A Michigan Farm, Courtesy of Maureen "Mo" Reilly on Flickr.

A Michigan Farm, Courtesy of Maureen “Mo” Reilly on Flickr.

“Two urban planners walk into the Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference.” It sounds like the start of a joke. But there my wife and I were, weaving our way through an intergenerational crowd of farmers to pick up our registration packets. We pocketed our tickets for the locally-sourced lunch and previewed an agenda that included sessions on building resilient homesteads, natural irrigation techniques, vineyards, farmers markets and field-to-table cooking. My mom and her siblings are inheriting the responsibilities associated with my family’s farm and we’d joined them in Traverse City to learn how to make the most of the opportunity.

I realized – somewhere between a presentation on Yeomans keyline farming and a conversation on why black locust is the best lumber for a commercial hop trellis – that I had a lot to learn. I began to really worry, however, when an older woman framed a question about urban farming in Detroit with coded language casting blame for its decline along with frustration that farmers couldn’t just reclaim the city’s vacant land carte blanche. Suddenly, the cultural divide between my city-loving heart and those around me seemed vast. It would take more than a flannel shirt and some good boots to fit into this crowd; and maybe I needed to save my agricultural ambitions for my garden.

Then it hit me: I didn’t know much about being a small farmer and there were others that knew equally little about the dynamics of neighborhood revitalization. While both movements are rooted in efforts to strengthen community ties and develop sustainable economic systems, there is a gap in need of bridging.

The conference’s keynote address was delivered by Dr. John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri and the author of Small Farms are Real Farms. His speech highlighted the growing discontent with large-scale industrial farming and encouraged a return to small farming practices designed to sustain the land and the local communities that depend on it. Dr. Ikerd asked the audience to consider the “social and economic consequences of industrial agriculture in the demise of independent family farms and the social and economic decay of rural communities.”  Industrial farms,” he warned, “are destroying the economic foundation of rural America. It is not ecologically, socially, or economically sustainable.”

Dr. Ikerd’s skepticism of large-scale farming and his belief in the importance of small farmers in the economic and social vitality of rural communities reminded me of economic gardening initiatives designed to revitalize urban neighborhoods by supporting local small businesses. Instead of relying on traditional efforts to attract large-scale outside investment (i.e. a new manufacturing plant or big-box retail), many cities have started to embrace a new framework and a new approach. As described by the Small Business Administration, that framework is “both innovative and intuitively simple, suggesting that sustainable economic development policy must strike a better balance of applying ‘outside-in’ and ‘inside-out’ growth strategies” designed with “the unique attributes and resources of a given community” in mind. And when it comes right down to it, farmers fit the bill perfectly: they’re owners of small businesses trying to make it.

Barn in Rural Oho celebrates the Buckeye State's Bicentennial. Photo by John Cruz.

Barn in Rural Oho celebrates the Buckeye State’s Bicentennial. Photo by John Cruz.

At first glance, an urban manufacturing facility appears to have little in common with the monoculture industrial farms criticized by Dr. Ikerd. However, both tend to concentrate economic opportunity, contribute to environmental degradation, are criticized as marginalizing smaller family farms and businesses, and both often prove to be fickle stewards of a community’s long term well being. Just as the robust participation at this year’s conference illustrates a renewed interest in small farming, economic gardening initiatives demonstrate a better understanding of the role small businesses play in the health of urban neighborhoods.

The reality is the fate of rural and urban communities are connected. Farmers and urban planners share a common interest in creating sustainable and vibrant places. Recognizing our shared goals and intermingled relationship is the first step in developing regional and state policies that are crucial in ensuring the economic, social and environmental sustainability of rural and urban communities alike. Not only are the city and the farm two sides of the same coin, but we are already talking the same language. Just not to each other.

Dr. Ikerd finished his keynote with a quote from Wendell Berry on the importance of place in sustainable agriculture. In order to be sustainable, “the land must be ‘used well,’ meaning the farmers who use the land must ‘know it well, must be motivated to use it well, and must be able to afford to use it well,’” succeeding by working “‘in the company of neighbors they know and love.’” Now consider that a key element of the White House’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative is to develop an “interagency strategy designed to catalyze and empower local action.” One quote describes the best way to develop an agricultural community, the other describes the goals associated with neighborhood revitalization in America’s cities. Both express a belief that sustained community success depends on the ability to capitalize on local knowledge and encourage grassroots action

  • Carrie

    Great article!

    I agree that both movements are very similar and it’s a shame there isn’t more communication between the two groups. Hopefully, that will change and we can see progress for both camps.

  • Vance Corum

    Large corporations – whether urban manufacturing or rural agri-business – make decisions that are best for their shareholders. Family businesses rooted in their urban or rural communities are more likely to make decisions that respect the people and institutions in their environment. We can’t deny corporate reality, but we do have the ability and need to influence them to make decisions that are healthy socially, economically and environmentally. Community presence and pressure help ensure corporate decisions that are good for the community. Not all family businesses do it right either, but it’s far easier to influence family businesses at the local level to give back to the community in many ways.

    The great point to this article is the importance of creating a discussion across the urban-rural divide. It starts with questions and listening. When people feel heard, they’re much more likely to hear the other side.