Urban farming is a growing industry—one that can both frighten and fascinate the American populace. Its techniques and style seem almost reminiscent of a dystopian novel: produce can be grown via methods that cut out the need for soil and eliminate the need for seasons. However, while such techniques may seem unpalatable to those of us who prefer more seasonal and natural methods, they may be needful for the future of agriculture in urban areas. As Flavie Halais wrote Friday for CityLab, “With nine billion people worldwide to feed by 2050, and close to 70 percent of them residing in cities, bringing food production into dense urban areas had long been seen as a logical step toward sustainable living…” Halais introduces one farm that is striving to do that, with considerable success:

The urban farming industry, still in its infancy, is struggling to address the engineering challenges that make growing food in cities a costly business. Sales and distribution have also proven harder than almost anybody imagined. “What’s been lacking,” says Mohamed Hage of Montreal, “are players who will do it at a true commercial scale, with the right business model.”
Hage is trying to fill exactly that gap with his company, Lufa Farms. … The 31,000 square-foot facility (2,900 square meters) uses hydroponics, a technique that uses water to deliver nutrients and therefore requires no soil. Lufa’s methods exclude pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, and use biological pest control to get rid of harmful bugs. … In a cold-weather region with a growing season of four to six months, Lufa works year-round, growing enough tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis, and lettuce to help feed 10,000 people in the Montreal area.

One question worth considering is whether this sort of urban farming will be beneficial to a wide populace, or whether it will be only useful to the elites. As Halais notes, “Eating food that’s grown locally and sustainably is a fantastic and increasingly popular idea, but it’s also expensive.” A lot of this goes back to the cost of marketing and distribution, which is much more difficult for small local farms than it is for factory farms who ship their products to supermarkets.

One San Francisco-based company, Good Eggs, is trying to circumvent the supermarket by offering free home delivery to customers throughout the week, according to Halais. The company also plans to begin accepting food stamps, so that low-income families can better afford their foods. (Many farmers’ markets are also beginning to accept food stamps, and are working to create cookbooks and resources for poor families who have never shopped at an outdoor market before). Hopefully, with time, these farms will innovate in ways that open up their products to a broader, more diverse audience.

There could also be some concern that commercial farms like Lufa could eventually head down the path other large-scale farms have followed: factory farming in a way that is detrimental to land, animal, and consumer. At this point, Lufa’s methods seem sustainable and careful, and the company has done well to partner with other local food marketers to provide customers with various local products, “from fresh bread to dairy, to herbs, honey, and dry beans.” This creates the sort of community that fosters mutual accountability and rapport, and will hopefully help prevent agricultural abuse in the future.

It remains to be seen whether these new farming methods will be successful, and what sort of following they will build. Because urban homesteading presents a more natural and localized model, it seems a more preferable method to bring agriculture to the cities. However, it will never be able to produce the bulk of food necessary to feed a burgeoning population. We do need to find ways to bring commercial agriculture to the city, both for the good of urban dwellers, and for the good of the land and landscape. Ventures like Lufa and Good Eggs will need a local face, community accountability, and a proper sense of scale in order to really foster a healthy urban farming environment. This may be one of the biggest challenges in bringing agriculture to the city, and it will be interesting to see how these companies build and progress in the future.