Urban Agriculture Could Potentially Produce a Tenth of the World's Food. Is Grass Really the Best Use for Your Yard? | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Urban Agriculture Could Potentially Produce a Tenth of the World's Food. Is Grass Really the Best Use for Your Yard? 

click to enlarge Amanda Matson with husband Derek Ehrman and baby Elliot outside their home in Raleigh

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Amanda Matson with husband Derek Ehrman and baby Elliot outside their home in Raleigh

This weekend, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association is holding its popular Piedmont Farm Tour, which opens forty-five Triangle-area farms to the public. General interest in traditional farming is well-established here; this is the twenty-third year of the tour. But meanwhile, there's a rising fascination, in the region and around the nation, with another kind of farming: urban agriculture.

There seems to be momentum behind the conviction that the collective cultivation of underutilized public spaces such as empty lots and rooftops just might save the world. Growing food in a city is hands-on and hyper-local, it requires few chemicals and gives off little in the way of greenhouse gasses, and in low-income neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce, it can be a vital source of healthy food. As a result, the practice is attracting a mix of urban-planning nerds, antipoverty advocates, the sustainability crowd, and millennials seeking a better future. Some of that enthusiasm was quantified in January, when a study published in the journal Earth's Future found that densely planted urban farms could potentially produce up to 10 percent of the world's food.

But if urban agriculture gets people salivating, what about the other unoccupied patches of green right before us: private lawns, those monocultures that many Americans spend more than an hour a week manicuring even though they produce nothing useful? There are roughly forty million acres of lawn in the U.S., according to a 2015 NASA study—three times more acreage than any other irrigated crop. That's a lot of land, and an enormous amount of lost potential. The average lawn is roughly a fifth of an acre, which doesn't sound like much. But unlike big farms, gardens tend to be intensively managed, which means they can often yield an impressive amount of vegetables. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, an N.C. State crop-science professor, says that the student farm she runs produced nine thousand pounds of food on about 1.25 acres last year.

That's nothing, says Steve Moore, a professor in Elon University's environmental studies department. "Using biointensive techniques, you can grow a complete diet easily in 4,000 square feet—one-tenth of an acre—for a single person," he says. And those figures don't even include other activities that can occur in a private yard, like raising animals.

The resulting food is usually organic, requires few petroleum products, produces very little CO2, and is as fresh as can be. Homeowners can plant heirloom crops that are at risk of vanishing forever, bolstering the nation's food security. And for those who are moving toward homesteading—aiming to be self-sufficient by capturing rainwater, using renewable energy, and growing and preserving all their food—the reduction in emissions and energy and water use can be profound.

Linda Borghi travels the country preaching the gospel of plowing one's own patch of Eden. "Look at lettuce, how far it has to travel," she says. "By the time it gets on your table, do you think it has any life force left in it? The best time to eat anything is right after you cut it."

Borghi, a New Jersey resident and founder of the Farm-A-Yard campaign, is one of a handful of true believers. But what's surprising is how uncommon it is to see a front yard in the Triangle that's been rototilled and planted, much less one in full homesteading mode, complete with animals and a composting system. I polled individuals and organizations like CFSA, Cooperative Extension NC, and food councils around the Triangle, and found that only a tiny handful of Triangle residents intensively cultivate their yards.

"It's a lot of time, and honestly it's a luxurious, privileged hobby. We don't each have to work two jobs to live," says Celeste Burns of herself and husband Alexander Johnson, explaining why she thinks the phenomenon is relatively rare. She's right: if you're going to garden a lawn, you generally must be a landowner—or you must convince one to give you access to their property. You also need some serious surplus time and energy. "Not too much sports watching or internet gaming in our house," says Burns.

She and Johnson have filled their two-thirds of an acre in Durham with a huge range of fruit trees (pawpaw, sand plums, native persimmons, Asian pears, and figs) and a lush garden of plants largely raised from seed. They demonstrate that urban homesteading is possible, along with the likes of Amanda Matson, a Raleigh resident who lives on a quarter-acre lot in a neighborhood north of N.C. State. When she moved into the house five years ago, she and her husband set a goal of achieving fruit-and-vegetable independence within five years.

"Since then, we have been able to grow all the veggies we need on site, and we're well underway to our goal of growing or foraging all our own fruit," says Matson. Their yard stands out: in summer, it's home to six-foot-plus cornstalks, nonlinear vegetable rows that make use of every square foot, and vertical trellises to save precious space. Matson cultivates the usual suspects—potatoes, beans, onions, peppers—plus some unusual ones, like asparagus, tomatillos, and yardlong beans. And there's tons of fruit: apple, nectarine, and sour cherry trees, kiwi and grape vines, and blueberry bushes. Matson gathers free resources like coffee grounds from the local cafe for the compost pile, wood chips for the garden paths, and rainwater. Tomatoes are canned for the winter, green beans are frozen, and cabbage is turned into kimchi and sauerkraut.

"I love the challenge," Matson says. Most of her family raises food in the country, "but I kind of like the constraints of a city."

A couple miles to the south lives Will Hooker, a former N.C. State horticulture professor who specializes in permaculture. Hooker and his family have lived on their property since 1994, and many of the fruit trees there—persimmon, hazelnut, pineapple, guava, pomegranate, and pecan—are mature and produce well. There's also a big garden packed with greens and flowers and trellised vegetables, a grape arbor that provides shade to the house in the summer, chickens, bees, and ponds stocked with mosquitofish. Hooker harvests rainwater and powers his house in part with solar panels.

"I learned by reading, by talking to people," says Hooker. And he's still trying out new ideas, including several different composting systems and experimental agricultural methods such as growing a tomato plant from the bottom of a hanging five-gallon bucket. But it's organized, and he's constantly on the lookout for errant weeds.

Though few people are doing it, the Triangle is a pretty welcoming place for intensive gardening and even homesteading, provided you don't live in a neighborhood with a homeowners association that prohibits it. The growing season is long and forgiving, and in most of the region's municipalities, bees are allowed without a permit, chickens with a permit. Ambitious residents can legally slaughter the fowl in their backyards. Some residents of Hillsborough, Carrboro, and Raleigh can keep a couple of goats on their property, as can Durham residents on larger lots near the city limits. And the area is full of relevant classes and gatherings.

But it can be intimidating to jump right in. One place to start might be with a local business like Bountiful Backyards or Grow It Yourself, whose staff will set up front yard gardens for a fee, then teach their clients how to maintain the beds themselves. Or plant a fig or plum or apple tree; once it starts fruiting in a few years, it will bear gifts that require little work to maintain.

So why not head out of the city this weekend to check out some farms and get inspired, courtesy of CFSA? Many are very small operations, and some of their activities could easily be adapted to the yards of urban dwellers who want to maximize the potential of their own personal greenspace.

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