Watching plants grow isn’t the most interesting pastime for most high school kids. Neither is doing chores, nor going to school. Yet there are now more and more schools including an urban agriculture component to their curriculum, and hopefully increasing the number of youths in the agricultural field, experts say.
Urban agriculture is defined by Purdue University Extension educators simply as growing or producing food in urban spaces. Urban agriculture comes in many forms, but the most popular are urban farms, community gardens, and hydroponics or aquaponics programs.
Urban agriculture programs can help local communities in both an economic way and a social way. They allow for people to have more immediate connection to their food, as well as help stimulate a local economy. Urban agriculture programs such as community gardens can target young people in nontraditional agriculture backgrounds, experts note.
Urban ag in Indiana
In Indiana there are about 20 urban farms and over 100 community or urban gardens, according to the latest statistics available. Many urban agriculture programs help stimulate the local economy, as well as try to improve the community by hiring people who are re-entering the workforce.
Urban agriculture is often used as a contrast for production agriculture. Specialists believe that in reality, these systems are complementary and essential in creating an ag industry that will allow for people of nontraditional backgrounds to experience the challenges and joys of being in agriculture.
Don Villwock, an Edwardsport farmer on special assignment from Purdue University College of Agriculture Dean Jay Akridge, is exploring how to set up a program that would connect nonfarm kids with farmers so they can get exposure to agriculture. Many of Purdue’s ag students today come from nonfarm backgrounds, including big cities. Villwock hopes to have a pilot program up and running this summer.
Urban agriculture and programs like the one Villwock is putting together can help keep the ag industry strong, as they will allow for many young people to have a greater understanding of agricultural systems, challenges and operating practices. This understanding will allow for better conversations around controversial topics in agriculture. Urban agriculture that features youth programs and engagement will provide a multidimensional level of understanding to its participants by teaching them how to think critically as well as work on their problem-solving skills, experts believe.
Why urban ag matters
“Urban agriculture creates opportunities for the students to try things out,” says China Finkton. “The kids are putting together their own worldview, and right now, agriculture is shaping it. Some of them are starting to realize that they can go into agriculture and create something.” This happens when students connect their lessons to real-world problems and solutions, Finkton says.
Finkton is a senior in animal science at Purdue, and is coordinator for the Jr. Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences chapter at Thea Bowman High School in Gary. The purpose of Jr. MANRRS is to encourage high school students to participate in agricultural sciences and pursue a degree in one of those fields.
At Thea Bowman, Finkton has a front-row seat to watch high school students grow and become more comfortable in their knowledge of agriculture. The students have begun to put together research projects that they will present to the MANRRS chapter at Purdue.
Thea Bowman High School has an urban garden that the students are responsible for. The garden includes chickens and goats.
“The students have a maturity to them, which some people do not have at that age,” Finkton says.” It’s the weight of knowing something is depending on you and having to adapt to take care of an animal.” Finkton believes that the students learn personal responsibility when they work in these programs.
“We talk a lot about the year 2050 and how to feed all of those new people, but urban agriculture is really a solution,” Finkton says. “It will help increase the land area. We need more programs like this. Working with kids is one of the best ways to get the ball rolling, as it will bring new ideas and people into the agriculture field.”
Urban ag issues
Funding and urban contaminants are two large issues that stop urban agriculture programs from coming to fruition. The cost that comes with starting up a farm or garden is expensive. Many urban farmers also are tasked with the cost of having to rehabilitate the soil to get rid of contaminants, or place a tarp over the contaminated soil and place piles of new soil on top of it in order to start growing safe produce.
“Right now, some of these programs target rich people,” says Steve Hallett, a professor in Purdue’s Horticulture Department. “They are economically biased, so they are not in the places they need to be. These programs can help fight food deserts that impact low-income populations.” Food deserts are areas that do not have access to fresh and healthy produce.
Hallett is also the faculty adviser for the Student Farm on Purdue’s campus. He points out many of the joys, as well as the issues, that some urban agriculture programs are currently facing when talking to students.
“When the community invests in them, community gardens help the community,” Hallett says. “Urban gardening might not save the world, but there is no reason not to try it.”
Agriculture programs that target young people could increase the health and longevity of a community. Urban agriculture will allow many young people to invest in their community and make it habitual, while also educating themselves and the people around them about agriculture and its systems, Hallett observes.
Urban agriculture programs with young people are a field that is about more than growing your own herbs and tomatoes. It’s about putting in hard work for the present while also investing in the future. These programs help ensure that in the future, agriculture will carry the same core values it always has: health, quality time with family and community enrichment, specialists conclude.
Baker is a senior in ag communication at Purdue University.