Tag Archives: Eating Locally

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 thegoldenspiral.com.  

Picture 3 courtesy of Treehugger 

This post cross posted at Groovy Green.


What I’ve been up to-Part 1

For over 2 years now I’ve been focused on trying to lose weight and get more healthy.  It’s for a variety of reason, and yes, vanity is in the list.  I started this journey by focusing on CrossFit, but over time I noticed that my lifestyle became more Paleo or Primal.  I’ve also started to modify my exercise along the same lines of lifting heavy objects and slow steady movement.  Hiking, biking, gardening, swimming, etc all fit into this pattern of movement.

As I got into this I realized how ridiculously sustainable this way of eating is.  I eat animals (local grass fed for the most part) and a bunch of fruits and vegetables.  The fat I eat comes from the meat, lard from the pigs I buy and some organic butter from the store.  It’s super easy to eat within your local food shed when you eat like this.  Oh sure I eat some things that aren’t local too, like bananas and sweet potatoes, but for the most part you can eat this way and eat seasonally.  All it requires is putting up more than someone who eats grains, dairy and legumes, especially since the bulk of your calories come from meat and fat which are easily sourced locally.  As opposed to a more plant based diet where grains are moved in from another location.

Living in Iowa I think about our agriculture.  It mostly consists of CAFO hog operations, beef cattle raised on pasture (until they are a certain age and shipped to feedlots), confinement egg production, corn on one side of the road and soybeans on the other.  If more consumers moved to a way of eating that was focused on a Paleo or Primal way of eating I can’t help but think of how much different our landscape would be.  Would our soil be eroding down the Mississippi at such a horrific rate?  (or see this article from the Des Moines Register)  How much cleaner would our water be?  How much more attractive would our fields be full of animals and natural plants instead of rows of corn and beans?  Would we care so much about deer populations if they just ate the grass in our fields instead of the beans and corn?

It also seems like a fairly easy way to live over the long term too.  I can grow a fair amount of the fruits and vegetables I would like to eat on a small plot of land around my house.  (I live on 1/3 of an acre so it’s not like this land is huge)  And with a small chicken coop it would be easy to raise enough eggs for us to eat.  Where I would get tripped up is the meat, though I have to say I can buy it from plenty of farmers in the area, and if something like this were to happen the amount of farmer’s selling products in this area would increase exponentially.

Of course there are plenty that say that the most sustainable way to eat is to eat a plant based diet.  I disagree.  The amount of energy involved in raising the grains for that type of diet is immense.  The energy involved in transporting those foodstuffs around the world is immense.  The erosion, pollution, isolation of farmers, disrupting communities to grow on a larger scale and ag subsidies all conspire to make me think that eating a plant based diet is not the way to go.  You can disagree with me, that’s fine with me.  But for me, my health, my pocketbook and where I live, buying my meat from a local farmer and raising as much of my own fruits and vegetables as possible seems to be the way I can live and reduce my impact on the earth.  It’s the diet that I think humans are evolved to eat.  It’s sustainable in my mind.  And it’s a great way to hedge against future food insecurity because so much of it can be raised locally.

Who wants to live next to a CAFO?


The Des Moines Register had a blog post recently from a writer who discusses coming back to Iowa to visit his family, and being dismayed at all the confinement buildings dotting the landscape.  I don’t blame him, it makes me sad too.  We drive up to LeMars (north of Sioux City) on occasion to visit some friends, and the trips west along 380 to Hwy 20 and then to LeMars is dotted with an incredible amount confinement operations.  In some places they are just barely outside the towns.  

There is one town along the way, Remsen, where we stop to gas up and take a potty break and the smell from the buildings just down the road almost makes me vomit.  It’s incredible.  I don’t know why anyone would want to work in those, live by those or subject the world to them.  The smell is incredible.  

When my parents first moved to Arkansas they lived downwind from a chicken processing plant.  That place smelled ripe, but it had nothing on a fragrant confinement building, especially when the weather is kind of warm. To this author, as someone who lives in Iowa, and has for 20+ of my 31 years, the uptick in CAFOs in the recent 15 years is dismaying to me too.  It makes me sick to think how my state is being polluted by these places, just in the name of a few bucks and some cheap, sick meat.  

You know, Iowa is a great agriculture states.  The soil is so fertile that you can grow practically anything, but our farmers have prostituted themselves to the large grain and meat cartels.  It’s sad.  75-100 years ago every farm in Iowa would have multitudes of animals, grow 30, 40 or 50 different crops and be nice pleasant places to live.  Not to mention the vibrant small towns dotting the landscape. 

Now?  Not so much.  Most farmers grow corn and beans on rotation and if they have any animals they are stuck in one of those stinky buildings.  We have small towns that are shells of their former selves, most with vacant downtown districts, and we’ve all allowed it to happen.  We’ve supported it by shopping for food based on price, instead of how the person grows the food.  We’ve done it by driving to the big town with the MegaMart to do our shopping instead of the local grocer.  We’ve been an accomplice to it when we eat all this junk food that’s derived from corn, which encourages more corn plantings.  We’ve told these CAFO operators that we don’t care what happens to the world around us as long as we can get ground chuck for $1.99 a pound.  We’ve all supported it by making farmers think their jobs aren’t important, even though without them we’d all be in a world of hurt.  Wouldn’t we? 

I’ve been eating local, organic, growing my own and being active about this for a while for a multitude of reasons.  If you’re reading this I think it’s time you take a look in the mirror and think about what you see looking back at you.  Is it time that you left your dollars do your voting?  Farmer’s Market season is coming up and it’s a great time to tell the industrial ag companies to shove it.  It’s a great feeling, and each time you spend that dollar you’ll be helping to bring back the old Iowa (or whatever state you’re in).  If we keep it up long enough, hopefully it will work.