Urban Agriculture vs. Urban Horticulture

As a farmer I sometimes bristle at the use of the word “agriculture” to describe much of what people now call “urban agriculture.” I know it’s just words, but what else do we have to communicate? Most of what is being called “urban agriculture” is actually urban “horticulture.” No judgment intended here at all; we need the garden scale projects as well as the larger scale ones.

But calling a garden with a few boxes of vegetables “agricultural” is like referring to yourself as a “mechanic” because you change your own oil or an “actor” because you once performed in the school play. It is important for farmers that the world begin to understand that agriculture requires a very sophisticated and complex set of skills to do well. These skills take years to develop, they require a deep understanding of soils, insects, biology, botany, mechanics, physics, marketing, labor management, and on and on.

Experienced farmers come to know that observation and careful timing of all farm activities is critical. Cultivating when weeds have just emerged, harvesting beans or greens when they are at their optimal flavor and texture, irrigating at just the right moment to enhance food quality and save water and time. Harvesting well, for example, has so many subtleties and particularities. All bunches- carrots, beets, or radishes, say—are not created equal. A well made one has roots that are matched in length and girth, positioned at the same level, and have their cosmetically imperfect leaves removed.

Every art or craft has its own unique elements recognized and appreciated only by its long-time practitioners. I have come to appreciate these elements in the farm work of others. Some are subtle, some are more obvious. I look for the way a crop has been cultivated, the feel and smell of the soil, the quality of the farm products, or the speed with which a farmer can move down the rows of a field making perfect bunches. Doing so requires a deftness of hand and a good eye.

As a mentor and employer, I’ve found it remarkable that you can take ten people into a field of vegetables, carefully and painstakingly show them all how to harvest and demonstrate the speed and efficiency required to make it pay, and each person will come up with their own interpretation and level of quality. Every so often, though, someone gets it right off. Donna was one of them.

I’m not sure why, maybe good hand-and-eye coordination developed from years of rolling joints, maybe just a natural appreciation for detail, but from the first harvest at the original farm on Hastings Street, Donna could crank out the most beautiful bunches of radishes.

coverlarge-4Excerpted from Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier”  (Chelsea Green, 2016) by Michael Ableman

Street Farm is the inspirational account of residents in the notorious Low Track in Vancouver, British Columbia―one of the worst urban slums in North America―who joined together to create an urban farm as a means of addressing the chronic problems in their neighborhood. It is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves.

Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and urban and local food systems advocate. Michael has been farming organically since the 1970′s and is considered one of the pioneers of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. Ableman is a frequent lecturer to audiences all over the world, and the winner of numerous awards for his work.

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