Agriculture was once the largest employment sector in the country. That time has long passed, of course, pushed aside by advances in industrial technology and the growth of services linked to ever-expanding urban metropolitan areas. Ag jobs are still prevalent in rural communities, though direct on-farm employment now accounts for about 1.3 percent of the U.S. economy.
Ironically, momentum is building to leverage the ag sector for job creation in the very places that eclipsed the farm lifestyle generations ago: urban cores. While so-called “urban agriculture” has been around a while, its benefits were mostly seen as augmenting local food supplies, reusing dormant, often unsightly vacant land, and providing vulnerable populations with alternatives to dangerous street life. These benefits all still apply; however, the growing prominence of colorfully termed “green collar jobs” – including agriculture – has brought an economic development justification into the mix. This is especially true for locally based wealth-building strategies not tied to traditional economic development pursuits such as corporate attraction or expansion of established firms.
On the vanguard of community wealth building (CWB) strategies tied to green collar jobs is Democracy Collaborative, a non-profit advocating a “new economic system” of shared corporate ownership and management. Their best known acolyte is Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland. Among its three worker-owned businesses, Green City Growers is the largest food-production greenhouse in a core urban area in the U.S.
In fact, urban agriculture as economic development is becoming so prevalent that it would be impossible to list every prominent effort being implemented across the country. Instead, I’ll highlight a few green shoots (pun intended) of the movement.
- Advocacy organization Urban Farming has developed a Coexistence Model that raises awareness about key positive impacts of urban ag. Among these is Job Creation. Urban Farming hosts community workshops to raise awareness about green collar jobs and connects residents to job training opportunities, particularly in green industries. The group has installed several Urban Farming Edible Walls in U.S. cities to provide training and job opportunities through living wall systems.
- Green Collar Foods is a platform for the urban environment that empowers a select group of local residents with both the agricultural and technological tools to produce specialty crops that yield a financial return, combat “food deserts,” and supplement nutritional gaps. Part of a recently announced initiative in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood, Green Collar Foods will create an indoor vertical farming campus in the community.
- Detroit is the city that has most enthusiastically embraced urban agriculture as an economic development model. In fact, a full-fledged urban “agrihood” is launching in the city’s North End, supported by the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, the most aggressive state-run urban agriculture movement in the country. To plant seeds of food entrepreneurship (pun #2) in the city’s youth, the Detroit Food Academyworks with local educators, chefs, and business owners to inspire young Detroiters (ages 13-24) through self-directed entrepreneurial experiences rooted in food.
- The DC Green Corps Training Program in the nation’s capital provides workforce development for 50 different career tracks in urban agriculture and related fields.
- REV Birmingham, a local revitalization agency in Birmingham, Alabama, launched the Urban Food Projectto build a robust local food economy while creating healthy food access. The program assists corner store owners in the purchasing, marketing, and selling of fresh produce. The Project also helps farmers plan their crops and create access to new markets by distributing their goods.
- Findlay Kitchen is an 8,000 square foot, shared-use kitchen space located in the historic Findlay Market district in Cincinnati. The Kitchen is a nonprofit organization that supports new and existing food entrepreneurs by providing affordable access to commercial-grade kitchen equipment and ample storage space. As a food business incubator, the facility partners with external programs and organizations to provide the necessary training, mentorship, and resources to aid business growth.
- Coordinated coalitions directing local food and urban agriculture systems are also becoming more prevalent. The Atlanta Local Food Initiative is a network focused on building a local food system that enhances human health, promotes environmental renewal, fosters local economies, and links rural and urban communities. The Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Council works to promote a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system within its ten-county region. The Sonoma County Food System Alliance is a county-based coalition striving to improve the local food system through community engagement and collective action.
There are literally dozens if not hundreds more examples of urban agriculture and green collar job efforts being implemented across the country, including many focused on transitioning soldiers into green collar employment after leaving the armed forces. If your community isn’t accruing the multiple benefits of an urban agriculture strategy – job creation, locally produced fresh food, urban revitalization, health and wellness, crime reduction, beautification, etc. – you’re missing out on a really fast-growing trend (final pun).