Feeding Our Cities: Establishing a Strong Urban/Sustainable Agriculture Interface in Southern New England

Final Report for ENE98-042

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1998: $6,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Region: Northeast
State: Connecticut
Project Leader:
Michael T. Keilty
University of Connecticut Extension
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Project Information


[Note to online version: The report for this project includes attached documents that could not be included here. The regional SARE office will mail a hard copy of the entire report at your request. Just contact Northeast SARE at (802)-656-0471 or nesare@uvm.edu.]

During the course of this one year SARE funded PDP project, we have immersed ourselves and a team of over twenty five Extension educators, USDA field staff, urban agriculture representatives and rural farmers in on site urban center research, face to face dialogue and discussion, and network creation and participation.

Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island are uniquely urban states. The proximity of our rural farms to major population centers and agricultural markets provides producers and city residents with significant opportuni ties in Southern New England. These include bridging gaps in dialogue between agricultural and urban communities; providing our cities with fresh, safe, nutritious food; protecting our small and critical land base; and supporting sustainable agriculture both within and near urban areas.

Three key findings of this training include the following:
(1) Much more understanding is needed by Extension and other USDA staff, urban residents, rural growers, and agriculture related groups and organizations about the issues and problems facing urban centers and providing food for this market; (2) Many barriers exist for rural farmers who wish to provide food for urban markets; and (3) Creating a network among these stakeholders is crucial for successful dialogue and interaction.

Project Objectives:

The overall purpose of this project is to provide multi state professional development and training for Extension and USDA personnel in establishing a strong urban/sustainable agriculture interface in the Southern New England region. All Extension educators and USDA field personnel in the Northeast will be invited to participate. Our objectives are as follows:

1. Understand the problems and issues facing urban, sustainable agriculture and rural communities in the city center regions of Connecticut and Massachusetts; e.g. Hartford, Springfield, Holyoke, Bridgeport, New Haven, Worcester and Boston.

2. Increase dialogue between rural and urban communities by providing for an open exchange of ideas, fostering better understanding and working together to seek solutions to best meet urban population food needs through rural and urban sustainable agriculture practices.

3. Build strategic alliances between a network of Southern New England land grant universities, Extension educators, USDA, other food and agricultural related agencies and organizations, city planners, policy makers, urban and rural land preservation groups, sustainable agriculture farmers, community garden projects, CSA, Chefs' Collaborative 2000, green markets and city residents.

4. Work cooperatively with those named above to identify problems and seek workable solutions to problems concerning urban population food needs and sustainable agriculture within and near urban areas.

5. Implement programs based on increased dialogue, greater understanding and new strategic alliances to establish the social and economic interface necessary to satisfy the food needs and protect and maintain the vital environment we share as urban and non urban communities in this region.

6. Enhance regional food production and distribution to conserve energy and provide a more sustainable agricultural system.


This special report focuses on the barriers which farmers and growers in Southern New England face and must overcome to provide food to our large and growing urban population. For the purpose of this report, barriers are divided into three areas: physical, economic, and social/cultural. The barriers and solutions included below are not meant to be an exhaustive enumeration, but rather those that we met in our process of immersion and learning.

Physical Barriers to Urban Markets

Distance/ Transportation

Trucking crates of produce twenty to fifty miles one way to urban markets is time consuming and costly for many rural growers. Having a guaranteed market (CSAs) is the most cost effective. Having a direct market (Farmers' Market, restaurant, local food store) is next most reliable in returns, with wholesaling to brokers the least profitable per item, but in some cases, most profitable overall in cases of very large volume.

Economic Barriers to Urban Markets

Potential urban market outlets for rural farmers include regional food markets, neighborhood food stores, urban farmers' markets, CSAs, and urban restaurants and institutions. Market fluctuations are a concern in all cases except CSA. Volume is an issue at regional food markets a grower must produce enough to meet specific volume requirements of food buyers or brokers. Price is also at issue in this wholesale market. Urban restaurants and institutions can provide some single large accounts for rural growers. These markets may become more valuable as the result of widespread and increasingly popular local food campaigns. Neighborhood food stores are potential markets for growers who are willing to work cooperatively to overcome social and cultural differences in mostly ethnic neighborhoods (see following section). Farmers' Markets provide an opportunity for some growers. Organic produce can bring a premium in well to do neighborhoods, but low income residents are less able to afford higher food costs and like most farmers' market customers, tend to choose on appearance and price. Community Supported Agriculture, CSA, farmers are succeeding in breaking some economic barriers. Through urban churches, centers, or organizations, farmers deliver a "share" of weekly produce to urban residents who often live in one vicinity of the city. Holcomb Farm CSA in Granby, CT provides shares to a hundred families in Hartford, CT of mixed income. While CSA isn't for every grower, there are increasing numbers of city residents who are becoming members of CSA to receive fresh, locally grown produce and other local food products. The CSA model provides direct marketing with fair returns for, farmers on products which tend to more truly reflect the true costs of production.

Social/Cultural Barriers to Urban Markets

Matt Rulevich, a young fanner, in our group, noted that he has been unsuccessful in approaching Holyoke food markets to carry his organic vegetables. "I'm a white guy who doesn't speak the language," was his observation of the very first stumbling block communication. In urban ethnic neighborhoods, not being able to speak the primary I language of market owners and a large number of local residents is a decided disadvantage. Other cultural differences include food preferences. While Matt is willing to grow Latino crops, he is not sure which of these fruits and vegetables are most desirable. Matt would like to establish a cooperative farm stand in Holyoke where many farmers can bring produce including urban growers who have excess crops from their community garden plots.

Miguel Hernandez, Community Garden Coordinator of Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, understands and appreciates the cultural barriers Matt and other rural farmers fare in serving the Latino urban community. However, he reminded Matt, "The color of business is green." A relationship where Latino market owners, neighborhood residents, and urban growers both benefit and profit is not insurmountable. Through open dialogue Miguel and Matt have agreed to work together to provide Latino crops to the Holyoke community through selected neighborhood food markets and a weekly, seasonal, neighborhood farmers' market. Nuestras Raices is interested in providing the Latino community with special varieties of peppers, beans, squash, and herbs that are often imported from the Caribbean and only available at high costs to consumers. The receptiveness of this influential organization to rural farmers providing lower cost Latino crops is central to overcoming significant social and cultural differences that are often a barrier to cooperation between minority or ethnic urban populations and the growers who wish to provide food for their growing specialty markets.


While 10 26 million consumers reside within 2.5 hours of most rural farmers in Southern New England, there are barriers that must be overcome to successfully provide for this vast potential market. Communication and the development of new networks are critical to bridging cultural differences including language and food preferences. Distance and transportation are physical barriers which increase costs and must be factored into a business plan that targets urban markets. Economic challenges for the farmer entering the urban market are similar to other markets: wholesale vs. retail, risk of not selling out, and price changes due to fluctuations in food supply and food preferences. Urban oriented CSA with a guaranteed market seem to have reduced more risk than others.

Developing the urban market for rural growers will take time and effort. Successful growers will likely be involved in complimentary relationships with urban groups as well as urban growers. New alliances and networks will facilitate these relationships. Increasing interest in, local and ethnic foods provides perhaps the greatest opportunity for helping to feed our cities directly from rural farms and farm land.


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Performance Target Outcomes

Activities for farmers conducted by service providers:


1. In order to understand the issues facing urban agriculture our project immersed ourselves in conducting workshops for Extension personnel with urban and rural farms in various Southern New England cities in three states: Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

2. Workshop (see Attachment A) in Southern New England provided an opportunity for dialogue and most importantly the development of an extensive network resource list. Note comments by Patrick McNiff, Providence Southside Community Land trust (See Attachment B).

3. Extension network resource list (Attachment D) began the building and strategic alliances between Southern New England land grant university, Extension educators, USDA and other agricultural related agencies.

4. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island Extensions personnel have begun to understand the issues facing 'Feeding our Cities' and expect future work in this area.

5. Our goal is for land grant universities in Southern New England to implement additional urban agriculture activities and learning.

6. Creating dialogue between urban farmers and rural farms can only help enhance regional food production systems. The Hartford Food Systems study (Attachment C) conducted by Katie S. Martin who is a SARE Network Resource person further illustrates the issues of Community Food Security.

7. 'Feeding Our Cities' coordinators and network participated in a state conference 'Save the Land' on June 10, 1999 at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. (See Attachment E).

8. Enclosed attached letter dated August 6, 1998 from Herb Cole. (See Attachment F).

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.