Breaking Through Concrete: An Urban Farm Roadtrip

Farmers across the country are taking to rooftops, vacant lots, any space they can find to build an urban farm revival.
Fairview Gardens

Click Here to View Photos From Breaking Through Concrete. Photographs by Michael Hanson.

Breaking Through Concrete Cover

Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farming Revival
By David Hanson and Edwin Marty
University of California Press, 2012, 200 pages, $29.95

We started talking about a book on urban farms at the Garage Cafe in Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood. It is one of those eccentric dives that seem to populate the South more than any other region. The back courtyard is shaded in old trees that muscle their way out of the uneven patio and stretch their twisted branches over the chunky concrete tables and wobbly benches. Rooms filled with teetering stacks of wrought-iron antiques and statuaries only sometimes for sale are closed off by sliding glass doors that look into the courtyard.

It’s the kind of place where ideas hatch. We’ve known each other for years because we both worked for the same magazine publishing group in town. Edwin eventually went full-time into Jones Valley Urban Farm and urban agriculture consulting, and I began to follow smart-growth developments with the magazine I worked for at the time. We both saw the trends happening: new farmer visionaries planting their ideas in neighborhoods and towns around the country, and an emerging market of consumers seeking a connection to their food. And the scenes and the stories and the people were inspiring.

But we didn’t see any publications that celebrated the new American urban farm movement. The buzz around urban farms is flourishing, as expected considering the increase in farmers markets, the trend of farm-to-plate restaurants, and the food focused media in many cities. But many farms and food garden projects around the country still exist in their own little bubbles, and the large percentage of Americans who have recently come to appreciate the idea of “organic” seem unaware of not only the presence of urban farms in most American cities, but also the discussion within the farm movement of what an urban farm is. And the urban farm is many things.

The journey took us into a rich vein of American entrepreneurialism. The old spirit of opportunity and optimism was bursting at the seams in the farms we encountered.

So, back in the Garage, we decided we should collect the stories and images from a representative selection of American urban farms as they exist in 2010. We gleaned the country for the best examples of the diverse ways urban farms operate and benefit their communities. We put it all down in a big book proposal and the University of California Press bit.

Uh oh. Now we actually had to make this happen. This was January 2010. On May 19, 2010, my brother, photographer Michael Hanson, videographer and friend Charlie Hoxie, and I left Seattle in a short Blue Bird school bus named Lewis Lewis. The remodeled interior slept three and had a kitchen and two work desks. The engine ran on diesel and recycled vegetable oil. We had two months and over a dozen cities to visit between Seattle, New Orleans, Brooklyn, and Chicago.

The journey took us into a rich vein of American entrepreneurialism. The old spirit of opportunity and optimism was bursting at the seams in the farms we encountered. Each stop along our counterclockwise cross-country ramble inspired us with new ideas and different faces speaking eloquently and passionately about helping their communities.

There might not be a better way to see America right now than via a short bus smoking fry grease. We connected with urban farmers, of course. But we also spent (too much) time with diesel mechanics, with cops in small-town Arkansas, and with biodiesel greasers selling or giving away their salvaged “fuel.” In Vona, Colo., while eating dinner outside of Lewis Lewis and watching the setting sun light up a grain silo, we met the bored youth of large-scale agriculture. More than once, we were roused from sleep in the middle of the night and kicked out of mall parking lots. A school bus spray-painted white and traveling at 55 miles per hour sparks the curiosity of many of the people it passes, and that’s mostly a good thing.

We see the urban farms sprouting around America as the think tanks for the food revolution that must and, thankfully, is happening in our country.

Unfortunately, Lewis Lewis refused to budge from Birmingham’s Jones Valley Urban Farm, which was appropriate. You see, the bus was named after Edwin’s first employee, Lewis Nelson Lewis, a homeless man in Birmingham who began helping Edwin at the Southside garden. He worked hard, if sporadically, and Edwin eventually hired him. Lewis became a staple of any farm activity, and it’s not a stretch to say that Edwin and the farm were his lifeblood. Lewis Lewis passed away on. It’s no wonder Lewis Lewis the Bus did not want to leave his farm. We continued on our route up the East Coast in a white minivan, though we undoubtedly lost a spirit of adventure.

Breaking Through Concrete is a result of that road trip and a decade of urban farming experience. We share the stories of twelve farms, and we give the inside scoop on the dos and don’ts of urban farming. Like those earlier conversations in the Garage Cafe, we see the urban farms sprouting around America as the think tanks for the food revolution that must and, thankfully, is happening in our country. Hopefully, what we’ve found developing in America’s cities on a small scale can spread into the prime farmland and the larger economy and germinate a sustainable solution to our current food and nutrition problems. Not many things say hope like the green leaves of a food plant breaking through concrete.


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