Growing the Urban Harvest

Urban agriculture is without a doubt an expanding phenomenon, or you might even say (pardon the pun) — a growing field. While the abundance of available land in post-industrial cities is great so to are the barriers to an urban harvest. Issues such as lead contamination and mitigation, property rights, and garden ownership can limit the harvests of projects with grand ambitions.

Luckily, the quantity of food produced is one of many benefits of community gardening, seen in tandem with community building and neighborhood beautification. It is perhaps, however, the defining aspect of urban agriculture. As urban projects scale up from garden to farm, production becomes increasingly important. A recent BBC article asks the question, Can City Farms Feed a Hungry World?. Citing vertical farming and hydroponic innovations, the article concludes optimistically that, “Urban agriculture has the potential to become so pervasive within our cities that by the year 2050 they may be able to provide its citizens with up to 50% of the food they consume.”

No one knows what the future will hold, but another recent, well-written article in Next City also caught my eye. Beyond Adorable, Creating An Urban Ag System Smart Enough to Matter does a great job of bridging potential and reality in it’s assessment of Cleveland’s urban agriculture system. The learning curve is steep but little by little we are learning to grow food in our human-made ecosystems.

A view of the Ohio City Farm. Credit: MMW Horticulture Group.

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Big-Business Organic: At Grocery Stores Everywhere

Phillip Howard, a professor and food systems researcher at Michigan State University, is creating information graphics that illustrate some of the complexities of our food system. For example, who really owns all those organic brands we’re picking up at the grocery store:

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For a closer look: https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/organicindustryzoom.html

Whether or not the explosive growth of mainstream organics is a good thing is a matter that could, and should, be the subject of much debate. Looking at this graphic raises so many questions, not the least of which is: Why is Pepsi this country’s #1 food producer?To me, this exemplifies the beauty of infographics — with all the information laid out so clearly in front of us, we can put the speculations and assumptions aside, and let the real conversation begin.

To see more of Professor Howard’s work, check out his website at: https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/index.html

Strawberry Fields Forever

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Looking out over the 8×10′ plot of strawberry plants in my backyard, I can only imagine John Lennon was inspired by this very scene. Alright, alright — that’s how it feels, at least. For every square inch of space, there seem to be three ripe strawberries, begging to be plucked from the stem; the rows having long since blurred into one giant tangle of plants. It is my first day in Bloomington, IN, my new home for the next few years, and these berries have got to be a good omen. My house has no furniture, I have no job, and I know not a soul, but there is a bounty of strawberries commanding my attention.

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(Lest you know me, and love me, and are worried that my only friends are strawberries — rest assured, I now know at least 12 souls in Bloomington.)

Over several days, I harvest what I can, maybe 4 or 5 quarts, stashing them in the fridge for grazing, and browse recipes to transform their already perfect flavor. Fruit leather, I think. But, do you know how expensive parchment paper seems when you’re un-gainfully unemployed? $4 for something from the grocery store I can’t eat or imbibe? Maybe next year. Strawberry pie, I think, but the thought of trying to craft the perfect homemade crust right now makes it just unappealing enough. Finally, I settle on strawberry cobbler — berries tossed in sweetened cream with drops of biscuit dough baked on top. And? It is so good, like all the pieces of a strawberry shortcake baked into one delicious dish. Somehow totally worth the kitchen catastrophes it precipitated…

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It’s the day after making this fantastic cobbler and I am writing from the midst of its aftermath. There’s the blister burn on my right arm, the fan pointed conspicuously toward the fire alarm, and the bubbles of black sugar carbon dotting the bottom of the stove. Let’s just say I was not prepared to make a cobbler, I didn’t know. I just wandered in, tempted by the promise of deliciousness So, in case you are want to do the same, STOP, right now.

Before you chop a single berry, cut a single cube of butter, before you turn the dial on the oven, get yourself some tinfoil, or a baking sheet, or best yet, a baking sheet lined with tinfoil and place it on a rack below the place where you plan to nestle your cobbler for baking. Because, there is a very good chance that the carefully crafted filling in this dish will boil over during baking, like sugary lava in a home chemistry experiment. Turns out this is a common cobbler phenomenon. But, somehow, it’s totally worth it.

Strawberry Cobbler
Recipe from: Drick’s Rambling Cafe

For the crust
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons cold butter
3/4 cup milk (I used a little less, add slowly until you have the right consistency)

For the filling
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cream (I used half-n-half, which may have made a thinner filling but was still great)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 quarts fresh strawberries, stemmed and cut in half

For the topping
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter

Make the crust by combining the dry ingredients in a 2-quart mixing bowl. Using a pastry blender (or your fingers if short on kitchen utensils!), cut the cold butter into the mixture until it has the consistency of coarse meal. Add milk and gently knead just until a ball forms. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a 2-quart mixing bowl, combine sugar, flour, and salt for filling. Slowly whisk in cream, lemon juice and stir in the strawberries.

Place fruit in 9 x 13 inch glass baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes, or until fruit is bubbly. Stir mixture in the dish. (Mixture will look very soupy. Dont panic, don’t lose faith. It’ll all come together).

Pinch dough into quarter inch disks about the size of half dollars and place on top of berry mixture covering almost the entire surface. Dot with butter. Sprinkle with brown sugar.

Return to oven and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes.