Dig In: A Call For Re-Investment In Metro-Region Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture can help bring cities down to earth, to a deeper commitment to the ecology and economy of the surrounding countryside on which they depend.
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This blog is part of a series that explores the themes and issues raised in Farmed and Dangerous, a 4-part satirical web series exploring issues related to the food system and industrial agriculture. If you're interested in joining the conversation, please contact us at FoodForThought@huffingtonpost.com.

As metro-regions across the county engage in regional sustainability planning, re-investment in their surrounding agricultural areas is becoming increasingly important for the realization of regional goals for healthy, livable, equitable and smart growth communities.

As it stands, agricultural areas near cities face enormous challenges including speculative land values, disinvestment in agricultural infrastructure, regulatory uncertainty and land use conflicts. These manifestations of the "impermanence syndrome" at the urban edge are exacerbated by competition from an industrialized, globalized farm economy: Big Ag.

Urban communities are contending with the flip side of this problem: the multiple costs of sprawl and auto dependence, and health impacts in many neighborhoods resulting from, limited access to nature and to affordable, fresh nutritious food. Too many urban residents are overfed and undernourished (largely thanks to 'big ag' processed food) as well as disconnected from rural and natural surroundings.

These sets of urban and rural problems are interrelated. So are their potential solutions.

The millions of Americans who have made home gardening the leading national hobby are addressing the problem with digging forks and dinner forks. Legions of community gardeners are growing food in urban green spaces, the backyard commons, while also revitalizing their neighborhoods. DIYers are giving home canning, bottling and preserving, a resurgence in popularity not seen in generations. Farmers' markets, now in all corners of cities, are reinforcing the experience of eating real, fresh food.

Though these efforts certainly make families healthier and communities more livable, we can't expect the backyard to satisfy more than a small percentage of our food needs. So is Big Ag necessary to feed the billions of us who live in cities? Likely, we do need an agricultural system which includes large-scale producers, advanced technologies (that have met the precautionary principle), and vertically integrated food businesses (the more sustainable and transparent the better). But maybe we also need a bigger backyard.

We need to start thinking about our regional agricultural areas as the backyards of our cities. As the Congress for New Urbanism states in its Charter: "Farmland and nature are as important to the metropolis as the garden is to the house." It simply makes economic, social and environmental sense -- in a word common sense -- to grow as much food as possible as close as feasible to major population centers. The farmland that surrounds cities -- our regional backyard gardens -- are, like home gardens, ideally multifunctional, providing in addition to fresh food, beautiful landscapes, opportunities for recreation and natural habitat. Implicit in this vision is the assumption that given its dependence of this regional backyard garden, the urban population should have some responsibility for its upkeep.

New Ruralism, a corollary to New Urbanism, is a framework for bridging sustainable agriculture and smart growth. Sustainable agriculture can help bring cities down to earth, to a deeper commitment to the ecology and economy of the surrounding countryside on which they depend. New Ruralism embraces the power of place-making that can help agriculture move from an artificially narrow production focus to encompass broader resource conservation and cultural values. As a place-based and systems-based framework, New Ruralism nurtures the symbiotic relationship between urban and rural areas.

By strengthening urban-rural links and re-investing in regional agriculture, we can help sustain and contain cities, ultimately making metropolitan areas more resilient, thriving and enduring. This requires integrated urban-rural regional planning, holistic policies, substantial and strategic investment, and models that show the way. In fact, we are digging in and making headway on all of these fronts.

California's landmark SB 375 Climate Change Law requires the production of regional land use and transportation plans (i.e. 'blueprints') that establish actions for meeting mandated greenhouse gas reduction targets. Now metro-region planning agencies are integrating planning for their agricultural and natural areas (i.e. 'greenprints') into their planning for the built environment. A good example is the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy developed by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG). At the county level, an increasing number of General Plan updates include Agricultural Elements and Health Elements, which outline frameworks for preserving farmland and supporting regional agricultural economic viability. At the project level, the Food Commons is an intriguing example, now gaining traction nationally, of local ownership of integrated, local farm and food businesses.

In California, many more policies, investment strategies and projects aimed at regional agriculture reinvestment are in the pipeline. Within a year or two, there might be legislation that mandates mitigation for loss of agricultural land; a fund dedicated to investments in San Francisco Bay Area food and agricultural businesses; and a Bay Area assessment that quantifies the economic values of ecosystem services provided by working landscapes. In the Coyote Valley, just minutes from San Jose, we are working to create a regionally significant, permanently protected agricultural and conservation resource area on prime urban-edge farmland which, until recently, was slated for development.

Whether you want to support your local food and ag system by growing your own, buying from local farmers, visiting farms, investing in local farm/food funds or pushing progressive policies, there are myriad opportunities to dig in and re-invest in our regional food system.

Farmed and Dangerous was produced by Chipotle and production company Piro. Chipotle is the sponsor for the Food For Thought initiative.