Archive for September 27th, 2009

City Farming, with Livestock

Sharon September 27th, 2009

In many ways, I’m a city girl.  I grew up in and around a number of small to large cities in the Northeast - I was born in East Hartford,  I spent my childhood playing in grubby and decaying mill cities like Lynn, MA and Waterbury, CT, and my early adulthood living in Boston.  Unlike a lot of rural dwellers, I don’t dislike cities - I rather enjoy them.  Every so often I pass by a decripit row house in Albany or visit my old haunts in Lowell, MA or friends in Newark or Queens, and think seriously about whether I could get my goats on the roof ;-) .  I don’t miss the traffic and pollution, but I do miss the funky culture, the diversity and the energies of city life at times.

Reading Novella Carpenter’s _Farm City:The Education of an Urban Farmer_, I found myself a little jealous - sure, I’ve got 27 acres, but she has Buddhist monks across the street who help her recapture her escaped pigs.  Life is full of tradeoffs ;-)

More seriously, what I really liked about this book was its emphasis on urban animal agriculture - Carpenter has rabbits, turkeys, ducks, geese, chickens and pigs during the course of the books.  And when she writes about eating from her garden and neighborhood for a month, she realizes something important - she’s suffering from a dearth of calorie crops.  It it weren’t for her meat production, she’d be starving.

This is the reality of urban farming today in much of the poor world - look around for statistics and you’ll see that most cities grow only a small portion of their staple starches - but often a shockingly large portion of their meat and vegetables.    For example, in 1981, Hong Kong had 5 million people and 1,060 km2, and was using 10% of that land to produce 45% of the fresh vegetables, 15% of the pigs and 68% of the live chickens eaten in the city, according to I. Wade’s essay “Fertile Cities.”

I use Hong Kong as an example of what is possible because it is an extremely densely populated city, has extremely high property values, and a comparatively affluent population, so it is a pretty good comparative to a city like New York City.  In 2002, the city had 6.3 million people in it, and had seen much of its good land developed (for example, between 1981 and 2000, all rice farming, even on the outer islands, ceased) but they were still producing 33% of the produce, 14% of the pigs, 36% of the chickens and farming 20% of the fish consumed within the city.  The animals were raised for the most part on 160,000 *tons* annually of food waste were being recycled into meat and egg production.

Now this should not be mistaken for a claim that the cities will feed themselves - they won’t.  There is no question that only small cities surrounded by rural land will probably ever feed themselves - and cities that have no waterways or well maintained rail lines may not do well in the coming decades.  But the production of vegetables and meat in cities is also not a trivial thing - and livestock production in cities is particularly important because as Carpenter found, animal proteins can compensate for shortages of available starches if supplies are delayed or costs rise, and they can provide an improvement in nutrition over the typical poor world diet, which includes grains and vegetables only.  

Yes, I know that it is perfectly possible to be a healthy vegan, and would never argue otherwise - but most of the world’s vegans-by-choice do not come from the poorest places in the world, nor do most poor-near vegans have access to the high quality proteins shipped from a distance that American vegans do now.  This is not a criticism of anyone’s choice, but I believe that cities that maximize localized calorie production will have to do so with animal agriculture, including meat production, and that in more difficult situations, comparatively fewer Americans may choose to voluntarily restrict their protein sources.

 Moreover, in cities that are importing grains and other foods, meat animals can be raised on food that would otherwise be wasted.  Carpenter raises her pigs, rabbits and poultry entirely on dumpster dived food that she scavenges for them.  Aaron Newton, my partner in _A Nation of Farmers_ raises his chickens, in the small city of Concord, NC, almost entirely on scraps.  While urban poultry raising has gotten trendy, most urban farmers are still raising their poultry on expensive grains that could be fed to people - but have an ample supply of food scraps at nearby houses and restaurants that could fill the same needs with lower impact.  This is much harder to do in less-dense settings - we’ve tried several times to work out a good system for transporting food scraps, without the use of additional oil, to our poultry, but haven’t found something wholly satisfactory (although my husband is negotiating with the SUNY cafeteria right now, so that might change) - we simply don’t have a lot of restaurants out here.  But for city dwellers, this is a no-brainer.

Meat is problematic on our society because of ethical considerations - most of it is raised in factory farmed conditions - and also because it is often raised by feeding animals grain that could be used for human consumption.  If we take as basic premises that we should and must eat less meat, eat only meat raised ethically and also, in order to feed a hungry world, raise our animal products with little or no grain suitable for human consumption, it becomes clear that pasture raising on marginal lands that are steep, erodable, rocky or wet in the countryside, and raising meat, egg and dairy animals in cities on a small scale on food wastes are probably the two best possible options for raising animal products in our world. 

Many city dwellers grow gardens, and it would be wrong to understate their importance - they provide caloric and nutritional benefits, allow people access to high value, nutritionally necessary and high-flavor foods they might not be able to afford, can provide some calorically dense vegetable and a few grain crops like sweet potatoes, potatoes, popcorn, etc….   We know that urban gardening can make an enormous difference in a city - for example in Paris in the 19th century 3600 acres of garden plots produced 100,000 tons of vegetables, more than the city itself could consume.  In 1944, US Victory gardens produced as much produce as all US produce farms combined - half the nation’s total.  So yes, your five raised beds, as part of an urban aggregate make a huge difference.

But add in livestock raising and the picture of urban food security gets much richer - those weeds growing the vacant lots can be eaten by miniature goats or rabbits - cut an armful as you walk by.  Those gardens require manures, and most urbanites lack a place for safe composting of human waste, so rabbit and poultry manures are essential to a sustainable garden.  Stop by your neighborhood coffee shop and pick up a big bucket full of stale bread and salad leaves for the bunnies, or the leftovers from the takeout chinese place (why Carpenter and her partner never actually make arrangements for places to save food for them rather than dumpster diving was one thing I couldn’t figure out) to the chickens.  And then turn that into nutritious people food, adding fat and dense protein to your diet.  Moreover, they can reduce dependency on feedlots, not just for urban dwellers, but for their carnivorous pets.

Bees can sit on a balcony, rabbits on a back porch.  Chickens are content in small backyards and as Carpenter proves, you can even raise pigs there, although she does get some complaints about the smell towards the end - she does  observes that in 1943, London had 4,000 pig raising clubs in the city limits, with 105,000 pigs kept within the city limits.  Guinea pigs and quail, pigeons and fish in tanks can also supplement urban dwellers protein needs.  Given the amount of imported dairy, I’d also suggest the consideration of very small goats for milk and meat.

Cities will never be wholly sustainably by themselves - but neither will most rural areas, which will continue to rely on cities for the manufacture of goods from cloth to tools, and as import and transport centers from around the world.  We may relocalize, but it would be foolish to imagine that all trade and all cities will disappear.  What cities must be, if they are to have a future, is *as* food self-sufficient as possible, and they must be part of a larger project of wide food access.  We will find ways, over the long term, to transport dry goods like grains into many cities - that doesn’t mean there won’t be disruptions, or much more important, poverty - but there will be reciprocal relations between cities and countryside.  But vegetables and animal products are another thing altogether - they often require refrigeration, and without refrigerated trucking or train transport, those things are likely to become less available - or more expensive and more out of reach of many.

Moreover, we cannot permit the wasting of food in the scale that we presently do to continue - that’s why we need eggs, meat and milk that can be raised on food scraps in urban centers. 

Our own livestock breeding projects will focus on small scale livestock for densely populated areas - small goats, angora and meat rabbits, chickens with good foraging ability, even small sheep.  Not all of these will be suitable to the most densely populated areas, nor do I expect my farm to be definitive on the subject.  But if you can take the girl out of the city, you can’t take the city out of the girl - and that’s a good thing.  We need urban agriculture, and ties between city girls and country girls (and boys, of course) that help both places raise all the food they can, as ethically and wisely as they can.