Urban Agriculture is Changing

Over the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to be a part of conferences for “urban” audiences interested in urban agriculture in particular organic urban agriculture. There is a lot of interest in what agriculture really is, and terms like “natural,” “sustainable,” “regenerative,” and even “organic” can be confusing. Most consumers love labels but unfortunately labels begin to lose any meaning unless you define them and yes, enforce them!

Urban agriculture has many definitions and many parts.  USDA defines it as,” cultivation, processing and distribution of agricultural products in urban and suburban areas.” Even this definition can be further defined because cultivation has many different aspects; agricultural products include a multitude of things from vegetables to dairy to fish to meat, and urban and suburban are rarely well defined and can mean the 2.5 million population of Houston, Texas or the urban center of DeLeon, Texas where 2.5 thousand live! 

These problems with definitions still don’t deny that our population needs and wants local food and local food security no matter if it is small town or large city.  And this desire is fueling a resurgence of everything from backyard gardening to large scale organic rooftop agriculture atop the newest Whole Foods retail store.  All are woven together into a sense of “community supported agriculture” which has a history of being “urban agriculture” for decades.

According to Wikipedia’s definition, “Urban agriculture can reflect varying levels of economic and social development. It may be a social movement for sustainable communities, where organic growers, “foodies”, and “locavores” form social networks founded on a shared ethos of nature and community holism. These networks can evolve when receiving formal institutional support, becoming integrated into local town planning as a “transition town” movement for sustainable urban development. For others, food security, nutrition, and income generation are key motivations for the practice. In both scenarios, more direct access to fresh vegetables, fruits, and meat products through urban agriculture can improve food security and food safety.

What does urban agriculture look like?  Again, according to USDA, “Community gardens, rooftop farms, hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic facilities, and vertical production are all examples of urban agriculture.” Certainly, there are backyard gardens, market gardens, and the small farm patches scattered around superhighways, streets, and buildings.  Every open piece is real estate is being discovered, evaluated, rehabilitated, and put into production much like the English allotment system so popular in Great Britain. 

Increasingly (maybe because of climate extremes), urban agriculture is now becoming Controlled Environmental Agriculture or CEA and these urban/suburban operations include low tunnels, high tunnels, shade houses, climate-controlled greenhouses, and indoor farming in warehouses, shipping containers, or even basements. Many are certifying organic, and some are not.

The demand by the urban/suburban consumer for both involvement in their own food production and knowledge about the food they purchase and consume, is driving the need for new and innovative research and education.  Never before has there been such an interest in urban agriculture with an equally intense interest in the science of agriculture and food.

What about Texas?

Texas population in 2022 is estimated to be 30.93 million people growing a little over 1% per year for the last ten years.  Out of the top 22 largest cities in the US, Texas has 6 including Houston (4th), San Antonio (7th), Dallas (9th), Austin (11th), Fort Worth (13th) and El Paso (22nd).  Included in the top 100 largest cities of the US are many of the suburbs of these major cities.  These fast-growing cities are experiencing a complete change in their makeup, their consumer trends and their eating habits.  According to the CDC and data collected through the 2019 Risk Behavior Surveillance System and compiled by Thistle©; Texas ranks 32nd out of 50 states in consumption of fruits and vegetables; 41.3% of adults eating less than one serving of fruit per day, 23.2% of adults eating less than one serving of vegetables per day, 50.5% of high school students eating less than one serving of fruit per day, and 51.7% of high school students eating less than one serving of vegetables per day.

Even though a low percentage of the 30.93 million Texans consume very many fruits and vegetables there is still a considerable number who garden and a huge number that frequent farmers markets.  The National Farmers Market Directory lists 282 local farmers markets in Texas and the Texas Department of Agriculture shows hundreds of registered farmers markets on their Go Texan website.  Most of the Texas’ markets are located in the 5 largest urban areas and attendance at each is growing by double digits year over year. 

Organic certification in Texas urban/suburban areas continues to increase with a significant increase in CEA (controlled environment agriculture) applications and organic certifications.  Leading the way are operations involved in greens production including microgreens, lettuces, and spinach.  Texas population is growing faster than the supply of local fruits and vegetable, faster than potential growers can be trained and faster than research can solve the production problems faced by both small- and large-scale urban growers. 

Finally, here is the takeaway! The explosive population growth of Texas is creating a huge demand for Texas Food and for most of these consumers Organic is their preferred “label.” Certified organic growers or even growers contemplating organic certification – NOW is your opportunity….

Author: Bob Whitney, Regents Fellow & Extension Organic Specialist

Agriculturalist, extension educator and researcher, organic agriculture enthusiast and promoter, international program developer, Christian, husband, father and friend.

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