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Beyond Urban Farming and Rooftop Gardens: The Complexity of the Food Cluster
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Above: Eastern Market in Detroit
It seems as though everywhere we turn, we hear stories about new urban farms or rooftop gardens atop city buildings. Food-related business incubators are churning out more than just jellies and jams: they’re spinning off new small businesses that then go on to hire local residents.
And yet, as much as we hear about the growth of the “food cluster” – few of us really understand the complexity of it.
Last week, ICIC hosted its second What Works Webinar on “How to Cultivate Your City’s Food Cluster.” To preface the conversation, Karen Karp, President of Karp Resources, began with an overview of the food cluster taxonomy—showing how both federal and local policies have implications for the food cluster.
Some fast facts about the food cluster:
- It’s a major segment of the U.S. economy: more than 700,000 U.S. food establishments (9%) employ nearly 14 million people (12%)
- There’s a high concentration of small businesses: Over 40% of all companies in the food cluster have between 1-4 employees; another 50% of companies have between 5-49.
- Low-educational requirements make it an attractive sector in inner cities: 60% of cluster workers have high school diplomas or less versus 44% for the rest of the economy.
Using a Detroit versus Boston case study, Adina Astor of Next Street and Teresa Lynch of ICIC then highlighted the challenges and opportunities faced by cities seeking to develop an inner city food cluster strategy.
The researchers found that the biggest opportunities for job and business creation include: production (entrepreneurship such as incubators and urban agriculture); distribution (with an emphasis on diversified distribution mechanisms to get a range of foods into the marketplace, particularly where local foods or value-added foods are involved); institutional food service (servicing schools, universities and hospitals); restaurants and retail (especially around healthy foods and innovative, quick service models); and commissaries (food that is prepared at one site and distributed to another for consumption).
Think of Boston, for instance: $3.5 billion was spent last year on food in the Greater Boston area (within Route 495), but few of these dollars were returned to Boston. Capturing just 1% of this total spend would result in $350 million returned to the local economy. The opportunities are huge.
But challenges exist.
Production requires affordable spaces, and in land-constrained cities like Boston, buildings and land can be cost-prohibitive. Distribution channels can be hard to navigate by small scale food companies with small volume distribution. The costs for food companies can be high: from higher wages and unionization, to heavy licensing fees and tax burdens. Demand for goods is heavily dependent based on a city’s population and income density. Financing can be extremely difficult: despite the high up-front costs for facilities and equipment, there are few traditional lenders willing to finance start up food companies. And finally, the breadth of city and federal oversight makes understanding, navigating and complying with regulations difficult.
After the presentation was complete, three major themes became apparent:
- All cities, whether land-rich like Detroit or land-constrained like Boston, have opportunities to leverage their food clusters to create jobs and businesses. The opportunities will vary by city, depending on land characteristics, capital resources, workforce skills, demand and income density. But the breadth of the food cluster – from packaging to machinery through distribution, processing and retail – means that each city can reap benefits from the food cluster.
- Though there are challenges to developing the food cluster, cities can do a lot to help. Land policy and zoning are perhaps the most obvious ways for cities to help. However, cities can also play a role through public procurement, tax policy and by deliberately targeting the food cluster as an opportunity for economic development.
- Preserving industrial land – especially in land-constrained cities – is important. Much of the industrial land in post-industrial cities has been converted for commercial or residential use. In doing so, it hinders the growth of many segments of the food cluster that rely on industrial land for growth. Once industrial land is converted, rarely can it be converted back.
The What Works webinar was great reminder that as the food movement pushes forward in our cities, we must not forget to acknowledge the complexity of it. Designing an inner city food cluster strategy is no small feat, but the bounty can be plentiful.
For the entire presentation, click here to view a sidebar with the webinar recording and slides.
Have addition questions for the presenters? Want to connect with your peers on the subject matter? Use the discussion tool below to share with us how efforts in your city are supporting its food cluster growth!
Are you talking farmer markets type cluster, food processing, retail food stores, restaurant clusters? The big thing we have been seeing is the reuse of urban land for community gardens. Its not an economic development strategy but there is evidence of it have community development effects, building social capital and displacing crime. A lot of what we have been seeing is more “fad” oriented than viable efforts. The work of people like Micheal Polland’s “In Defense of Food” is fueling lots of feel good talk with very little understanding of the economics
By Steven Deller on 04/26/2012
One problem here is this entire program is based on a mono-culture ag platform, which is not an efficient or productive use of any space. The second problem is very few people have the knowledge base and experience to install, startup and operate the growing system that will flourish in these inner city and suburban environments. The correct growing system does not generate the challenges they are dealing with here and for which the basis for this “food cluster taxonomy” forum and debate is. In other words you have social engineers attempting to engineer inner city ag. They are talking to the wrong experts! You will never get the solutions from desk jockeys. So what you have is an assortment of organizations throwing up a facade for show of what could be, but does not and will not produce and is not sustainable. These are nothing but short term sound bites for attention. The successful growing system already exists and has been working for years.
It is interesting that there is all of this time and money focused on low return commercial mono-crop agriculture for export when you can raise meat, produce and herbs in a specialized growing system and generate many times the production and monetary returns of the mono-crop commercial systems. The demand for locally grown produce and herbs in every part of the world is consistent and relative to the population. It cost me 600k to setup every acre on this system and I have my cost back plus a healthy premium at the end of the first year. Google poster and see. We produce over 260 tons per acre with our system on startup. It employs people, it feeds people and it eliminates the need for high long term capital investment. Cash in and cash out year-round. Look at the history of the countries that have focused on big mono-crop agriculture. An efficient and productive agriculture base is the corner stone to the foundation for success of a country, not the last stone. email@example.com
By TheGardenMaster on 04/26/2012
Any city that considers the region beyond the city’s political boundary rather than focusing on the downtown or a few areas has several food clusters at least, but the article is pretty naive about what they are and what they take, as Steven calls it “lots of feel good talk”.
Making food from dirt, water, sunshine is hard continuous work that almost no one is used to (landscaping crews/groundskeepers might be the only ones) and that burns out folks (well their knees, backs, hands, skin…you learn really quickly where the old phrase “backbreaking labor” or “stoop labor” came from and why your grandparents were so eager to get out of farming. Depending on skill, intensity, soils, etc. but it’s a half-acre or two PER PERSON to provide most of their food, a tough land use constraint even for Detroit when you take land value into account (along with existing infrastructure to that site.) Local food, fresher air, physical activity with more point to it than a gym treadmill, learning about nature directly all have considerable benefits but even cumulatively not a huge economic development role. Most cities had local food because of transportation constraints, refrigerated transport particularly, and city growth the past century has pretty much ignored where food is efficiently grown on the presumption of always cheap transportation (the old mistake was weather never changes, soils don’t wear out, and rain falls on schedule…lots of abandoned towns and cities result.)
Some folks are incubating restaurants (which is actually what franchise chains are is incubators) which given a 90% failure rate trumping everything but ladies’ trendy clothing boutiques (94%) last time I looked at SBA data, that’d have real benefits of not burning up millions of dollars of the city’s angel capital annually in ill-conceived, badly located, or mismanaged eateries and bars. Actual income (vs. declared, taxed income) can make these surprisingly good jobs, but they’re also physically demanding and often don’t have much of a career ladder. But setting up Chef’s schools, culinary arts and hospitality degrees have been very popular offerings so we should already be producing far more than are needed for existing jobs or will be shortly (I’ve been meeting a lot of trained chefs not working in the field or at the level their training would qualify them for.)
We’ve fooled around with food mfg incubation for years. The Food Processing Center at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln has gone the furthest and smartest with that of anywhere I’m aware of and has several decades of successful operation and considerable sector impact in very meaningful terms. It’s both quite intensive in specialized equipment and requires rare, hard-to-find skilled technicians while enough have been vanity projects that lenders and investors are skeptical from the start. Contract food processing centers make a good fit but given there’s only a handful existing in North America and it’s been a pretty good idea/clear need since the invention of canning (1840’s), that makes me concerned about why that might be.
In looking at your food clusters, the roads always lead back to the food distribution warehouses you have (or their lack.) And then their flexibility, refrigerated space, refrigerated vs. regular trucks, geographic radius they serve, who runs them and who their buyers are (princes or petty tyrants) determines how just about everything edible really works in your community or can work.
But the whole food cluster is running out of labor (so much of it is staffed with terribly paid illegal immigrants from all over the world) and especially skilled labor (heck the average farmer is 58 years old) and depleted soil’s a huge issue.
Urban chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats, hogs etc. make more sense and were part of all cities up until just a generation or two that preferred car exhaust fumes and dog droppings to the odors of livestock.
By Al Jones on 04/27/2012
I was just in Austin and noticed a “food park”—a vacant lot that had been cleaned up and filled with food trucks. I couldn’t stop to check it out (late to the airport), but I thought it was a great idea. Not sure if it was a city effort or just ad hoc.
By Margot Carmichael Lester on 04/27/2012
I’m not sure of the strategy in larger metro areas, but in our smaller MSA we are working on filling the needs of fresh food from local farmers in “food deserts” in our region. Giving the opportunity to work with regional farmers to establish at first a new farmers market in an area that needs it and then staging into an indoor market with a kitchen facility. This will be a partnership allowing for preparing, packaging and meeting the quality standards to sell products in a larger market than just the newly established markets.
By Matthew Fox on 04/27/2012
In the last few years new farmers in the US and Canada have been having success with SPIN-Farming, which is an organic-based, small plot farming system that outlines how to make money growing in backyards, front lawns and neighborhood lots. It is possible to convert some of the energy and enthusiasm surrounding local food into viable farming businesses, without major policy changes or government support. SPIN farmers offer proof.
By Roxanne Christensen on 04/27/2012
By Bryan Weichelt, MS, PMP on 04/30/2012
I have a favorite saying. For every trend there is a countertrend. In agriculture we have been moving toward ever-larger farms, global sourcing, commodity cropping, and ag-tech (chemicals, bioengineering, etc.) for a century. The small farm and traditional methods are dying off - or at least they were. Census data have been showing an in crease in small farms for over a decade. The organic market has grown at a double-digit annual pace even through the recession. The number of farmers markets and other direct-to-market formats have exploded. Community gardens are springing up everywhere. We hear that there has been a resurgence of the family vegetable garden.
Is this trend going to replace Big Ag? No, but it is getting some notice. We are increasingly addressing it in both planning and economic development work we undertake. Our comprehensive, neighborhood, and park plans often include discussion of community gardens. Our downtown plans often address farmers markets or city marketplaces where food - often local - is featured prominantly. Our economic development planning looks to emerging niche markets in agriculture and higher-value crops, as well as organics and market initiatives that cater to local markets. We are not the ones driving this topic, although we do evaluate the market and devise the strategies. It is something desired by our clients around the country, even in those areas where Big Ag reigns supreme. And that widespread interest makes it something worth watching.
By Michael Stumpf on 05/01/2012
food cluster resource
By cheryl on 05/01/2012
I like your blog very much. Thank you for your very nice articles. As a student i always search for new blogs or articles or recent news to learn something new. And i look forward to visiting your site in the future!
<a href=“http://www.vlfarming.com/”>Methods of Modern Farming</a>
By Monika Borua on 06/13/2012
BY Amanda Maher on April 24th, 2012
Trending Topicsworkforce development workforce what works urban revitalization small business shared value nyc manufacturing jobs inner city economic summit industrial ic100 housing food entrepreneur economic development detroit community development clusters cities capital business boston ask the expert anchors
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