New Documentary Explores the Rise of Urban Ag in the U.S.

When long-time friends Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette returned home to Omaha, Nebraska, after college, they realized that their city -- despite being in the agriculture epicenter of the country -- was ranked 142 (out of 182) healthiest city in America. Meaning, although Omaha was surrounded by fertile farm lands, its residents were not eating well... at all. So Susman and Monbouquette took a closer look and discovered that various policies and practices -- or a lack thereof -- were hindering the local food movement in Omaha. And then they decided to hit the road to check out what other cities were doing on the urban ag front.

From Los Angeles, California to Hanover, New Hampshire, the guys trekked 13,000 miles capturing story after story of regular folks making change in their communities -- some big, some small, and all important. The resulting documentary, Growing Citiesis engaging and inspiring. 

In L.A., Susman spent a day helping Backwards Beekeepers rescue a hive of bees that had taken over an abandoned dresser in someone's backyard. Through the process, he learned that about one of every three bites of food we take depend on bees. That's why the massive dying off of hives over the past few years is so alarming, and it's why municipal policies need to allow beekeepers to work within city limits. All those community gardens need the bees in order to thrive.

Cruising up the coast to San Francisco, California, the boys were schooled in the history of urban agriculture. During World War I, planting gardens was considered a matter of national security. Government funding was even poured into the School Garden Army in 1918. Those efforts led to a generation or two understanding the importance of growing their own food. Susman and Monbouquette visited a number of projects that continue the tradition in the Bay Area today -- Little City Gardens, Hayes Valley Farm (which has since closed), Alemany Farm, The Free Farm, and Green Faerie Farm.

In Portland, Oregon, another chapter in urban agriculture's history unfolded with the story of Victory Garden Farms. Here, Katie and Nicole Boeh-Barrett serve as personal farmers for anyone who wants a garden in their yard. The pair was inspired by the 15 million victory gardens planted during World War II when American citizens grew around 40 percent of their own food. After the war ended, the government changed its tune from demanding conservation to encouraging consumption. All that nitrogen that was no longer needed to make bombs was turned into fertilizer for industrial agricultute.

A completely different spin on urban farming emerged in Seattle, Washington's P-Patch Community Gardens where low-income immigrant communities, many of which are in food deserts, overlook their various cultural differences to join forces in the shared purpose of growing food together. Because, as one of the organizers noted, "Gardens can be cornerstones for stronger communities."

No urban ag tale would be complete without a visit to Will Allen's Growing Power project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where aquaponics and vertical gardening anchor more than 100 acres of food production. Like Growing Power, City Farm in Chicago, Illinois, utilizes every bit of everything it can because, as founder Ken Dunn explained, "There's no such thing as waste, only things out of place." Another aquaponics urban farm in Chicago, The Plant, took over an old meatpacking plant and created 125 jobs in the process. Similarly, Chicago's Growing Home program also sees the economic value in food production, but adds a personal value to the equation with job training for former addicts, convicts, and homeless people. As Executive Director Harry Rhodes observed, "Urban farming isn't just an end in itselt, but part of a path toward a better life."

Susman and Monbouquette could have spent the entire film's length in Detroit, Michigan, as a case study for how urban ag can help rebuild communities. With a significantly reduced population, the Motor City has oodles of vacant lots while some 550,000 residents live in food deserts. D-Town Farm, Eastern Market, and Brother Nature Farm are trying to do something about it. Like D-Town's Malik Yakini said, "We have this tremendous potential for reimagining how the land is used and one of those uses should be urban agriculture." To him, food justice, community development, public health, and economic empowerment are all closely linked: "Food activism is part of a larger movement." A healthy city economy based on local food creates jobs and keeps the money circulating within the community, while also improving the public's physical health. It's a win-win.

In Hanover, New Hampshire; Boston, Massachusetts; New York, New York; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; Austin, Texas; and even back in Omaha, the movie covers window farms, rooftop gardens, vacant lots, composting services, raised beds, childhood nutrition, economic resilience, community development, farmers' markets, mobile gardens, and more. Kofi Kwayana, of Atlanta's Truly Living Well, summed it all up perfectly with a call to arms: "We're not asking people to grow everything. We're just saying grow something. Grow where you are."

Enjoy the trailer, then check the screening schedule to see if Growing Cities is coming to your town. Better yet, host a screening of your own!

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