Urban agriculture economic models are an evolving area of thought and practice where much innovation is occurring globally.
I had the good fortune in February 2019 to attend an international biodynamic agriculture conference at the Goetheanum in Switzerland. The conference subject was the economic aspects of agriculture. It focused on agricultural examples from around the world that work with the inspirations of Rudolf Steiner, founder of biodynamics.
What I found most interesting with the examples, subsequent conversations and workshops ( 3 of which I facilitated on urban agriculture economic models) was the striving towards balancing the agriculture focus on: community, ecology and economy.
This 3 fold focus aligns very closely with another area of Steiner’s work on a more ideal structure of society as a whole. This structure includes becoming aware of the interplay between the sphere’s outlined below and how problems occur when one sphere dominates another:
- Cultural sphere – Covers personal development, the arts, spiritual activities, education and the striving for human freedom and creativity in all pursuits
- Rights sphere – Covers the rules that communities and societies develop to establish and protect shared rights, a governments role should fundamentally be about rights
- Economic sphere – Covers how human beings interact for goods and services that provide the means for them to live on earth. The principle of division of labour is fundamental to the economic sphere
In agriculture, for example, the key is to not let the economic sphere override everything, as it has done with corporate chemical farming. Such farming ignores ecology (the rights sphere) and poisons community (cultural sphere). Within urban agriculture economic models, successful models strive to:
- Engage community – Very close connection with local communities, covering education, celebration, inspiration, the arts and spiritual/personal development – the cultural sphere
- Ecological balance – Orientation to organic, biological and biodynamic methods with farm operation strongly focused on ecological balance to cover soil, water, plants and biodiversity, with recognition that the farmer has a responsibility to recognise the rights to life of all livings things connected to the farm, in a sense, the farmer is the custodian of the land – this is the rights sphere
- Economic aspects – There becomes more of an associative method where economic players: producers, distributors, retailers and service providers operate collaboratively.
As we step down another level into the economic sphere for urban agriculture, some core economic realities shape how it works with ecology and community. These are:
- Land access – Buying land specifically for urban agriculture is not viable due to high land prices, so this normally means that public and private land is rented with varying lease terms (longer the better). Land rent would usually be low because associated benefits are recognised such as community and ecological benefits as well as spin off economic ones, for example, a roof top farm would reduce energy costs for the property owner and make the building more valuable
- Ecological balance – With organic, biological and biodynamic farming methods, the soil quality will have progressive increase in fertility, thus improving the medium term sustainability of production with benefits such as, greater resilience to climate change, reduced pests and diseases and higher quality crops. Organics recycling also plays an important part in transforming local organic resources into healthy soil that feeds people, thus some urban farmers get paid to pick up green waste from their restaurant customers, process that green waste and then sell produce back to the restaurants
- Economic aspects – Well run urban farms generally have low start up capital costs due to not buying land and low use of large machinery. Yields per m2 are often high and input costs much lower than chemical farms. Produce is normally sold at high margins (but lower prices than organic shops), often directly to end users and most importantly, the urban farms often have multifaceted business models where they include: education, community outreach and aligned services to local communities (because they are neighbours). This all adds up to higher gross income per m2 and much higher profit due to lower costs. Labour tends to be higher due to less use of machinery, but even this can be supplemented by collaborative relationships with local organisations and communities.
- Community engagement – The local community must be intimately involved with the urban farm, especially if the farm is on public land. This engagement can be through education, cultural and seasonal events, community supported agriculture subscriber system, volunteering (knowledge in exchange for some work on the farm) and community outreach to service disadvantaged people (rights sphere).
Government support is vital in its ideal role around rights. In Brisbane, Moreton Bay Regional Council(MBRC) is positioning itself as a leader of innovation in this space with its support of the existing Millen Farm and planned urban agriculture initiatives evolving from Samford Parklands. In Switzerland, the Basel Urban Agriculture Network is a powerhouse of innovation with strong government, institutional and community support. In Melbourne, Ceres Environment Park is inspiring. A quarry wasteland, close to the city, and now an urban agriculture oasis, with 500,000 visitors yearly, employing 120 people.
Urban agriculture economic models have been close to my heart over the last 13 years with work on:
- Guiding large scale property developers into a commercial scale of urban agriculture in their developments. This has been slow and, to be honest, there is some way to go before their actions match their sustainability talk, but we are getting there slowly.
- Founding chairperson for Millen Farm at Samford Parklands, a successful multifaceted community owned enterprise with a commercial imperative.
- Working on a QLD Government funded project to development a framework for wider adoption of urban agriculture in Queensland
- Planning work for MBRC on a significant expansion of urban agriculture activities at Samford Parklands incorporating greater diversity of primary production and development of aligned business activities with a strong recognition that: community, ecology and economy are the pillars.
- My own urban farm plot where I experiment with intensification of organic and biodynamic growing, integrate the community through our workshops and our mentoring services, supply food to my own family and sell surplus to the local community
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Authored by Peter Kearney – Bite the Land