About 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas, and more and more of us are growing food in cities as well.
But where’s an urban farmer to turn for a soil test or when pests infiltrate the fruit orchard?
Increasingly, they can turn to institutions that have been serving farmers in rural areas for more than 150 years: land-grant colleges and universities. From Cornell University to the University of Florida to Texas A&M, land grants dispense practical advice to farmers and hobby gardeners across the country.
The agricultural arms of these universities have historically focused on regions far from cities where the majority of our food is still grown. But their research on crop varieties, soil quality and pest resistance is just as relevant — and now in high demand — inside the city.
Just ask Mchezaji “Che” Axum, who runs a research farmfor the University of the District of Columbia, the only land-grant university in the country with an exclusively urban focus.
One of the central questions of urban agriculture is how to grow more food in less space. And so instead of vast fields testing dozens of varieties of wheat, Axum’s research farm has raised beds, narrow hoop houses and even a shipping container. He gives growers advice on where to buy decent soil or how to compost their own, in case the land they plan to grow on has a seedy industrial past.
He says urban farmers aren’t looking to grow one crop for a commodity market, but enough crops to replace a trip to the grocery store or to fill a small farm box for customers. They need to know a little about a lot of varieties in order to make the most of small growing spaces. And, often, it’s been a generation or two since anyone in their family has lived on a farm.