Growing Cities: Filmmaker Dan Susman Discusses Urban Agriculture

Published: August 31st, 2012

By Sarah Parkinson

Dan Susman’s first experience with farming was growing giant pumpkins in his backyard as a kid. Since those early days, the Omaha, NE native has always known that growing food was something essential. Now, after graduating from Dartmouth College with degrees in Ecology and Environmental Studies, Dan has dedicated himself to tackling the problems of our national food system. With his friend Andrew Monbouquette, he traveled 12,000 miles across the United States to visit over 80 different urban farms. The pair are now working to turn their experience into Growing Cities, a documentary film that explores the role of urban farming in our society and its potential to change the ways we live and eat.

In the interview below, Dan reflects on his road trip adventures, the importance of urban farming, and the state of sustainability and our cities.

Q: Why did you choose urban farming as a focus for your project?

A: Urban agriculture has remarkable power on many different levels—it connects people to their food, strengthens communities, creates jobs, revitalizes blighted areas, provides many environmental benefits—the list goes on. But what’s most exciting to me is that it allows us to re-imagine what’s possible in cities. It challenges us to get beyond the urban/rural divide and really think about how we can all be producers in a society that is driven by consumption. I think it’s this quality that is capturing so many people’s hearts and minds.

Q: What are some of your goals for Growing Cities?

A: A lot of times we’re presented with the food system as this huge intractable problem with complex subsidies and big agribusinesses. Instead, we want to show how accessible growing food can be for anyone, no matter where they live. We want to challenge the basic assumption our society holds that because you live in a city you are a consumer. Finally, we want to show all of the amazing things people are doing across the country to offer inspiration. What we’ve found is a movement – although many urban farmers don’t quite realize it, they are part of something much bigger that is really powerful. We want to show that.

Q: What’s one of your favorite stories from the road trip you took?

A: It’s really hard to pick just one! But, milking goats in Seattle with the Goat Justice League was pretty memorable.  I’d never milked anything before, much less gotten milk shot into my mouth straight from the udder (you’ll have to wait for the movie for that one). On top of that we were just a few miles from downtown Seattle in a residential neighborhood. And picking raspberries seven stories up at Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm with a view of the Manhattan skyline was an equally unforgettable experience.

Q: Can you talk about some neat urban farming projects underway now?

A: There’s lots of awesome stuff…Something incredible happening that not as many folks have heard of is what’s going on down in the lower ninth ward in New Orleans with Our School at Blair Grocery.  It’s a food justice academy working to empower youth by engaging them more deeply with their food system, including planting, harvesting, and selling food to local restaurants…They are actually making a big difference in the kids’ lives that they work with.

In terms of a model for financial sustainability, which seems to be the question on many farmer’s minds, Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek Farm has really got it down. She and her husband Larry have been farming for over twenty years in Austin, TX before there was such a thing as ‘urban farming’ and even selling produce to Whole Foods before it became a national brand. She’s also inspired three other urban farms to start up within a few blocks of her, creating an urban agricultural district about a mile from downtown that rivals anything we’ve seen.

Q: What are a few changes individuals can make to improve their relationship with their food?

A: The first step is to grow something. And if you’re already growing something, tell your neighbors, show your kids, and grow a little bit more! Whether it’s in your windowsill, rooftop, or side yard, everyone can find a little space. Beyond that, visiting the farmers market, volunteering with a local farm, or even lobbying the city council to improve policies around urban farming are all important ways people can contribute.

Q: Where do you see urban farming fitting into our country’s food system?

A: Urban farming must be a part of the larger picture of the food system. It cannot exist in isolation from rural farming—in fact, the more we can connect rural and urban producers and consumers the better off we’ll be. It’s unlikely (not impossible) that urban farming will ever feed us all.

That said, a lot of fruits and vegetables can be grown using intensive, small-scale production methods—in Havana, Cuba, more than ¾ of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the city are produced there. Since nearly 80% of the US population lives in cities, urban agriculture plays a vital role of introducing these folks to agriculture and showing its importance. Furthermore, since the average age of farmers is close to 55 years old, urban farming could play an important role in recruiting the next generation of young and sustainable farmers in both rural and urban areas.

Q: How does urban farming relate to the larger sustainability movement?

A: The production, transportation, and disposal of food makes up more than 20% of the US carbon footprint. That’s not to mention vast amounts of pollution from harmful industrial farming practices. Urban farming shows people there is another way—one that is smaller, closer, and a little bit more intimate. Best of all, it’s something we can all be a part of in whatever way we choose. Urban agriculture is about more than ‘voting with your fork’ but really understanding that we all can take an active part of the food system, whether that is for the betterment of our communities, our families, or our neighbors. Urban farming won’t save the world—it won’t. But it can lead us to create healthier, happier, and more sustainable communities for the future.

Visit the Growing Cities website to learn more about the project. 

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