if it is not so situated as to get the sunshine at least five hours each bright day."
---"Home Garden Idea Approved," Frederick J. Haskin, Los Angeles Times, March 16, 1927 (p. 10) ?
[1943: Victory gardens flourished in urban areas]
"America, an agrarian republic which slipped into urban habits, has profitably recaptured the spirit of the soil. Twenty million Victory Gardens are currently yielding harvests, according to the Agriculture Department. Their furrows have been drenched with the sweat of some 50 million citizens, say statisticians of the National Victory garden Institute. The season's products will reach a value of $1 billion...Experts listed much of Chicago's north side...as a 'blighted area.' Residents were advised not to plant on vacant lots there: the soil was just 'no good.' But city folk went on with their spading and results have been amazing. Anyone who visits the corner of Lake Shore Drive and East Delaware Place will see a plot, rimmed with 40-story buildings, green with corn, tomato and string bean plants....Los Angeles claims to be the 'Victory Garden spot of America'...the Chicago corn crop proved astonishingly successful. Not less than 100 acres will be harvested within city limits...Many Cincinnati families are canning a surplus great enough to carry them though the winter...Canning is reported a 'lost art' for most Philadelphians, however...Most Chicago produce is eaten fresh, though downtown stores are conducting daily canning and preserving classes for women...Grassroots sentiment seems to incline more to the belief that a large proportion of gardeners will continue their new habit. On the West Coast, particularly, many people believe that gardening has such impetus it will become a permanent feature in a landscape previously noted for commercial cultivation."
---"City Farming: Fifty Million Gardeners Harvest $1 Billion Crop; May Grow More in 1944," Wall Street Journal, August 25, 1943 (p. 1)
[NOTE: Period media confirms home canning was not commonly practiced in the 1940s. Commercially prepared foods were readily available and (almost) universally) embraced. When WWII created food shortages, Victory Gardeners had to re-learn home canning techniques. Government agencies and major publishing houses stepped in when Grandmother was not an option.] ?
[1949: Immigrant traditions redux]
"It is a strange place for a vegetable garden, the passer-by muses as he makes his way along crooked narrow Doyers Street in Chinatown. And perhaps he will stop to gaze a moment at the unexpected flush of greenery behind the high chicken-wire fence, and at the blank brick walls surrounding the 90 by 50 food garden plot."
---"Vegetables Grow on Doyers Street," New York Times, July 2, 1949 (p. 16) ?
[1973: Urban farming, California style]
"Next to an apartment on a sunny Berkeley street, squash leaves cur along the sidewalk and garbanzos tumble through the fence of a garden that was once a parking lot. Nearby, chickens cluck in a coop beside a multi-level garage. Urban farming fever has taken hold in California. more and more city people are growing some of their own food for the sake of saving money, nutrition, pleasure and therapy...many...Bay area gardeners and farmers, seek inspiration and help from William and Helga Olkowski, who jointly teach courses in raising food in the city at the College of Agricultural Sciences at the University of California (UC) and at Antioch College West. Two years, the Olkowskis grew all their own fruit, vegetables and meat on the porch of their Berkeley home--plants and shrubs in containers on the roof; chickens and rabbits in cages below. Now they and their students cultivate a large demonstration garden on a university-owned lot near downtown Berkeley...Urban beekeepers already exist. In San Francisco, Andrea Jepson collects up to 60 pounds of honey every couple of months from the hive in a neighbor's garden...Tom Javits...and his housemates have dubbed their home The Greenhouse. They cultivate an impressive garden, carved into minimal back and front yard spaces. Beds are raised eight inches to facilitate drainage. The soil is a mix of compost and dirt collected on construction sites and vacant lots. Paths are covered with sawdust to deter snails. Perhaps still more impressive is the absence of waste in the Green house. There are no garbage cans, only containers for distribution. Food leftovers are composted among layers of sawdust. Milk and cottage cheese cartons become containers for sprouting seeds. Plastic berry cartons protect seeds from birds. All metal and glass is recycled. Everyone considers disposal when he makes a purchase...People living in apartments can grow a salad in a window box placed on a sunny sill."
---The City's Sidewalk Farmers," Rosa Gustaitis, Washington Post, July 5, 1973 (p. G1) ?
[1973: Lavish rooftop gardens, NYC]
"One city gardener for whom price is no object is Steward Mott, the young philanthropist who maintains a lavish rooftop garden containing 500 varieties of plants above his penthouse on Park Avenue...Mott plucks fresh peaches from trees on his rooftop garden, and harvests celery, carrots, beets and other vegetables. Mr. Mott says he takes great pleasure in bringing his fresh city produce to friends who live in the country."
---"The Greening of America," Raymond A. Joseph, Wall Street Journal, October 9, 1973 (p. 48) ?
[1975: Early 20th century social work gardens resurface]
"Tomatoes, peppers, radishes, onions, carrots, lettuce, strawberries, and cucumbers growing in a 10-by-20 foot backyard 'farm'--in the middle of Chicago's concrete urban sprawl? Dan Sawyer, 25, is a truck driver for an electronics firm. His wife, Pam, currently is going to beauty school. They are my next door neighbors and when they are not working at their regular occupations they are urban farmers...Vegetable gardens provide a score of advantages for city dwellers. Besides fighting inflation with their harvests, they are a nice alternative to vacant lots littered with broken glass, junk cars, and abandoned refrigerators. An experiment in large-scale inner-city farming is being conducted in St. Louis...The project is centered on low-income and high-unemployment areas of the city and 60 lots have been chosen as farm sites...Each lot is to be divided between six families and each family's section is expected to yield enough vegetables for four adults for one year."
---"Blue Collar Views: City Farmers Sow Seeds fo Survival," Mike LaVelle, Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1975 (p. A4) ?
[1977: teaching the children]
"A vacant lot in one of the nation's worst slums is being turned into a vegetable garden by persons tilling city soil as part of a new federal program. In the midst of the rubble of the South Bronx, a 60-by-70-foot plot has been cleared of trash and made ready for planting. Most of the farmers are children, some from a nearby school for youngsters with drug-related and other problems. There are also other faces behind the hoes spreading topsoil to make the lot in this desperate neighborhood bloom with cabbages, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, collard greens and pole beans...The $1.5 million federal program run by the Department of Agriculture is helping residents of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Detroit and Philadelphia grow food for themselves on vacant land. The first goal of the program is to show inner-city residents the problems farmers have in growing produce and the techniques they use. But urban farming has its own problems. Instead of clearing tree stumps, Bronx farmers start by clearing broken glass, garbage and debris. Then the city Sanitation Department comes in to run over the plot with a bulldozer. Private firms and organizations have volunteered money for seeds, soil and fences. In most cases, the $1.5 million in federal money is to be used only to provide tools and expert advice. In East Harlem, merchants are soliciting donations to buy fencing for six vacant lots that are being cleared for gardening by 33 neighborhood children. Cornell University provided tools for the South Bronx project. Those involved in the Bronx farm, sponsored partly with fund from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, say neighbors are working together with a sense of community purpose for the first time. 'We would never sell food. It's for the community, for the people to share with each other,' Nellie Diaz, president of the parents association of Public School 59, said."
---"Six-City Federal 'Farm' Program: Food Sprouting in Soil of Urban Slums," Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1977 (p. A29) ?
[1978: Urban farming as sustainable business model]
"Imagine an aerial view of Chicago that shows large plots of fruits and vegetables interspersed among the city's skyscrapers, apartment buildings, and expressways. Go one step further and picture people harvesting any number of food crops, with the Hancock Center and Sears Tower in the distance. Hard to imagine? Well, a development planner, Jac Smit, thinks it's time the nation's cities seriously consider urban agriculture--for profit. If Smit's plan is realized, that could mean farmer leasing tracts from real estate developers and major corporations for acres of corn, pumpkins, and turnips...Smit added that most Americans consider urban agriculture to be unfeasible because they think one has to own the land that is farmed. 'That isn't so...because a farmer can lease the land and in the cities that can be done through the municipality....Leases would be based on productivity of the parcel...urban commercial agriculture 'could ultimately work in tandem with our rural agriculture. There's no particular threat to our farmers and urban agriculture would boost the economic stability of neighborhoods and provide jobs for youths.'"
---"Planner's Dream: Big Farms Amid the Skyscrapers," Michele Gaspar, Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1978 (p. N_B1) ?
[1979: City farming as academic social experiment]
"Twelve students at Fordham University erected the skeleton of a geodesic greenhouse on the university's Rose Hill campus in the Bronx yesterday to show how easy it is to put one up. The structure was also put up as a trial run for an exhibition planned for the Alternative Community Technology convention, to be held in Washington at the end of the month. It is modeled after Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome...The students created an identical structure in September 1977 as a part of their research into the viability of small-scale urban farming. The original dome has produced several crops of lettuce, spinach, radishes, mustard and other vegetables and is still in operation."
---"Geodesic Greenhouse Grows in the Bronx," New York Times, April 19, 1979 (p. B3)