Context of Urban Agriculture Extension

In the past decade. Extension personnel and other researchers have conducted assessments of urban farmers’ needs and Extension’s involvement with urban agriculture to help identify key themes for Extension’s engagement with urban food systems.[1] On the one hand, these assessments have concluded that Extension has the capacity to address many urban agriculture practitioners’ informational and technical needs, which are often similar to those of other small, diversified farms for production, business planning, and marketing (Oberholtzer, Dimitri and Pressman 2014; Reynolds 2011). On the other hand, they highlight issues that are unique to urban agriculture because of either the project’s setting or purpose, and may necessitate new kinds of research and educational programs. Because of the urban context in which they operate, for instance, urban farmers may need help addressing issues such as city zoning, access to water and water management, and urban soil quality (Brown and Carter 2003: Oberholtzer et al. 2014; Reynolds 2011: Surls et al. 2015). Because of their missions and organizational structure, funding and developing sustainable funding streams are also a challenge (e.g., Hendrickson and Porth 2012).

Urban farms and gardens are not just part of a city’s natural environment through the use and management of land, water, and other resources; they are also part of its social fabric. Many urban agriculture operations and organizations have clear social goals that extend beyond food production to include increasing access to healthy food and culturally relevant foods, food systems education, providing employment opportunities, building community power, and community revitalization (Daftary-Steel et al. 2015; Ostrom and Donovan 2018; Smith and Ostrom 2019; Ventura and Bailkey 2017; Vitiello and Wolf-Powers 2014). In addition, urban farms differ from their rural counterparts because they are surrounded by non-farming land uses and neighbors and they often intentionally offer multiple services to their neighborhoods in addition to food production (Opitz et al. 2016; Poulsen, Spiker, and Winch 2014). Consequently, as both researchers and practitioners have observed, “urban farming projects are more likely to survive and thrive if they have local support" (Poulsen, Spiker, and Winch 2014, 1). Given its community-oriented goals as well as the importance of community buy-in for the viability of urban agriculture, it is critical for Extension’s urban agriculture research and education to address the social, cultural, and political aspects of urban agriculture (Reynolds 2011: Surls et al. 2015).

Many urban communities “seek to create sustainable and just food systems that provide healthy food" (Ventura and Bailkey 2017. 6). In some cities, like Detroit, social justice is the central focus of community food system work (Ventura and Bailkey 2017). Often urban agriculture groups engaged in these efforts aim specifically to address social inequities manifested in the food system and the urban landscape (Reynolds 2011; Surls et al. 2015). Some of the disparities within the urban food system include food insecurity, lack of access to healthy foods, and low wages for food system workers, all of which disproportionately affect people of color (Giancatarino and Noor 2014). Urban agriculture is one potential strategy for improving these conditions, by improving access to healthy foods, saving families money on food, supplementing incomes, providing job training, and building community connections and engagement (Hagey et al. 2012; Horst et al. 2017; Vitiello and Wolf-Powers 2014). Yet urban agriculture, and other alternative food initiatives, have also been implicated in the perpetuation of social inequities “by benefiting already privileged communities, contributing to the ongoing marginalization and even displacement of disadvantaged groups” (Horst et al. 2017, 278) and because of “disparities in representation, leadership and funding” within urban agriculture organizations themselves (Horst et al. 2017. 283; Reynolds and Cohen 2016). Given the structural inequities in the food system, the LGU system itself (Lee Jr. and Keys 2013), and the explicit food justice and food sovereignty orientation of some urban agriculture organizations, it is important for Extension personnel to have an understanding of racism, implicit bias, and the history of land and resource ownership, as well as the ability to assess and/or teach about existing disparities and their causes.[2]

Finally, community engagement is at the heart of Extension’s work because it is essential for ensuring that the resources Extension professionals bring to the table are relevant to and useful for their collaborators and the communities they serve. Urban food and agriculture present an opportunity for Extension to engage communities through reciprocal partnerships that respect the strengths of the university, local organizations, and community members and allow for joint definition of “problems, solutions, and success” (Kellogg Commission 1999, 29; Peters 2002). As University of Wisconsin faculty and Extension personnel observed through a multi-year, multi-city project on community food system initiatives to address urban food insecurity, their community partners “did not want to be studied” (Ventura and Bailkey 2017, 3). Instead, they expected an equal role in project development, based on discussions with community leaders about which issues were important and in what ways the research partners could contribute (Ventura and Bailkey 2017). This type of Extension-community partnership benefits from an asset-based approach to assessing communities, rather than an approach to understanding community issues and potential solutions that is deficit-centered. It also values local knowledge, avoiding Extension “educators’ exclusive claim to knowledge” (Colasanti et al. 2009, 6). These types of collaborative or participatory action research and education approaches, in which researchers and stakeholders collaborate throughout the research process to generate information that can be the basis for taking action, is a useful tool for urban agroecological work (Campbell, Carlisle-Cummins, and Feenstra 2013; Mendez et al. 2013; Surls et al. 2015). Another role that has been suggested for Extension in local food systems work is that of a network weaver or coordinator, facilitating information exchange within agricultural networks and creating networks of actors across the food system as a basis for collective action (Clark et al. 2016; Drake and Lawson 2015; Dunning et al. 2012, 104; Oberholtzer et al. 2014, Reynolds 2011). As outlined by Raison (2010), Extension personnel working on urban agriculture could ideally act both as educators, providing access to research-based information, and as facilitators, who engage in collaborative approaches to solving community-identified problems by acting as resource coordinators and network builders. Described as educational organizing (Peters 2002), a local-leader model (Smith 1949/2013), or networked learning (Lubell et al. 2014), such approaches, while not always recognized or celebrated, have long been a part of the fabric of community-based Extension work (Ostrom 2019).

Urban Agriculture Extension in Practice

To better understand what urban agriculture extension looks like in practice, the authors, along with other members of the Community, Local & Regional Food Systems Community of Practice (CLRFS), surveyed 147 Extension professionals about their involvement in urban agriculture. Survey respondents represented the full spectrum of roles in the Extension system, including administrators and special- ists/faculty, but most were Extension educators and agents (50% of respondents). Survey respondents came from 33 states, with the greatest portion of respondents in the Midwest and Southeast. The survey, conducted in 2015. is representative of the CLRFS membership, which received the survey, rather than the Cooperative Extension System as a whole. (A more detailed explanation of the survey methods can be found in Diekmann et al. 2016.) The survey data provides an overview of Extension’s urban agriculture activities and clientele, and responses to open-ended questions suggest types of Extension urban agriculture programs to explore in greater depth. In addition, attendance at the National Urban Extension Conference in 2019 provided a snapshot of the current state of urban agriculture extension programming. We have expanded on five examples of Extension urban agriculture practice through conversations with Extension staff. It is important to note that the urban agriculture extension examples described in this chapter are not exhaustive. Instead, it is our intent to illustrate some current programs and practices, recognizing that there is much innovative urban agriculture research and extension work not captured here.

  • [1] Needs assessments are a standard part of program planning within Extension. Extension personnel use the results ofneeds assessments to set priorities and guide their extension and research efforts.
  • [2] Iowa State University’s Core Competencies and Curriculum Project—conducted under a cooperative agreement with theUSDA Agricultural Marketing Service-has identified equity as one of the core competencies for extension professionalsworking on local food systems. Although still under development at the time of this writing, this project identifies ninecategories, including equity and community capacity, which each contain core competencies and learning objectives.
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