Paving the fields, eating the city

Last week I attended the 21st conference of the Society for Human Ecology (SHE). The Society, started about 30 years ago, is dedicated to the advancement of human ecology, an area of research and teaching that focuses on human – environment interactions. In other words, it considers the human being from an ecological perspective, being heavily influenced by systems approaches. This implies that what it means to consider the human being ecologically passes through politics, anthropology, history, economics, religion, and so on: all areas that heavily influence a human life. Every year and a half, the Society organizes a conference, sometimes in places that make it clear it does not necessarily idealize the human – nature relationship: this year, it was in Santa Ana, Orange County, California, a prime example of human stupidity in the form of thorough paving of prime agricultural land. As one participant put it, much more diplomatically (perhaps also more veridically), people like to live where plants like to grow.

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Santa Ana, fauna and flora

What I like about the SHE conferences is the eclectic mix of people and topics. It is the kind of place where no-one feels out of true. Usually, when I tell people what I do, I am greeted with squeals of incredulous amazement. At a SHE conference, people challenge my basic assumptions, tell me about something they know that might be relevant to me, but never wonder as to why I would be spending my time chasing proto-cows. Most surprising is that the conference draws a healthy mix of academics and practitioners. A.G. Kawamura, a former agricultural secretary of California, delivered one of the keynote speeches, about food resilience. The theme of the conference was Shaping a Livable Future, wide enough to allow everyone to have a say, but specific enough to require a lot of discussion on how we are going to feed ourselves in the future. More than the keynote itself, I found extremely interesting a field-trip Mr. Kawamura led through Orange County, giving a sense of the agricultural landscape as it exists today. Though this is not directly related to conservation, the supposed overarching topic of this blog, I want to nonetheless tell you a bit about this trip, as I found it surprising and inspiring in many ways.

Orange County (OC), California, was rural until quite recently. Despite the name, it did not grow oranges for most of its agricultural history. In the middle of the 20th century, as Los Angeles to the north started spilling over, courtesy of a rapacious urban development model, land in the county sharply increased in value. With that increase came urbanization: farmers sold their land to developers (lovely term) and moved on to farm elsewhere. An acre of land today is worth between 3 and 4 million dollars. This story of urbanization at the expense of rural livelihoods is familiar enough, having been repeated many times in many places. What makes the story of OC interesting is the quality of the urbanized land – by any account, exceptional – and the surprising response of some farmers.

A.G. Kawamura comes from a farming family. He remembers vast ranches where now freeways and box stores rule. When urbanization came to OC, he decided to keep farming: the 52 weeks/year growing season is just too good to give up, and he thought that he can still thrive in the area. Today, the main agricultural output of the county is horticulture, followed by strawberries, green beans and bell peppers. The supremacy of horticulture itself speaks of the success of urbanisation. Mr. Kawamura grows mostly strawberries and green beans, on a total of 1000 acres dispersed throughout the county. Orange County Produce, the company that Mr. Kawamura runs, is now in the business of urban agriculture, and the places where it farms, previously part of uninterrupted ranches, are now areas marginal to the urban project: abandoned and unused lots. The company identifies such lots and tries to secure leases from whoever the owner happens to be. Sometimes, lots are vacant for only a few years, being marked for future construction. While they await paving, Mr. Kawamura uses them to grow food. Vacant parking lots, highway buffers, old airports – nothing is off limits.

We visited one such unlikely place: the abandoned El Toro military airport, which is in the process of being transformed into a park, surrounded by new housing for 9000 people. The construction is in full swing around the edges of the future park. In the interior, there are abandoned runways, hangars, parking lots, and a golf course. In one parking lot, we visited a demonstration garden where people can learn how to grow food in their own yards. There were hedges made of fruiting trees, and rows of vegetables grown on straw bales, for people that have to grow on top of cement. After leaving the demonstration farm, we visited a project that started its life as the Incredible Edible Park, now rechristened the Incredible Edible Farm. The Farm uses different kinds of media to grow food in. For example, there were grow-socks, long black tubes filled with soil, which can be set atop concrete. The location of the farm is the former officer’s houses, which had already been leveled. However, the street pattern, curbs, and driveways remained. There were also plastic bags filled with shredded coconut, apparently a very good growth medium, stacked vertically on metal structures. One could literally see the outline of an old neighborhood, now taken over by rows of vegetables. I tasted a yellow cherry-tomato – sweet, thick-skinned – and it felt as if I was plucking it from someone’s garden, though the house had miraculously disappeared.

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Straw-bale garden
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Vertical growing in bags with shredded coconut

Passing the former airport golf course, we saw a coyote wondering around. As I wrote in a previous post, I had beed trying to see its cousin, the golden jackal, in the Romanian Danube Delta. I was unsuccessful on those occasions, so it struck me as funny that a coyote just strode by while I was in California. We passed the golf course, recognizable by the left-over little bridge for golf carts. It was now home to strawberries, red and white cabbage, squash, broccolini, and cucumber. Close to the former runways, construction of the new homes was in full swing. Mr. Kawamura had planted rows of fruiting trees, thought out to provide a different fruit to the future residents for each month of the year (oh, the OC climate…). We stopped on the runway and picked strawberries from beds nearby. They were delicious, and it felt truly bizarre to be eating organic strawberries on a former airport runway that will become part park, part homes, part edible garden. The fact that the strawberries were certified organic surprised many of the participants. Mr. Kawamura explained that the organic designation is quickly obtained for many of the crops grown on abandoned urban land. The sad reality is that the ground under buildings and infrastructure is usually cleaner than that previously used for conventional agriculture.

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Strawberry fields on runway


The idea of urban agriculture, in many of its forms, is certainly not new. It is also controversial, particularly when it comes to claims about how much food can conceivable be grown in cities. The issue of quantity likely depends on location and local patterns of consumption, but it is nonetheless interesting to see honest efforts of rethinking the urban space. Sure, it is unlikely that London, or New York, will produce locally most of the food that they consume. But that, to me, is not the whole point. The kinds of experiments I witnessed in OC are a laboratory for food growing techniques, which will surely come in handy in a climate changed, busy world. The idea is that, in an increasingly dense world, we can make better use of the unused spaces within our cities. The other fascinating thing about growing food in cities is that it shows people the malleability of the land, a quality that is presupposed by all human transformations yet also easily hidden. And if the success of the Incredible Edible Farm is anything to go by, people seem to be interested in being part of growing food.

Urbanization and industrialization of agriculture have conspired to drive down the number of farmers while driving their average age up. It is interesting to think of a world where, instead of ‘going back to the land’, new generations of farmers discover the land in the city. What would it be like to live in a city where it is a given that many of its green spaces are also edible? We have been incredibly successful at separating the work of growing food from the places of consumption. Perhaps one way of subverting this development is to bring production inside the space of consumption, hybridizing in the process notions of rural and urban. In an edible city, will we also replicate the system of ownership which separates food growing from buying? Or might we, now living next door to food, reach over and pick that which we desire? Who will be able to do so, and who will have to pay? The answers are far from clear, but the landscape is already being redrawn.

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