In the early 1990s, Cuba faced a huge energy shock as the Soviet Union’s collapse cut off the island’s supply of subsidized oil. Without fuel for trucks and tractors or inputs for making fertilizer and pesticides Cubans had to figure out other ways to grow food. Cuba became a nation of urban, organic farming.
A decade later at Colorado State University, Dawn King wrote her master’s thesis about the transition. Now as a new lecturer at Brown, she continues to study and teach about urban agriculture. New England might never replicate Cuba’s experience, but there is still much to learn about how world food production could change.
“A couple of years ago the world became more urban than rural for the first time in history,” King said. “There isn’t access to growing your own food where the populations reside, and that can be problematic.”
That’s especially true around Brown.
“Urban, as defined by the USDA, includes peri-urban areas, so almost all of Rhode Island is defined as urban,” she said.
Part of sustaining local agriculture in Southern New England means ensuring suburban farmland conservation, she said. But it also means determining how city dwellers can grow food.
Urban agriculture can provide certain benefits, King said. It could protect food supplies against big-farm problems such as livestock disease outbreaks — consider the bird flu pandemic that struck the upper Midwest this spring. More distributed food growing could also make the country more resilient to climate change, which has the potential to shift where crops can thrive. Finally, King said, while large farms in rural areas will most likely remain the main producers of staples, smaller urban farms can fill niches such as ensuring a diverse supply.
“We do need farmers that just do potatoes if we’re going to have enough potatoes,” she said. “But what’s very difficult to do on a large piece of land is to [simultaneously] grow tomatoes, zucchinis, radishes, peppers, and squashes.”
But King also teaches her students not to romanticize urban farming, as some people do. The argument that locally grown food produces less carbon emissions than the global food supply chain is often untrue, she said. And without huge economies of scale, small local growers of almost any commodity must charge higher prices than big food companies.
King, who also earned her bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. at Colorado State, came to Brown three years ago as a visiting scholar by way of Lehigh University. There, students had clamored for an urban agriculture. She stepped in to teach it.
At Brown, King teaches three classes: urban agriculture, energy policy, and an introductory environmental studies course. She has studied a wide variety of environmental policy topics. Her doctoral research, for example, concerned the intersections of the environmental and LGBT movements in South America.
Although King has covered a hemisphere in her research, she now focuses on state and municipal policy. She’s currently working on a book about how local food policies affect economic development and climate change resiliency. She is also active in organizations such as the Rhode Island Food Policy Council and Food Solutions New England.
“One thing that’s really powerful about state and local politics, which oftentimes people feel isn’t quite as sexy as the federal level of politics, is that individuals can make a huge impact,” King said. “You can do this on your own.”
That’s an idea King imparts to students. She came to Brown, she said, to teach with a strong component of community engagement. It’s infused throughout her urban agriculture class where students must attend various food-related community events, compile a mock shopping list financed solely by food stamps, write a policy brief, and do a project with a local organization such as the Southside Community Land Trust or the African Alliance of Rhode Island.
“It’s so amazing to work with students in engaged scholarship,” she said. “It’s just silly to teach this type of material without getting the students’ hands dirty, literally and figuratively.”