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By Alexandra Branscombe
December 13, 2013
Caption : As cities grow and the world's population increases, so does the need for food production for human survival, and many Americans are reshaping this country's traditional agriculture practices with new sustainable farming techniques.     

The Berlin Wall, the Eiffel Tower, and Buckingham Palace were just three targets in the many trans-European guerrilla strikes in early 2013.

No one was injured in these “attacks,” but many might enjoy the fruits of the mission for years to come.

Thomas Boyden biked 5,000 through nine European countries to do “guerrilla gardening,” where he planted flowers and garden plants in cities to raise awareness about soil health. His gardening mission included basil in Paris, grape vines in Berlin, and strawberries in London.

Guerrilla gardening is the eccentric cousin to urban farming, one of the many agriculture movements that are on the rise. In the face of a rapidly expanding global population, nations around the world are re-examining their agriculture production and available resources. Even without climate change looming over the horizon, government groups are looking into sustainable solutions to prevent global hunger and improve their economies.

Increasing efficiency, utilizing innovation, and promoting social involvement are all aspects of sustainable agriculture of the future. Here are three rising agricultural trends that give a glimpse into the future of farming.

Girls Who Run The Farm

The look of the American farmer has been changing steadily in the last few decades as women are being recognized for their leadership in farming.

Recently, renowned author Michael Pollan sat with former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan at a UC Berkeley sponsored event to talk about the future of the food movement.

One of the main topics of discussion was the rise of women taking leadership roles in agriculture.

“The future face of the American Farmer is much more female than it has ever been,” Pollan said.

Merrigan also referenced a report that was released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which showed that the number of female-run farms in the U.S. have tripled since the 1970’s, when it was just 5 percent to 14 percent in 2007.

While most of these are small farms, the report found that women-operated farms increased in all sales classes, even those with annual sales of $1 million or more.

Still more women are “farm operators,” which increases the number of woman farmers to 1 million in the U.S. 

“[Women] are more likely to have an enterprise that has a ‘pick your own agri-tourism, or a more complicated model,” Merrigan said. “I think that is really exciting, and I am really interested in pipelining leaders that are women—not only because of this upward trend, but also on the other end of the pipeline. Because women outlive men, you have widows deciding the fate of our working lands and our forested lands.” 

Additionally, more women are enrolling in higher education agricultural programs. Undergraduate women in agriculture programs outnumber men by nearly 3,000 students, according to national study by the Food and Agricultural Education Information System, which looked at enrollment in 70 land-grant universities from 2004 to 2011. 

As this trend continues, in the U.S. and around the globe, governments are putting more effort into supply resources to counter the obstacles and discrimination that women are facing in the agriculture sector. Public health research shows that food sustainability and gender gap factors are in fighting poverty, demonstrating the need for adequate agricultural education. Women farmers are not just the future of agriculture, but in eradicating global hunger and poverty, too.

Breeding for sustainability

Plant breeding has been a part of agriculture since the very beginning; it created orange carrots and decadent sweet corn. However, while most plant breeders are seeking out high yields and fruit quality, a small, but growing trend is breeding for sustainable crops.

With the rise of extreme weather events and changing ecosystems, crops will need to be resilient to harsh environments, which includes increase in rainfall, drought, storms, and temperature change.

“Crop yields, by definition, are already stressing the system to its limits. Climate Change is ratcheting up the stress–so new traits are going to be more important as the environment changes,” Randy Jackson said.

Jackson is an agronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his research specializes in grassland ecology and long-term ecosystem changes.

This means traits that maximize on efficiency, said Jackson. Plants that are efficient on space, light absorption, water, heat resistant, nutrient uptake, and “hardier” overall will thrive. Shawn Kaeppler, another professor in the agronomy department, is looking at such traits for maize, pointed out Jackson. He explained that Kaeppler is researching root architecture and the genetics of nitrogen efficiency, a nutrient that promotes crop growth but is often limited in the soil, prompting farmers to dump loads of fertilizer onto fields. 

“These [genetic] traits are often associated with yield and economics. If you have a plant that can take up more nitrogen from the soil, then you won’t have to put as much fertilizer in the field, which saves money,” Jackson said. “The difficulty is linking which traits are actually related to nitrogen uptake.”

While Jackson acknowledges that sustainable breeding will driven by market pressure to produce high yields, he hopes that researchers, farmers, and policy makers will also put value into ecosystem services that more efficient plants provide, such as carbon sequestration.

“It comes from our economic policies that reward producers for maximum yield. There are people, like me, that wish we payed farmers for ecosystem services,” he said. “But it is exciting that plant breeders are starting to consider the environmental system too.”

Urban Farming

Urban farming is trending in many concrete jungles and large metropolitan cities throughout the U.S., fueled by grassroots groups, urban farms are popping up from New York to Los Angeles. A result of the growing food movement, urban farming is one solution to people’s demand for fresh, local food.

In Minnesota, a city-wide initiative called Homegrown Minneapolis successfully helped their city to reform zoning amendments to promote urban agriculture in eligible or rehabilitated lots. Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, one of the urban farming ventures in the city, has directly benefited from this amendment, but is still fighting for footing in the community.

“There’s a big difference between allowing urban farming in a city and endorsing it and really putting some teeth behind it,” Sone’s Throw Farmer Alex Liebman told Walker Art magazine.

This is very reflective of what other grassroots groups are facing in other cities—the need for political backing to really be effective.

This includes policy changes for education, transportation, zoning, architecture, and distribution—which explains why officials’ hesitation to take on this mountainous project.

But some people are stepping up to make urban farming an easier process—both for farmers and for politicians. This summer, graduate students from the University of California, Los Angeles published an urban agriculture report for Los Angeles County; it covered everything from chickens and beekeeping to variables influencing agricultural regulation by area.

Its recommendations include: “Whether or not current city leaders support urban agriculture activities is irrelevant.” and “City leaders should work to enable their constituents to understand the land use restrictions and allowances for agricultural activities.”

While the U.S. has much to figure out logistically, it is not unrealistic to imagine American cities becoming more like Europe, where urban gardening has a rooted history and is publicly accepted for its benefits.

Boyden, who is a leader in the F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture, and has been a part of many urban and rooftop gardening projects in major Midwestern cities like Milwaukee and Chicago. Though the movement is newly seeded in the U.S., Boyden´s journey through Europe gave him hope for its potential to spread.

“[In the] U.S., people often respond as if it is some fad: ‘Oh, I saw this great chicken coop on Pinterest’ or ‘I’m excited to get some fish from aquaponics,'” Boyden said. “In Europe, it depends on the country; Great Britain, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands are hardcore about [urban agriculture] and its role to combat food insecurity, build community, and green the city.”

Boyden said he encountered people of all backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities  while guerrilla gardening, and most of them (except the palace guards) were very positive and excited about his mission.

“I worked with so many people growing food in unique ways,” Boyden said. “Everyone is there for the community, [though] the way they go about it is unique to each area.”

That is why urban gardening is here to stay, it is a project that has community, purpose, and good food. And while many think it is just a fad created by hipsters, the fact is urban farming has a deep root in history.

As cities grow and the world’s population increases, so does the need for food production for human survival, and many Americans are reshaping this country’s traditional agriculture practices with new sustainable farming techniques.

In the face of climate change, resilience, efficiency and diversity have surfaced as the newest themes in agriculture. Women, young Americans, and researchers have taken the lead in sustainable agriculture, thinking beyond crop yields to community and environmental health.

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