We were three hours into our drive back from a Thanksgiving week in Boston when we realized there was snow skirting the edge of I-89. I get out of the car in Burlington and feel the treads of my boots slide on a barely perceptible lining of ice on the sidewalk. I exhale and my breath forms a cloud in front of me. Four hours inland and up can make quite a difference in the weather, and in late November, anyone can see it.
The rest of the year, it takes a bit more attention to detail, but the difference in climate remains vast. The part of Vermont where I live and farm ranges from a 4b to a 5a on the USDA plant hardiness scale. This is quite a difference from the 6b enjoyed by Boston growers. This is largely the same zone as in my home locale of Philadelphia, where there are also a few pockets of balmy 7a climate.
These numbers may not seem that different, but in the world of agriculture the difference of a few zones means extending seasons and crops by substantial degrees. And things are changing. Fast. Examine this juxtaposition to see just how fast the kitchen is heating up.
What does it mean? If we cast aside any speculation on what might be causing this shift, it’s largely a positive movement. For now I’ll take the blessing and turn a blind eye to the disguise, because in the immediate it means that we can grow more food in more places, for longer, and that’s good for places like Vermont who are on the fringes of farm-friendly climate. It’s also good for a world that has produced almost 120 million new mouths to feed so far this year.
So we have the climate, but what about the land. Where there are the largest populations of people there is the lowest percentage of farmland. Farmland, however, doesn’t have to live in its old confines. What if we took the hint from old mother nature, and made a shift?
I looked out from a seventh floor balcony in Quincy on Thanksgiving morning. In the distance was a hazy Boston proper and a thin sliver of Atlantic Ocean. This neighborhood is probably in a 7a micro-climate. Two small hawks circled above and I looked down to see their shadows dance over an abandoned lot. The lot was an easy acre. Maybe two. There were splits in the pavement, one large enough to allow a line of twenty or so spindly trees to grow to what seemed to be at least 10 feet.
If these trees could volunteer to grow here, what else could thrive? Plenty of sunlight. Plenty of space. The soil would not be initially ideal for growing food, but soil we can grow.
It’s not just a dream, either. Take the example of Milwaukee’s Growing Power. This urban farm that originated on an abandoned lot in Wisconsin started by building soil from composted materials and laying it over the unused space. The non-profit now has farms in Milwaukee and Chicago and largely serves diverse low-income populations with education, employment and food.
This could happen in any number of large cities, and in every one of them it would be filling a great need. The catch is, as it often is, money. Once these systems are up and running they can sustain themselves, but even acquiring the use of an abandoned lot can be daunting unless the money is there. Growing Power is the product of former professional basketball player, Will Allen.
Take the South Central Los Angeles Urban Farm. This 14 acre urban farm was in operation from 1994 until 2006. The land was full of growing fruits and vegetables when it was bulldozed in 2006. The landowner who bought it from the city in 2004 decided it was no longer for use by these farmers. It remains a vacant lot today.
Food is powerful stuff. Surely there must be some vested interest in converting unused lands into productive, financially viable operations that get people involved and give them skills toward self-sufficiency. For every dime spent campaigning against welfare programs, maybe we could put a nickel towards programs like Growing Power, or towards preserving land for use by the public.
People want to work and support themselves. I imagine very few U.S. citizens actually want to be dependent on government support. We all want the same things: to be secure, happy, well-fed and respected. Life and liberty. And the pursuit of happiness. I think it’s about time we went back and examined our promises, and see if we can’t get a little liberty and justice for all. We’ve already planted the seeds. We just need to help them grow.