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While Dr. Ayanava Majumdar readily concedes that urban farming will never replace conventional farming entirely or solve world hunger, he remains steadfastly convinced of the valuable, even critical role it will play in removing urban food deserts and securing equitable food distribution in the future, especially in Alabama.
The possibility of what urban farming could become — and even more important, what it could do on behalf of tens of thousands of Alabamians, particularly the most disadvantaged ones —is what keeps him so relentlessly busy applying for grant funds, organizing workshops and forging partnerships with other like-minded people and groups.
Majumdar is fully convinced that urban farming potentially could make tens of thousands of Alabamians not only healthier and happier but, in some cases, even more prosperous. In addition to providing improved food distribution to the needy, urban farming would also benefit local communities through the creation of more jobs as well as more educational opportunities for urban residents to learn about the benefits of sustainable living.
His challenge, as head of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System's Commercial Horticulture group and state coordinator for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, is making sure others do too.
He's the first to admit he's got his work cut out for him.
"This is not going to happen until food is of high quality, readily accessible to consumers and affordable," he says.
His first order of business: seeing that these three criteria are met.
As Majumdar sees it, urban farming amounts to a kind of restoration — an attempt to reinstate something that earlier generations of Americans took for granted: food producers not only located in or near urban settings but also heavily integrated into city life.
"We're talking about a community movement of self-sustenance," stresses Majumdar. "A village has always been defined as a self-sustaining community.
"We're trying to get back to the village concept where people know each other and trade with each other and where these reciprocal relationships are self-sustaining."
This practice, while taking deep roots in other parts of the country, has proven a bit of a hard sell in Alabama, even though the state has the most to gain from widespread adoption of this practice, Majumdar says.
"We're talking about a state where the vast majority of the people — 3.4 million — live in urban areas and where inner-city poverty levels run as high as 16 percent in some places," he says.
On top of that, Alabama is dealing with spiking rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, all of which conceivably could be mitigated if more urban areas, especially economically hard-pressed ones, were supplied with more fresh fruits and vegetables.
High production costs remain the biggest obstacle. Urban farming is highly labor intensive, which largely accounts for why locally grown produce has typically remained a luxury food available only to those willing to pay premium prices.
However, this is changing as more farm equipment manufacturers have begun taking notice of the growth in urban farming.
"Cost of production has remained the No. 1 problem," says Majumdar. "Until recently, we've been operating in a technological climate still geared toward big-scale farming, but companies are already seeing the appeal of urban farming and producing scaled equipment tailored to the needs of these farmers."
Majumdar expects that the scaling down effects of this technology will work to enhance another built-in advantage of urban farming: its ability to adapt quickly to local needs.
The federal government and some state governments are already stepping in to provide seed money for start-up operations and to help with business practices and marketing — another factor that is fueling accelerated growth of this sector.
Even so, challenges remain. For example, technological improvements will take urban farming only so far: Some urban projects, after all, are simply too small to be mechanized, Majumdar stresses.
Likewise, the day-to-day demands of farming often require the efforts of the entire family, leaving precious little time to concentrate on drafting long-term business and marketing strategies deemed critical to success.
Add to that the lingering effects of the 2008 market crash, still playing out in many urban communities, which have stymied efforts to develop local markets.
"When the economy lags, buying power goes down and demand shifts, which create even more problems for producers," Majumdar says.
Much of Majumdar's efforts over the next few years will be working with members of his team and partnering with other public and private entities to provide much of this training.
He says his ultimate goal is to help build a thriving urban farming sector in Alabama that not only works seamlessly and but that also provides people in every urban locality in Alabama with access to fresh, locally grown produce at affordable prices. He and his team are working closely with the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, a network of farmers, consumers, and agriculture-related organizations that promotes sustainable agriculture throughout the state.
"Our goal is to be out there forging networks, integrating marketing markets and adopting scientific knowledge to local needs — basically, all the things Extension does best."
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