Urban Farms Are Supposed To Solve Our Food Woes. The Reality Is Not So Simple.

It's claimed they can tackle food deserts, reconnect neighbors and slash our food's climate impact, but it's hard to live up to so much hype.
The Brooklyn Grange has a 40,000-square-foot commercial rooftop garden in the New York City borough of Queens.
The Brooklyn Grange has a 40,000-square-foot commercial rooftop garden in the New York City borough of Queens.
Carolyn Cole via Getty Images

It has been billed as the world’s largest rooftop farm. A new 150,000-square-foot urban farm in Paris has plans to produce a whopping 2,200 pounds of fruit and vegetables every day during the summer months.

When complete in 2022, its owners say it will grow 30 different varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs, most of which will be sold to restaurants, grocers and Parisians directly through veg box schemes. “There is a big demand for good, local food,” says Pascal Hardy, founder of the European urban farming business Agripolis, which is building the farm.

Meanwhile, in Long Island City, New York, the urban farm Brooklyn Grange occupies the rooftop of the historic Standard Motors building, growing salad greens, hot peppers, tomatoes, basil and other crops against the backdrop of the iconic Manhattan skyline.

Back in 2009, the farm’s founders had set out to see whether operating an urban farm in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the nation was viable. A decade later, their original farm is still thriving, according to co-founder and chief operating officer Anastasia Cole Plakias. It has grown to include farms at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, the largest rooftop farm in New York City. With a total of five and a half acres in production, the farms’ annual harvest exceeds 80,000 pounds of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs across three sites.

Urban farms are not new, but they are experiencing a resurgence, taking root in cities across the world.

A new 150,000-square-foot urban farm in Paris has been billed as the largest rooftop farm in the world and is set to open in 2022.
A new 150,000-square-foot urban farm in Paris has been billed as the largest rooftop farm in the world and is set to open in 2022.

They take many shapes, ranging from tiny community gardens and raised beds or greenhouses in once-abandoned lots or on rooftops, to high-tech vertical farms where produce grows in climate-controlled towers.

The hype around them is huge. Urban farming has been hailed as a social and environmental panacea: able to eliminate food deserts, reconnect neighborhoods with the sources of their food, reduce the climate impact of our food and make greener cities.

“Urban farms can help build environmental and economic resilience in cities,” says Hardy. Since cities are predicted to be home to nearly 70% of the global population by 2050, it’s understandable why urban farming is in the spotlight.

But the reality is, of course, more complicated. Too often, farmers struggle to turn bumper crops of salad greens into sufficient revenue to keep the farm gates open. And those that do often have to prioritize ways to stay financially viable over achieving social goals.

The Struggle To Keep The Doors Open

While the interest in urban farming might be strong, there are mixed and incomplete data on the success of urban farms.

Some research points to the high social and environmental potential of urban agriculture. Urban farms could grow as much as 10% of the global production of vegetables, pulses, tubers and root crops, according to a 2018 study. Another study from 2019 found that, with the right inputs, urban farms could experience yields that are almost twice as high as their rural counterparts, and a paper from Johns Hopkins University says urban farms can improve urban biodiversity and serve as a catalyst for community organizing.

Farmers working at Brooklyn Grange's rooftop farm at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City.
Farmers working at Brooklyn Grange's rooftop farm at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City.
Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm

Yet urban farmers often struggle to sustain their mission-driven enterprises. According to a study published in the British Food Journal that looked at U.S. farmers, two-thirds of urban farmers are not making a living from farming.

“Farming is a hard business and it’s hard to make it profitable,” admits Claire Turner, partnerships and marketing manager for Brooklyn Grange, which is a for-profit enterprise. “And there are added challenges in New York City because of the cost of real estate. When the founders started the farm, they were tempted to make it a nonprofit, which is what a lot of urban farms do … but they wanted to see if they could make urban farming a successful business.”

Farm failure rates across the U.S. are high, with an average of 246 farms lost each week between 2017 and 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The biggest losses hit farms with less than $10,000 in sales.

The USDA does not gather statistics on urban farming, but 2016 data found that almost half of urban farms fell into this revenue range (and low gross sales meant that 60% of urban farmers depend on off-farm jobs to earn an income).

“[Turning a profit] is hard for any farm,” says Carolyn Dimitri, an associate professor at New York University who specializes in nutrition and food studies. “It’s the reason we have all of these federal farm programs that keep farms afloat, but those kinds of programs don’t exist for urban farms, which makes it even riskier.”

“If you’re not a large-scale farm, you’re just not going to be able to compete in the market. An urban farm by necessity is small,” Dimitri says.

An overhead view of Brooklyn Grange's rooftop farm at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn.
An overhead view of Brooklyn Grange's rooftop farm at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn.
Anastasia Cole Plakias/Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm

Hardy understands the challenges. “We know that the economy of urban agriculture is difficult and we have learned a lot about how to optimize the running of the farm,” Hardy says of the Paris rooftop farm. “We also have to think, ‘How will we maximize revenues?’”

As well as selling its produce, Agripolis will also offer tours, host events and operate an onsite restaurant to generate revenue to keep the farm growing.

Special events are also an essential source of revenue for Brooklyn Grange. “We look at our profitability per square foot of the farm,” Turner says. “It’s really important to emphasize that the farming aspect of our business is profitable, but the area of our business that we’ve seen grow is events. We are booked May through October with private events almost every night of the week.”

An Inclusivity Problem

Research has shown that urban farms can have genuine social benefits, including boosting community bonds and providing spaces for learning and socializing.

“The strong sociocultural values surrounding food growing, cooking, and sharing help facilitate the role of gardens as a social bridge, and support communities in maintaining and appreciating cultural traditions associated with food,” says a report from The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which examines some of the purported benefits of urban farming.

But, the report warns, a focus on boosting revenues could put social goals at risk, including local residents’ ability to afford foods growing in their own neighborhoods.

The problem is particularly acute for high-tech urban farms because production can be so expensive. One consultant estimated that leafy greens grown in climate-controlled retrofitted shipping containers cost up to 10 times more than the same varieties grown on conventional soil farms.

In a vertical farm, indoor operations where food is grown in stacked layers, growers would need to charge $23 per loaf of bread just to cover the electricity it would take to grow wheat, according to Louis Albright, an emeritus professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell. FarmedHere, once the nation’s largest vertical farm, closed its Chicago indoor farm in 2017 because it was too expensive to run.

Vertical grow towers at AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey.
Vertical grow towers at AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey.
ANGELA WEISS via Getty Images

“The growth of high-tech commercial [urban] farms … is not about food security,” New York University’s Dimitri says. “It’s hyperlocal, very fresh food that’s super expensive … and their target [market] is people who shop at Whole Foods, [not] people who live in underserved communities.”

Some experts are confident, however, that produce from high-tech farms will become more affordable. Dickson Despommier, an emeritus professor at Columbia University and author of “The Vertical Farm,” believes costs will come down as technologies mature and operations scale, expanding vertical food production to include wheat, corn and other commodities with prices on par with crops grown in rural areas. “That is where indoor agriculture shines: You have continuous production in a disease-free environment,” he says.

In Paris, Hardy hopes that offering tours, classes and other revenue-generating events will help keep the price of produce low. Brooklyn Grange is also trying to ensure that the local community can afford to purchase produce from the rooftop farms. In addition to accepting supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) vouchers at its farmers markets, the farm donates a portion of its produce to a food pantry operated by New York University Langone to support food-insecure families.

“They estimate that our harvest serves 100-plus families each week,” Plakias adds.

“It’s hyperlocal, very fresh food that’s super expensive.”

- Carolyn Dimitri, New York University

There is another issue with urban farms — they have a race problem. The Johns Hopkins report notes that they are “not panaceas of social inclusion or equity.” Case studies cited by the report show that both for-profit and nonprofit urban farms and gardens “have been led by mostly young, white non-residents in predominantly black and/or Latino neighborhoods, unintentionally excluding people of color from participating in or reaping the benefits of such efforts.”

Plakias admits that systemic racism is deeply ingrained in farming. “When we launched this company, we raised $200,000 in start-up capital. We didn’t have trust funds to raid: We pounded the pavement and sent our business plan to everyone in our network — but those networks were in and of themselves the result of a certain level of privilege,” she says.

“Cities need businesses that reflect their communities … [but] the barrier for entry is too high when it comes to starting a business in a city as competitive as New York, and as a result, it becomes news when businesses owned and operated by people of color open in neighborhoods of color.”

Karen Washington of Rise & Root Farm in the Bronx in New York City says the movement toward for-profit urban farming and away from community gardens is not helping low-income communities of color.

You have this new yuppie group coming in that is gung ho about urban agriculture … but the movement wasn’t about urban agriculture, it was about survival, taking back our communities,” she told Grist. “Now you have people coming into gardens that have established histories, that were built on the backs of people who made it safe for you to come in, and you’re gonna talk about urban agriculture?”

A Mixed Environmental Bag

Along with its social goals, a key benefit of urban farming is supposed to be its environmental footprint. Urban farms can significantly reduce the need for transport by being closer to the end consumer. They also increase the amount of greenery in a city, which research suggests helps reduce the urban heat island effect in which human activities make cities hotter than the surrounding areas.

Rooftop farming offers another distinct environmental advantage, Turner says. It helps capture stormwater runoff.

An bird's-eye view of Brooklyn Grange's rooftop farm in Long Island City, Queens.
An bird's-eye view of Brooklyn Grange's rooftop farm in Long Island City, Queens.
Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm

“New York City and a lot of older cities have aging infrastructure, [and] when it rains heavily, there’s nowhere for the sewage to go, so it actually ends up being flushed out into our waterways,” she explains. “A large project like ours absorbs so much rainfall that it helps with this problem.” The Navy Yard roof and the Sunset Park roof were funded in part by a grant from the Department of Environmental Protection to help mitigate stormwater runoff.

But environmental advantages can be overplayed, according to the Johns Hopkins report. The vast majority of emissions from food come from production rather than transportation, it says, and sometimes bigger farms can be more efficient thanks to economies of scale.

Furthermore, farms that produce continuously in a controlled atmosphere, such as a vertical farm, can be enormously resource-intensive. A 2015 study found that during summer months, the vertical farm it modeled generated a carbon footprint that was five times higher than conventional field-grown crops. And while hydroponic production (where plants are grown without soil) leads to higher yields and uses around 12.5 times less water than conventional agriculture, it requires around 82 times more energy, according to a 2016 paper.

Connecting Us With Food And Each Other

Ultimately, the key benefit of urban farms may not be their ability to tackle food deserts or provide a fail-safe model of how to do agriculture right; it may be the way they can engage with and reconnect communities.

“Urban agriculture’s most significant benefits center around its ability to increase social capital, community well-being, and civic engagement with the food system,” says the Johns Hopkins report.

Agropolis plans to open the farm up as a community gathering spot to help connect Parisians (and visitors) to the local food movement, and Brooklyn Grange hosts farm dinners, tours and a whole host of community-building, food-related workshops at its rooftop farms.

Urban farms work well, says Dimitri, when they try to make life better for the people in their communities, “creating community empowerment and taking back control of the food system. Instead of looking at urban farms as the solution to all of the problems we have in the food system…we should look at them as part of a larger solution.”

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