Lawns vs. Food

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What’s up with all the backlash against urban food production? Google the phrase “urban farming illegal” and you’ll see what I mean. Communities in Minnesota and across North America are struggling with what to do when some energetic entrepreneurs begin raising produce in their yards on a scale that goes beyond planting a few tomatoes in pots. When confronted with a new idea—or at least an idea that’s new to them—local officials give many off-the-cuff reasons for banning it. But in the case of urban farming, let’s be honest: at the root of many of these concerns is that a produce garden is not Kentucky bluegrass, and we fear what we don’t know.

Read any article covering a city council debate on an urban ag controversy and invariably you’ll run into some version of the same old argument: yard farming just doesn’t fit the “look” of the community. “We know what we don’t like and that’s what started all of this,” said Wayzata Mayor Ken Wilcox in a Lakeshore Weekly News article that described the city’s struggle to regulate gardening. When pushed to get more specific about what they “don’t like,” officials will often describe anything that differs from the American ideal of a yard: neat, short, uniform. In other words, lawn grass from border-to-border.

This isn’t so surprising when one considers that the lawn truly has roots in the history and culture of this country, and in the population’s evolution from rural to urban and suburban. Creating yards that look like the tops of billiard tables was inspired by the closely cropped fields of English manors in the 18th and 19th centuries.

These several hundred acre “lawns,” which were kept short with the use of sheep and plenty of hired help, were the ultimate symbol that their owner had arrived—he was so wealthy he didn’t need to use his land to do something so trivial as produce food. The invention of the lawn mower in 1830 made it possible for even the most modest home to have a piece of English countryside on a few hundred square feet.

In the early 20th Century, the USDA teamed up with the golfing industry to promote a monocultural turf grass system based on such species as bluegrass, a plant native to the more humid parts of Europe and Asia. By the time World War II rolled around, lawns had become a part of the American dream. By 1960, we were adding half a million lawns to the landscape a year. Power equipment and agrichemicals allowed homeowners with even the smallest yard to do some “farming” on their own suburban savanna.

Turf grass now occupies around 40 million acres of the continental U.S., or about 1.9 percent of the nation’s land, according to an Environmental Management Journal study that used sophisticated satellite imaging and other technology to map land use. The Lawn Institute estimates that 25 millions acres of that turf is tended as lawn.

That’s well less than the 92 million acres of corn that was planted in this country in 2011, but consider this: if all that turf is being watered according to guidelines, it’s the nation’s largest irrigated crop, by tens of millions of acres (of course, most Midwestern lawns aren’t requiring much artificial watering this summer.)

By 1984, Americans were applying more chemical fertilizers to lawns than India applied to all its food crops, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A 1989 National Academy of Sciences study reported the astonishing news that U.S. homeowners were using up to 10 times more chemicals per acre than farmers. EPA officials believe that education and general environmental awareness has lowered the amount of per-acre lawn chemical use in recent years.

But the fact remains that whereas cost considerations often play a big part in reducing chemical and fertilizer applications on several hundred acres of crop land, lawn owners aren’t as pressured to scrimp. In fact, they’re more likely to finish off a jug of weed killer by dumping it on the lawn, rather than deal with the hassle of storing it safely.

And as Twin Cities property owners (and their evergreen trees) learned recently with the Dupont herbicide Imprelis, lawn chemicals aren’t always as benign as we might think. Now that the USDA has decided not to regulate Roundup Ready bluegrass, look for even more of the controversial chemical glyphosate to be blanketing your neighborhood soon.

Groups like the Lawn Institute say such heavy use of inputs is critical for creating the kind of thick turf that makes for a healthy lawn. That healthy lawn, in turn, creates the kind of ground cover that keeps our soil intact and our water clear while sequestering carbon, say trade associations who are ever-conscious of what good public relations environmental rhetoric produces. But those pluses may be wiped out by all the inputs needed to maintain these monocultures.

One estimate is that  800 million gallons of gas is burned in American lawnmowers annually, for example. In the Great Lakes Basin, 13 of the 18 most commonly used lawn pesticides have been found in water. It’s a little ironic that a mayor in British Columbia cited contamination of water as one reason urban farming may not be a good idea in his community.

Should we do away with lawn grass? No, it has its uses. For one thing, my dog refuses to go to the bathroom in vegetation more than three inches high. But when officials express concerns about utilizing yards, empty lots and other urban and suburban spaces for food production, they may want to consider the hidden cost of all those green lawns. Sure, urban ag needs to be regulated, but treat it like you would any other small business—something that can be an economic plus for a community, not a hindrance or an afterthought.

When grappling with urban farming, city officials may also want to consider the lawn’s elitist history, and how the desire of English nobles to impress their snotty peers may not be a good foundation for determining land use in our communities. High energy costs and demand for locally produced food promise to make yard farms the kind of status symbol no community can be without.

And here’s your chance to get that message across to Minneapolis city officials: on Aug. 2 they will begin phase two of developing the Minneapolis Urban Agriculture Policy Plan by holding a public discussion. This plan holds great potential for making urban food production more than a fringe activity that must fly under the radar of officialdom. Check LSP’s website for details on how to make it clear to City Hall that when considering our community’s future, urban ag is a good idea whose time has come.

One Response to “Lawns vs. Food”

  1. John Hickman

    Excellent commentary, Brian. Your explanation of the origin of yards — that they “were the ultimate symbol that their owner had arrived—he was so wealthy he didn’t need to use his land to do something so trivial as produce food” is an example of what Thorstein Veblen coined “conspicuous waste.” Veblen, the greatest economics thinker the U.S. has produced, is best known for his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, which introduced both “conspicuous waste” and the better-known “conspicuous consumption.” The preeminent Veblen scholar, Jonathan Larson, is, like Veblen, a Minnesotan. He maintains a blog, Real Economics, and wrote a book (first published in Finland in 1989) titled Elegant Technolgy: Economic Prosperity from an Environmental Blueprint. Teaser: the first sentence of his book is “In the beginning, there was agriculture.”