Category Archives: Local action

Urban farming, the new way to handle unemployment?

Depending on which figures you choose to use, unemployment in America is approaching 20%, a figure that is quite remarkable.  Fully 1/5 of the people in America who could be working are not currently working.  I think urban farming could be this generation’s way to handle unemployment, sort of like a 2011 version of the CCC.

Urban Farm in Chicago

When you are willing to trade your labor for less space and less machinery you can create an amazing income from a small land base.  SPIN farming is a method developed by a farming couple in Canada when they realized that they could make more money by growing intensively on less land if they grew the right crops at the right times.

They have a farm income calculator on their site that suggests that a farmer with 1/2 an acre can generate $24,000 in gross sales on the low end up to $72,000 on the high end.  I think this is doable as well, but it does require a bit more marketing and growing of high value crops.  We use a CSA model for our urban farm and I don’t think that will get us to those dollar figures because a CSA model is similar to a bulk food model vs. a model where you would grow exclusively high value crops like exotic green, radishes or beets for restaurants.

While the situation in Detroit is well known, the situation in other cities regarding vacant land is less well known.  The Brookings Institute has placed the vacant land in Detroit at around 1/3 of the city area, of 40 sq miles.  I saw a

Urban Farm in Cuba

different article that put the vacant space in the average city at around 14%.  It’s higher in the south (around 19%) and lower in the Northeast (around 9%), but 14% of the space still works out to a pretty good chunk of area.  According to this article about Pittsburgh the size of the 10 largest cities in America is 340 sq miles, with Pittsburgh coming in at 56 sq miles.

Using those figures we can put the vacant land size at 5.6 sq miles in Pittsburgh or 34 sq miles for the average city in the Top 10 of America.  (Stay with me on the math here people)  So if you take the top 10 of our largest cities they would represent 21,760 acres of vacant space per city (640 acres per sq miles * 34 sq miles).  That would work out to 210,760 acres across those 10 cities.

Now, let’s attack Pittsburgh.  This article about Pittsburgh puts this city as the  56th largest city in America.  (this ranking is based on population size not land area)  I’m going to assume that the next 50 largest cities are all Pittsburgh’s size.  (I know this is crazy but I have to make some assumptions to make this work)  56*10% =5.6 sq miles per city * 50 cities = 280 sq miles.

640 acres per miles * 280 sq miles = 179,200 acres.

So, between these two figures we have 389,960 acres of land.  (Let’s make it 390,000 to make things easy)  If you use the figures that SPIN farming provides that means we could potentially create 780,000 new jobs by encouraging urban farming on this vacant land.

The most recent figure I have seen on unemployment puts the total number at 13.7 million people.  (I think is what the government calls unemployed which is not the number of people who are looking for job and quit, those who are no longer getting benefits and aren’t counted, and other factors).  By turning the vacant land in these top 60 cities into urban  farms we could lower the amount of unemployed in America by just under 6%, and would put the total number under 13 million.

A quick Google search puts the number of cities in America at around 25,000.  I have discussed the top 60 size wise here.  If we can assume for a minute that each one of those cities could support 1.5 sq miles of vacant then each city in America could, in theory, support 3 urban farms.  25,000*3 would be another 75,000 potential positions.

Now, I guess this wouldn’t completely take care of our unemployment problem given that it would “only” create around 860,000 new jobs.  It’s interesting though that an initiative like this would make urban farming the 2nd largest employer in America after only the behemoth Wal-Mart.  It’s interesting to think of all the job creation initiatives that are in place to help corporations create jobs and this one initiative could create the same amount of jobs as two new McDonald’s corporations.

Rooftop farming

That is a lot of jobs.  And this just vacant land.  It doesn’t include potential farmland in sprawling suburban campus’ or on rooftops in the city.  I’m going to toss out that an initiative that included those elements would easily produce just as many jobs.  Now you are looking at 1.8million jobs which would, by itself, lower unemployment by 13%, assuming that each farmer doesn’t ever hire any workers or that ancillary industries aren’t created off of this initiative.

Interesting though isn’t it?

Picture 1 courtesy of Cut and Fill

Picture 2 courtesy of  

Picture 3 courtesy of Treehugger 

This post cross posted at Groovy Green.


What I’ve been up to-Part 2

Otherwise known as: Matt decides it’s time he becomes a farmer instead of just talking about.

You may remember from the posts before I quit writing that I was beginning a new job at a non-profit. I was working for Block by Block doing flood recovery in Cedar Rapids from the 2008 flooding.  (Even 3 years later there is still a ton of work to do)  We’re coming up on 2 years of existence for Block by Block and we’ve completed construction work on around 250 homes, close to 60 of these homes have been complete full house rehabs from the studs up.

Along the way I’ve gotten involved with the Matthew 25 Ministry Hub and their food security program.

Last summer we built a small urban farm on a lot next to the abandoned Boys and Girls club and we grew what we could.  The soil isn’t the best and I did a poor job training volunteers and, frankly, I was really busy with Block by Block work, but we got some production and we learned some things.  (Gaia is great!)  Some produce was sold internally and a fair amount of it was used to create “Local Food Fridays” in our Summer Meals program.  (the summer meals program provides meals for people who don’t have a lunch, especially kids since school is out and they aren’t getting their free school breakfast or lunch)

Heading into this summer we are expanding the urban farm operation to include a CSA shares program.  We are hoping to have 6 families paying full price and 12 at risk families paying half price for their shares.  Along the way we would like to still provide produce to the Summer Meals program, perhaps supply a restaurant, create an in the city pumpkin patch and also train some local youth with the job skills necessary to operate an urban farm.  Some of this would be done on this plot and some might be completed on other land that is abandoned.

Our group has also been conditionally awarded a USDA grant to study 6 different ways to bring local food into low income neighborhoods.  The way I look at this grant is that it’s sort of like market research.  We’ll do all the focus groups, surveys and forums to figure out how the residents want us to bring them local foods and them we go implement the methods that are the most cost effective.  I’m pretty darn excited about this

(by the way, excuse me while I do a short plug.  I wrote an e-book about how we got this urban farm up and running and some of the things we learned about doing this that may help others you know start up their urban farm.  You can purchase the book by following this link to the Urban Farm tab on this blog.  You can use PayPal to pay for it and then download the PDF right to your computer.  Ok, back to your regularly scheduled blog post.)

Going into next year (and the years after that) we are working to redevelop a 4 block area into an urban eco-village that will encompass some creative reuse of old abandoned industrial buildings, super green energy efficient housing stock (all selling for under $100K) and an operating urban farm that will cover around 1.5 acres that will be a mix of intensive gardening, permaculture, season extension and other ideas.  We’re calling it the Ellis Urban Village and you can see if by following the link to our presentation to the City Council’s Development Committee.  (I see that WordPress let’s you put pdfs and other files on your blogs now but I have to confess that  the file will take up a lot of my allocated space.  You’ll have to follow the link.  Sorry)

In the long term, maybe our space will include other types of libraries like a bike lending library, perhaps a cannery or other type of shared common space.  We’d love to operate some type of co-op in the space and perhaps a coffee house/restaurant that people can walk to in their neighborhood.

I would love for our plan to be the first of many here in Cedar Rapids.  There are plenty of places around where you could easily create an urban farm.  There are acres and acres of land now that use to have houses on them and now are all grass (that has to be mowed) and they could easily make dozens and dozens of small 1 acre urban farms.  Maybe someday we’ll get there.

I’ve had a fair amount of question in the past about why we’re rebuilding in an area that flooded.  All the areas we are looking to rebuild in are in the 500 year flood plain, except the flood in 2008 went outside that level even.  I just feel like we can’t abandon this central core of our city.  In the future, when transportation will be an issue, we can’t afford to have this massive amount of space right in the middle of the city not be used.  It won’t be so easy to drive to the heart of the city.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to for the past 18 months or so, professionally.  There are lot more moving parts in each little section but hopefully that will give you an overview of what has been going on.



Sorry I’ve been away for so long, I’ve got a lot to say but not a lot of time right now.

Well, most of the month of February was lost. I ended up gaining 3 pounds by the time the week in Vegas (and subsequent week long readjustment after wards) was over. That puts me as of now at 15 pounds lost. Still have 20 to go. This week might be the week though. I feel some changes in my body and with gardening starting up I’m now busy in the evenings too (even if I just want to lie down) which means even more calories burnt. I typically lose 10-15 pounds over the summer so hopefully that will continue.

Loving them. I’ve been spreading out mostly finished compost in the garden and they are finishing the work for me. I’ll be planting or trimming something nearby and they are digging up the beds and spreading around the compost looking for things to eat. Unfortunately they got into my cold frames when I had the lids off but I think I was able to stop most of the damage. They are doing a great job though earning their keep.

I planted lettuces, Swiss chard and spinach in the cold frames. Also transplanted some so we’ll see how that takes. First results aren’t very good. Last night I also planted onions, carrots, parsnips, beets and turnips. I’m waiting for the moon phase to turn again at the end of the month and I’ll plant peas, broccoli, cabbage and other things, although I did start their seeds to see how they take. I also started some tomato and pepper plants. I’m not planning to grow many tomato plants this year. I’ll plan to buy most of what I need to can. Squash and melons will be started when the moon phases line up too, although they’ll only have about 6 weeks in the tray by that time. Seed potatoes are sitting on the counter waiting for the right time.

I heavily mulched some spinach last winter and it seems to be coming back just fine this spring, which is really cool. I should get my first asparagus crop this year and the garlic is doing nicely, although I planted less this year. I haven’t seen the rhubarb coming up yet.

Food stores
I did a lot better stocking up last fall and managing it through the winter. We ran out of pizza sauce, but that was really all. Most of my potatoes are unusable because of shriveling and sprouts, but that was because I was sold bags of mixed potatoes instead of just long storage ones. Otherwise we’ve had plenty of jelly, tomatoes, sauces, beans, corn and other things. We ran low on meat for a while but we’re past that now. I guess heading into this summer I have a much better idea what I need to stock up on and how much to stock up on.

If you live in the area and want to help I’ve got some opportunities for you!
I am planning to do my runs again this summer from a local CSA farmer to the food kitchens. This would be once or twice a week. You would need to be able to pick up about 40 pounds and have a large enough vehicle to hold 4 or 5 boxes of produce.

I’m working with the Matthew 25 hub on a couple of projects.
1) We are setting up an effort to beautify the flooded areas of the city. Right now (pending city approval) we are planning to build a sheet mulched garden bed in the public space at intersections (maybe 6-8 ft around) that will be studded with native Iowa wildflowers, sunflowers, etc. Sometime in late April we are planning a gardening blitz, so keep your options open at the end of the month. Contact me if you would like to donate some seed packets.

2.) Additionally, through Local Food Connection we have two CSA shares being delivered to Cedar Rapids to Red Cedar Farm that will need to be picked up and delivered to the Matthew 25 hub once a week for 18 weeks. This produce will then be distributed to local low income families at a time to be determined. We’ll need volunteers to pick up the produce on occasion as well as people to staff the area during distribution time. We’ll also be doing some education opportunities which might be fun and interesting to be involved with. Let me know if you are interested.

Non equal schools

My oldest son is in first grade.  He’s goes to the school about a mile up the street.  This school pulls from a fairly diverse socioeconomic area, but it’s predominately poor (well more than half the students are on the free lunch program).  We bought this house when my wife stayed home so our income was about 60% of it’s current level, and that played a factor.  As did our desire not to max out our income to buy a big house like most people.  Given our incomes now I’d hazard a guess that we’re in the upper range of incomes for this school.  I mention this because I found out tonight that a friend’s child, who is in 1st grade in a predominantly well off neighborhood, is getting a better education.

He comes home from school with homework every night (I don’t agree with this in 1st grade) but just this fact means that he is being presented with more possibilities.  I also know that because they don’t have to spend so much time in the fall re-educating that they are at least 3 weeks ahead of my son’s school.  Over 6 years of elementary school that adds up to another 18 weeks (4.5 months) of extra education.

I guess I’m not surprised by finding this out, really, but it’s still a concern.  The theory behind public education is that everyone is to be educated the same.  I knew it didn’t happen that way, but I didn’ think I’d have to experience it with my own children.  It’s kind of a “well that happens to other people” problem.

We’re lucky in the regard that both of sons are exceptionally smart (in fact, troublingly so for their parents) and they are hungry for knowledge.  So we spend a great deal of our time educating them about a lot of things that aren’t taught in schools and are things that most would consider above their age group.**

But I’m concerned about what they might miss out on that we aren’t teaching them and the teachers aren’t either.  My son’s teacher is very open to assigning him extra tasks (and in fact he is like a little 1st grade teacher helping the other kids with their schoolwork as part of his extra work) but what if next year’s teacher isn’t?  Or the one after that?  What about all the kids who don’t have parents who push them?  Already I’ve noticed a huge difference between his friends and him.  How will that build over the years?

Should I even be that concerned about this?  10 years from now he’ll be 16.  How many kids will still be in school at that point?  Will a traditional education matter at that point?  Will schools even exist then?  Who knows.  I don’t know, I guess sometimes when you are confronted with the ugly reality of that fact that even in something as simple and basic as education, all kids are not created equal, it just sticks in your craw a little.  That’s what’s going on with me.

**My oldest son got in trouble in preschool for telling his classmates about Peak Oil and discussing what happens when they can’t afford to buy oil any longer.  The teacher told him something like that wasn’t true.  I assured him that it was a mathematical fact that it will happen sometime, we just don’t know when.

Local food initiatives

I mentioned back in my New Year’s resolutions that I had some local food initiatives that I was working, and things are starting to fall into place.  A lot of details are being hashed out still, but here is the general outline.

1.) The CSA farmer that I delivered excess produce for last year wants to do it again.  This great, especially because we learned that she doesn’t actually end up getting a tax deduction for this, like we thought.  (What kind of screwed up tax code do we have?)  I just have to find some drivers to rotate around so that one person (me) isn’t doing all the deliveries, but delivering the food even without the tax break is a great thing!

2.) I’m working with another group (Local Foods Connection) who is going to purchase two CSA shares from a local CSA farmer (different than #1 above) and we’re going to distribute those shares to the low income flood ravaged areas of town; either free or at a very low cost to the people.  Additionally this farmer is going to attempt to raise one more share via small donations from her customers to bring to our central location.  While the food is there we are going to let people pick what they need (instead of a whole huge box) and also use that opportunity to do some education about how to prepare that item, talk about eating healthy and hopefully ways they can make their dollars stretch (among other things).  You should check out the Local Foods Connection website to see what they are up to, and make a donation if you wish.

3.) Additionally, the farmer from #1 and I are going to attempt to set up two new farmer’s markets in the city for young farmers and focus the markets on the areas of town where people have difficulty accessing fresh produce, as well as trouble getting to the existing markets because of transportation issues.

I’m also working with another group to devote some resources to setting up small raised beds in the yards of interested parties, as well as education about raising their own produce and, most exciting, infilling the demolished lots from flood damaged homes with community gardens and orchards.  This coming summer is the summer of fresh local foods!

I gotta tell ya, this summer is going to be busy and exciting!

Food Pantry Challenge?

I haven’t checked how ya’ll are doing with the Food Pantry Challenge.  Are you still picking up a little extra each week for the food pantry?  Are you having any problems with it?

I just picked up 2 boxes of hamburger helper, peanut butter, some egg noodles and two cans of corn for my donation this week.

Cabbage, Chickens and the Veggie Man

A chicken got loose again yesterday evening.  I don’t know what happened, except I came back there to get my potato fork and one of the chickens was on the other side of the fence.  It wasn’t happy to be there as it was scrambling around trying to get back, and it’s friend was frantic on the coop side of the fence.  I chased it for a while and then got Rachael to help me chase it down.  Eventually we had 2 adults and 3 kids chasing it and we cornered it against a fence and snagged it.  We trimmed their wings so they shouldn’t be popping over the fence anymore.  Chicken wrangling is an adventure!  Those things are darn fast, and quick.  Now I know why Mick told Rocky to chase the chicken around when he was training for Creed.

A lot of commenters were talking about cabbage and how to prepare it.  My big concern with cabbage is that I went to my go to method of preparation that makes about every type of vegetable go down (stir fry) and it was rejected. In fact, he rejected the fresh peas that were in there as well. (I think they needed to cook longer and be a little more soft)  So if that failed I’m concerned.  I’m going to give this recipe a try and we’ll see how it turns out.

The Veggie Man:  In the post yesterday I mentioned that I was working with some local CSAs to distribute excess vegetables to some food kitchens.  I did my first run tonight.  The farm is fairly close to town, maybe 10 miles or so.  I drove out there and she gave me 46 lbs of broccoli, 20 lbs of lettuce, a bag of beets, 21 lbs of shell peas, 13 lbs of snap peas and 32 lbs of snow peas.  I’m pretty excited about this endeavor.  Before she would compost this excess, not it’s going to people.  Once I get a schedule down and find another driver or two we’ll be able to get some serious local, organic food to the food banks.  She thought she would have enough for me to pick up twice a week until early October.  Rock!  And that is just this one CSA, I have one other to work with (who has expressed interest) and also one on the north side of town that I haven’t contacted yet.

I’m adding a tab to the storing/harvesting tab above to track this.