We’ve all seen the lush, vibrant gardens tucked neatly into city blocks. Within each is quite a variety: they’re packed with fragrant flowers, vines crawling their way up homemade trellises, and plump fruits and vegetables drinking up the dew. This time of year, these urban gardens are in full splendor and ready for the season’s first harvest. Maybe you have already taken home some locally grown produce from the Saturday Market, dined on them at a nearby cafe, or spent time volunteering in a garden yourself. But what is their story? How did they come to be such an integral part of our city? And what effect do they have on neighborhoods and property values? Let’s take a look.
Urban farming and gardening is thought to have taken root in the US during times of economic depression as a way to supplement food supplies. Starting in 1893, residents of poverty stricken cities were encouraged to plant potatoes in vacant lots and yards. Organized and cared for by neighborhood residents, these community gardens cultivated independence, family income, and stable, nutritious meals for people who might not otherwise have access to them. This movement originated in poorer and more crowded cities like Boston, Detroit, and New York, and then spread rapidly. By 1919, there were more than five million such plots in cities all over the country, and five hundred thousand pounds of produce were being harvested every year.
Today, urban farming is still a thriving practice, enjoyed by people of all cultures and backgrounds. In Portland alone there are over fifty community gardens, as well as countless privately owned urban farms. Many of them, like the Side Yard Farm in Cully, sell their produce to local restaurants and use the profits to maintain and grow their gardens. And over eight years ago, Side Yard expanded to become a supper club and an organic catering company. You can’t get much fresher – the produce they serve is picked and cooked on the same day.
Others, like the twelve community gardens blossoming across Portland that together make up the Urban Farm Collective, strive towards complete self-sustainability. The Urban Farm Collective has even developed its own unique barter system, where produce is exchanged by the pound for volunteer hours spent working on the farms. Anything left over is given to charity – last year they were able to donate over seven hundred pounds of food, with half going to St. Andrew’s Food Pantry and half going to Sisters of the Road.
Since opening the first farm in 2009, the Urban Farm Collective has incorporated fruit tree care, bee and chicken keeping and mushroom harvesting. Their next project, in collaboration with the non-profit Public Annex, is adapting some of its growing spaces to be fully accessible to those with disabilities.
“I really like seeing a growth in interest in urban farming among young college students,” says Holli Prohaska, director of the Urban Farm Collective. “My hope is that urban farming can be transformed in a way that is appealing to a majority of the population again, and developers will collaborate with urban farm interests and incorporate them into urban growth areas.”
The collective has two new farms on the way, and is actively seeking more land to cultivate. Their only requirements for a plot is that it must cover at least 1500 square feet, have seven or more hours of sun exposure per day, and access to a water line. Many of the plots are on land borrowed from donors. In exchange, the donors receive locally grown produce all season long, no longer have to pay for upkeep of their property, receive a tax exemption, and become an integral part of improving food security and bringing neighbors closer together.
The Urban Farm Collective’s commitment to sustainability and nurturing the land they use is a key component in their mission. “We test soil for lead before taking any new garden spaces on. All produce is grown sustainably, without any chemical pesticides, fertilizers or weed control. We focus a lot on beneficial plants to attract beneficial insects to help with pest control and plant health.”
While urban farming is defined simply as the process of growing and distributing produce within a city, the value of an urban farm goes far beyond the food that grows there. An investment in an urban farm or garden is truly is an investment in your community. The gardens are lush, calming spaces that serve as an invaluable retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. There is a serenity about them, with their rows of thriving greenery, foliage and flowers reaching up towards the sunlight. The smell of fresh, healthy soil and summer herbs saturates the air, as bees buzz happily from blossom to blossom.
Within the farm, neighbors have the opportunity to work together, and friendships are formed through education and collaboration. “I would say the gardens have helped preserve the community. Our neighborhood has been changing so quickly due to urban growth,” Holli says. “The gardens also benefit the community by providing safe spaces to be in and providing food for those involved at no cost!”
In addition, studies have shown that just the presence of an urban farm significantly increases the sale prices of all homes within 1,500 feet. This impact has been shown to grow over time, especially around well maintained gardens. A study made in 2000 revealed that here in Portland, proximity to any open natural space raised a home’s sale price by 1.8 percent. While that data isn’t the most recent, it’s a safe bet that the positive effect now is even greater, with the recent boom in Portland’s real estate market. The overall improvement in neighborhood pride, beautification, and community health, and a reduction in crime rates always returns favorable results in property values.
It doesn’t take much to create an urban farm of your own. All around Portland, these pockets of nature are sprouting up like daisies. North, Northeast, and Southeast Portland have been especially popular because of their access to more sunshine and their larger lots. After purchasing the land, the startup cost for an urban farm is affordable. Our soil is generally healthy and nutritious without any alteration, fostering easy plant growth. Once the garden starts producing, the fruits and vegetables harvested can be sold or eaten, to offset costs. And as for labor, if you need assistant gardeners, many of your neighbors will be eager to volunteer, especially in exchange for a chance to learn more about sustainable growing and a share of the crops.
When asked about her goals for urban farms Holli, of the Urban Farm Collective, explained that she wants them to be “healthy, vibrant, educational spaces that welcome community.” It seems that this goal is being achieved, and will continue to bloom as additional gardens and farms flower across the city. These green spaces serve as even more than they appear, through the cultivation of community wellness, environmental awareness, and of course, delicious food. As Holli says, “It’s very special!”