Monday, February 18, 2013

Urban Farming: A Growing Phenomenon

Urban farming----urban and farming are two concepts that just don’t seem to fit together. Where are the extensive land holdings? Where’s the massive machinery? How about livestock? An urban farm is certainly not our historical picture of a farm. And yet, the largest growing segment in the farming census is that group of farms of 10 acres or less. Many of these farms are two acres and under.

Where are these urban farms? You may not find one in Manhattan, but visit the other boroughs of New York City and you’ll find some. Look to Detroit where urban decay has opened up vacant lots suitable for growing. Look around D.C., in Phoenix, outside of Richmond, and even in Lynchburg, Va. and you’ll find urban farms and market gardens.

 There’s a TV program called Growing a Greener World with the dot com address of the same name that documents urban farms on the outskirts of Manhattan. The old rose greenhouses near Lynchburg stadium are now occupied by a group called Lynchburg Grows. This group is refurbishing the old greenhouses, growing market crops, and employing disadvantaged workers. 

Successful urban farms by necessity are intensive farms. Close planting in raised beds, trellises, and small scale livestock operations all play into a successful urban farm. Aquaculture, the raising of rabbits, chickens for meat or eggs, and even the raising of earthworms can be important components of an urban farm. Enhancing fertility and maintaining that fertility are of utmost importance to a successful operation.

Where is the best place to locate an urban farm? As with real estate, it’s location, location, location. In Edmund Morris’ 1864 book, “Ten Acres Enough”, Mr. Morris documents his attempts at market gardening in New Jersey just across from New York City. A large population and access to horse manure were the key components of his success. Today’s modern means of transportation allow us some flexibility in location, but access to people still remains a foremost consideration.

Farmer’s markets have exploded over the last decade. This one factor has lead to the success of more market farmers and gardeners than any other one single event. These markets bring together a wide array of sale items in one location making these markets attractive places to purchase the freshest, most unique produce items available. Most markets offer reasonable rents, social activities for customers, and unique sales opportunities for vendors. The addition of on-farm stands, CSA’s, local restaurant sales, and wholesale outlets offer urban farmers many outlets for success.

How do you define success? Success may be supplemental income derived from one-eighth acre of land. A husband and wife might define success as a livable income from a couple of acres of vegetables and flowers. Or, a number of individuals might develop multiple acres over several sites with a di-versified marketing approach. Dollars and cents success was documented from a Maryland couple at a Virginia State University farm conference. The couple lamented that their previous year’s income was seriously impacted by both drought and unusually high summer temperatures. That year they were only able to generate $30,000 per acre income from their two acre operation.

A successful urban farm must sell high value items. A successful urban farm can increase their income by selling value added items in their sales mix. What are high value items? Lettuce, beans, asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries come to mind. Two of the biggest money makers are tomatoes and squash, especially if you can bring these items to market prior to the normal sell dates for your market. High tunnel production, low tunnel protection, along with row covers and mulch now make it possible to beat the earliest marketing dates on many locally grown products. Corn is a low profit item and may be better purchased for resale to meet your customer demands. Value added items like jams, jellies, baked goods, floral arrangements, and Christmas decorations offer opportunities for higher incomes.

Eliot Coleman is a market gardener, inventor, and author growing products for market year-round in Maine. If you’re seriously considering growing for a profit, look him up on line or check out his “how to” books on most bookseller websites. Now, if crops can be grown year-round in Maine, we certainly have no excuse here in zone seven.

Eight billion and millions more each year------that’s the number of mouths that agriculture needs to feed worldwide. The U.N. estimates that we will need to double our food production in the next 40 years. High fuel prices, high fertilizer prices, rapid loss of good agricultural land to development, increased water demand for a host of reasons----this is not the picture we would like to see. As negative as these things are, urban farming offers a brighter side.
Visit any agricultural conference where Farmer’s markets are discussed and you’ll soon discover that the most successful ones are close to or in metropolitan areas. Remember, we discussed population being a real plus way back in 1864. The same is true today. With an urban farm, the population is right at your doorstep.

Conventional U.S. and worldwide farming is barely keeping up with food demands. We have more hunger than ever before right here in this country; let alone worldwide. Some of our food problems are logistical. Some of our food problems are political. All of our food problems are population driven.
Urban farmers will never compete with the corn, wheat, rice, or soybean farmers. What the urban farmer can do is take some of the production pressure off our commodity farmers. It’s sort of like the Victory Gardens of World War II where, by the end of the war, these gardens were producing around a third of our food needs for the entire country.

What are some of the pluses and minuses of urban farming? Number one on the plus side is, of course, population. Dense populations provide both good markets and available labor. Lots of buildings mean a lot of square footage for collecting rainwater. Many homeowners have the space but not the inclination to use it. Here’s your chance to perhaps make an agreement to use this space for a small percentage of the produce. Beginning farmers can start small and grow their business without giving up their current employment. Raw material for composting may be available just for the asking and supplies are usually more quickly available in urban areas.

On the downside, you have no way of knowing all of the former uses of a given property. Soil testing is a must! Lead paint was used for years and this buildup is especially bad in older residential areas. Old manufacturing sites offer up their own set of problems. To overcome many of these problems, consider growing above the ground in raised beds by bringing in fresh soil or new compost. Open space may be limited requiring you to use a number of different locations for your enterprise.
Urban farming, intense planting, organic gardening, moveable greenhouses, the farm to fork movement, and the list goes on as farmers and gardeners look for another way. People need food---and lots of it. Demand can only increase. Start small, grow from your own resources, and think outside the box. You just might be the one to fit all the pieces into a very profitable urban farming system. 

For more information about Lynchburg Grows, see:

For information about urban farming in Richmond, Virginia, see: Urban Farms: Cultivating Change - City Life.

The Asian Multicolored Lady Beetle: Invasion of the aliens

Asian multicolored lady beetle
Image: Iowa State University Entomology Image Gallery

Has your home been invaded by ladybugs (lady beetle) those cute beetles that smell vile when disturbed and that seem able to get through the tiniest of cracks? Read on to learn more about where they came from and what to do about them.

The Asian Multicolored Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis)came into this country through several routes and is both a good lady and a bad lady.  As early as 1916, this insect was introduced in California by the United States Department of Agriculture to help control insect pests in trees. Lady beetles also eat aphids. During the 1970s and 1980s, planned releases of tens of thousands of beetles continued on the East coast of the United States and Canada. There are also indications that the beetle entered the country through the ports of New Orleans and Seattle. 

In the fall, many of us find lots of the Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle congregating on our windows, under the shingles on our roofs, in our attics, and in other warm spots.  On warm, sunny days, they invade our homes, crunch under foot, drop into our food and generally make nuisances of themselves. When these little critters are disturbed, they defend themselves by exuding a yellow-orange body fluid that has a foul odor and can stain walls, drapes, carpeting, etc.   In addition, some individuals seem to be allergic to this body fluid and develop contact dermatitis or respiratory allergies.  

What to do?  

  • Seal all cracks, crevices and other possible points of entry.  
  • If they still get inside, use your vacuum cleaner to collect them. Cut a leg (about 10 inches from toe up) from a pair of panty hose and put it inside the vacuum cleaner hose; secure the panty hose leg with a rubber band and then vacuum.
  • Remove the panty hose, seal it, and dispose of it OR put the panty hose in a jar and store it in a cool place until spring when you can release the beetle so that they can help eat aphids.

The good and the bad beetle

When these lady beetles first appeared in Virginia in 1993, state agricultural specialists were not particularly concerned about them.  While they were definitely nuisances for many homeowners, they also ate aphids and other soft bodied insects that harmed trees. Since then, however, new field studies have shown that the adults feed on peaches, apples, raspberries, and grapes, especially when they have been slightly damaged.  Perhaps even more importantly, they have been termed a devastating contaminant in wine production throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States.  The beetles are often present on grapes when they are harvested, and are difficult to remove.  The beetles get crushed with the grapes and contribute their distinctive foul odor to the wine.

For more information, see: and also:

The Emerald Ash Borer: a Major Threat

(Photo: USDA)

Emerald ash borers are beautiful but destructive, and they've been found in Virginia. Continue reading to learn more about how they got here and what you can do to protect your trees.

Yes, it's true. We've been invaded by aliens. Lots of them, in fact. No, not the green ones with three heads and flashing eyes, but small multicolored ones with six legs. they don't arrive from another galaxy in saucer shaped spaceships, just by regular transportation from another country. Usually on a shipment of produce, such as tropical fruit, in wooden packing materials. the most popular ports of entry for these six legged aliens are the Lost Angeles area and New York/Newark. These aliens are arriving and staying at the rate of two+ new species every year. 

Once here, they don’t have as many natural predators as they did back home, so they become an alien menace, seriously threatening local ecosystems and the economy.  For example, the emerald ash borer ( Agrilus Planipennis Fairmaire) is a small, beautiful, jewel toned beetle native to Asia and Russia.  It entered this country in 2002 and promptly became known as the “green menace” because it has girdled and killed tens of millions of ash trees, resulting in damages of up to $20 billion.  First identified in Michigan and Ontario, Canada, it has now spread to 15 states, including Maryland and Virginia, where it has now spread throughout the state.

In urban areas the pest is most commonly spread through firewood where it can remain for quite some time.  There is also some evidence that the emerald ash borer can be spread through nursery stock and possibly mulch.  Because the borer is particularly attracted to the wave length of the color purple, some municipalities have blanketed their areas with distinctive looking purple traps. 
How can you tell if your trees are infested?  Look for small D shaped holes in the bark of your trees.  These holes are where the adult beetles have exited.  If you notice an unusually high level of woodpecker activity in your area that may also be an indication that the beetles are present since the birds like to feast on emerald ash borer larvae.

What to do?  Call your local extension agent’s office to confirm the infestation and get information on potential treatment of the pests.

For more information, see:

The Virginia Department of Forestry also has information on the emerald ash borer:

To take a free, on-line course on the emerald ash borer, click here: