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Urban farms focus on cultivating crops and community

City Farm SLO is among the urban farms keeping community in mind, with volunteer opportunities, workshops, and events. Photo courtesy Kayla Rutland

Like most urban farms, City Farm SLO in San Luis Obispo, California, doesn’t fit the image of the quintessential American farm. You won’t find crops as far as the eye can see, a red barn rising from a wheat field, or giant motorized tractors making the rounds.

Instead, the 19-acre farm, which turns out bountiful crops—think multihued peppers, tomatoes, and green beans in summer; and broccoli, kale, and brussels sprouts come winter—is bounded by car dealerships, tract homes, and a freeway.

But what really sets the farm apart from traditional commercial operations are its educational programs and its community outreach. City Farm SLO is a nonprofit that offers volunteer opportunities for all ages, community workshops and events (the recent “Sheep and Shavasana” yoga series was a hit), and speaker series, all of which draw both longtime supporters and new visitors.

City Farm SLO isn’t alone. While the exact number of urban farms in the U.S. is hard to come by, many experts agree that urban agriculture is on the rise. And like City Farm SLO, many urban farms not only give residents access to locally grown food, but also work to transform communities and educate people about farming.

In Austin, Texas, Urban Roots operates 2 farms and has a youth leadership program that provides paid internships to high school graduates, and most of its farms’ produce goes to underserved communities. 

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a network of community farms and gardens called Baton Roots provides local residents with fresh food while also teaching sustainable agriculture and serving as a social hub.

Urban farmers credit the trend to a growing interest in eating locally grown food for health and environmental reasons, as well as Americans’ greater awareness of supply chain issues.

Woman shouldering a freshly harvested crop of beets.

Brooke Salvaggio, co-owner of Urbavore Urban Farm. Photo courtesy Brooke Salvaggio

“I think the pandemic put into sharp focus some of the realities of a displaced globalized food system,” says Brooke Salvaggio, who with her husband, Daniel Heryer, owns and runs Urbavore Urban Farm in Kansas City, Missouri. “The egg shortages in the grocery store; not being able to get things you’re used to getting. The local farms didn’t have any shortages. And I think it helped people realize how important it is to have local food security.”

Ian Hunter-Crawford, Urban Roots’ programs director, agrees. “Seeing how vulnerable so many of our systems are, but especially the food system, generated a lot of interest in self-sufficiency and community sufficiency, and one piece of that is local agriculture. Here in Austin, only .06 percent of the food we consume is grown locally. Folks are really noticing that, and how problematic that is.”

A trio of sheep grazing.

Grazing sheep at City Farm SLO. Photo courtesy Kayla Rutland

Since launching in 2013, City Farm SLO has been expanding its mission. The farm’s regenerative approach includes the improvement of soil and crop quality thanks to crop rotation, cover cropping, and rotationally grazing sheep to naturally fertilize the soil.

To reduce our food chain’s carbon footprint, the farm sells direct to consumers and restaurants, and supplies food banks. “We’re providing great produce—more than 100,000 pounds annually—that stays local,” says Executive Director Kayla Rutland.

The farm also provides affordable land leases—as well as reliable water and supportive services—to independent tenant farmers, who occupy 15 of the farm’s 19 acres. With the help of a USDA grant, City Farm SLO is building a collaborative among its farmers to offer training and technical assistance. It launched a weekly farm stand last summer and plans to begin selling produce at a local grocery store.

A pile of freshly harvested red peppers

Red peppers at City Farm SLO. Photo courtesy Kayla Rutland

But the farm’s marquee offering is its youth-education arm. Its school-based programs—currently serving more than 800 students annually—include hands-on farm field trips and lessons on a range of topics, including pollination, soils, and plant life.

The farm also hosts a local high school’s twice-weekly farm class, which focuses on technical, hands-on training and career-readiness. The farm’s Therapeutic Horticulture Program serves students with disabilities.

In fact, City Farm SLO recently completed upgrades to make the farm fully accessible, including raised planter beds that wheelchairs can roll under, ADA pathways, auditory cues such as wind chimes to help visually impaired visitors navigate the property, and a sensory garden geared toward students with autism.

“I haven’t seen anything like it,” Rutland says. “We did a ton of research looking for models to make our farm more accessible and we just couldn’t find any because typically those things don’t go together. But providing access and opportunity to our kids is what we’re trying to do. And that feels unique, for sure.”

Lizbeth Scordo is a Los Angeles–based writer who specializes in food, restaurants, and travel.

Visit an urban farm

Here are the farms mentioned in this story, as well as 2 others that also offer tours, workshops, or volunteer opportunities.

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