By Billy Mitchell, NFU FSMA Training Coordinator
The term “urban farming” evokes images of gleaming greenhouses scattered across New York rooftops, shipping containers full of greens in Charleston, South Carolina, or raised beds in the shadow of the Oakland A’s stadium.
But in small rural towns, some farmers are adopting practices that are hallmarks of urban agriculture. Fredando Jackson, executive director of Flint River Fresh, looks out over the micro-farm he manages in Albany, Georgia, (population 55,000) and sees a landscape similar to those of big urban farms. On one side, just a half a block away, a train peppered with graffiti rumbles by. On the other, and just a satsuma’s throw away, is a neighbor’s home. And then another – and another. He is also just blocks from a farmer-owned brewery, a bustling riverfront, and a rotating Ray Charles statue. But unlike big urban areas, his small town is surrounded by pecan orchards rather than suburbs. As a result, Jackson faces a mix of challenges that are typical in metropolitan centers and in small town America.
Rural farmers know the stress of pests, be it a family of deer or a pack of wild hogs. Jackson knows the same stress but encounters different pests – his farm has signs up to keep curious citizens and their cute pups out of his crops. Access to clean water, an issue across rural America, takes a unique turn for his small town: after a hurricane rips through, they might have a boil advisory alert for their normally safe wash water. Those issues, a lot of them food safety risks, do not keep Jackson down – they’re just another part of caring for the land. “We feel food safety is an extension of our respect for the land and doing things to naturally improve it,” Jackson said.
Another issue rural and urban areas share – and one that big and small produce farms work to address every day – is inadequate access to fresh food. Jackson sums it up on his website: “[Decreased access to fresh food] happens for a variety of reasons, including low-income, lack of access to public transit, and long distances to groceries and markets,” a sentence that could describe parts of Denver, Colorado, and Denver, Kentucky alike.
To solve this, farmers do what they can to grow healthy and high quality food for their neighbors. At Flint River Fresh, they have made the most of their space by using a walk behind tractor – perfect for small spaces that want to grow intensively. They also installed raised beds and a citrus orchard. All this, along with working cooperatively with other farmers, allows them to provide produce through pop-up farm stands, grow-your-own garden programs, and the Flint River Fresh Produce Box Program. Like all farm fresh produce, it is grown, handled and packed with care. For Jackson, “implementing a food safety culture on our farm that produces a premium product grown and cared for from seed to table is a way to “show our appreciation for our customers, partners, and family.”
Jackson farms with support from a lot of partners, including the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District – known for their smart irrigation work with large-scale farms – and Donn Cooper of Cooper Agriculture. Cooper tends to stay quiet, but once he gets talking his words flow like a watermelon tumbling off a truck. When asked to share his thoughts on small city farming, he offered this: “In the grand confusion of phenomena generated by this life, perhaps no greater mystery exists than the unbridgeable distance between the small urban farm and food safety; yet, the span is not so darksome or dangerous as it first appears, for within that vortex there arises the sweet tangible light of commonsense.”
Commonsense: the link that connects farms in towns of 550, 55,000, or 550,000 people. Farmers grow food, they grow it well, and they deliver it to their customers in a way that guarantees it is as safe, delicious, and accessible as possible.
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