“ Scaling up agroecological practices among East Bay Area urban farmers to enhance food security”


Principal Investigator: Miguel A. Altieri


Taking advantage of an UA participatory research project with 40 community members held at Gill Tract this fall, we propose to expand the collaborative community educational, research and outreach project to assess actual yields and the main agronomic problems affecting urban agriculture (UA). We will start a series of on farm-research trials to define and scale-up via farmer field schools best agroecological practices to enhance yields. Expanding the production potential of UA can significantly contribute to food security where it is most needed.



In low income neighborhoods of the East Bay almost one-third of the population is food insecure and even larger numbers have limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Although hundreds of UA initiatives exist to improve family food security and nutrition and/or access of the poor to fresh produce, there is no assessment of how much food these farms produce, what are the main factors limiting productivity (pests, soil constraints, etc-) and if the cultural practices currently used are effective in overcoming such factors. We propose a collaborative project to assess the main agronomic problems affecting UA, start a series of on farm-research trials to evaluate agroecological methods thus defining and scaling-up best agroecological practices to enhance yields.



Taking advantage of the interest and experience of members of the Gill Tract Urban Farm Coalition that led the participatory research project held this fall at GT and community partners of Food First to create a system of urban agriculture field schools. Specific of the proposed project are:

  • To assess the actual yield levels of selected urban farms in Alameda County’s low income neighborhoods,  determine the main factors limiting productivity (pests, diseases, soil constraints, etc-) and analyze the efficacy of the cultural methods urban farmers are using to overcome such factors.
  • After a diagnosis of the main agronomic problems affecting UA, to conduct a series of on farm-research trials to evaluate agroecological methods that effectively can overcome identified limiting factors, thus defining in a participatory way, best agroecological practices that farmers should promote and widely share to achieve a threshold production potential 5 kg/m2/year. By enhancing yields with ecological horticulture techniques, the production potential of UA can be realized, to have a significant contribution to food security where it is most needed.


Methods and activities

To achieve the above goals we will work with Food First and interested members of Gill Tract Urban Farm Coalition to convene a wide group of interested people linked to various organizations promoting urban agriculture in the East Bay. The idea is to hold a series of meetings to organize the urban farmer field schools and to define strategies to scale up agroecologically based UA in low income neighborhoods. In addition to group discussions that will facilitate fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue among scientists and stakeholders on UA, we will conduct a series of field–‐based activities to identify key challenges and opportunities facing UA farmers as well as to carry out some key research, educational and outreach initiatives:

  1. Spring 2014: Select project participants and identify at least 20 urban farms to be surveyed.
  2. Spring-Summer 2014: Researchers will visit selected urban agriculture practitioners and jointly assess soil fertility and contamination problems, pest-disease levels, crop losses, yields and effectiveness of management strategies used.
  3. Summer-Fall 2014: After the surveys, a series of experiments will be carried out in selected urban food gardens and also at UC Berkeley Agricultural Experiment Station (Gill Tract and Oxford Tract) to test the performance ( yield, incidence of pests and diseases, response to organic amendments, tolerance to water stress, etc) of selected varieties of target crops under various regimes of agroecological management ( i.e. intercropping, variety mixtures, various types and dosages of compost, soil remediation treatments, differing levels of water stress, mulching regimes, etc). Researchers will train urban agriculture practitioners on how to monitor plots to assess pest and disease incidence, calculate acceptable injury levels, assess soil quality parameters, including presence of contaminants and identify nutrient deficiencies. Most importantly participants will learn to develop and test effective agroecological designs that enhance yields.
  4. Summer 2014 : An intensive hands on short course on ecological horticulture will be offered by the research group to participants and other key people in the target communities to train them in the various principles and practices of designing diversified, productive and resilient urban farms.
  5. Summer-Fall 2014: UA farmers will be actively involved in each aspect of the project, including:   experimental design, monitoring, assessment, outreach and education. Cross-site visits will provide opportunities for participating UA farmers to visit other plots, comparing their strategies and sharing their experiences with each other. Two public field days will showcase the success of the agroecological production practices to the wider community so that all interested people can visit the project. These public events will expand awareness and facilitate wider adoption of these strategies.
  6. Summer-Fall 2014:The intensive course and the participatory research will train a key number of UA farmers on agroecological methods. They will serve as trainers of others farmers via in a horizontal exchange of innovations and information. To facilitate this process we will establish a system of Urban Farmer Field Schools that will build the capacity of urban farmers, generate useful agroecological knowledge and build farmer-to-farmer and community relationships for community-driven food security.
  7. Fall 2014: UA farmers and researchers will develop an online and printed publication (manual) highlighting agroecological principles and practices for the design of productive, diversified and resilient urban farms. The manual will be available late 2014 and will showcase the principles and practices that underlie agroecologically successful UA farms.


 Expected outcomes

A main outcome of this project will be the identification of best management agroecological practices that lead to optimal crop productivity and health. We expect that at least 80 urban farmers participating in the project will adopt agroecological methods, and thus see an accompanying increase in yields. Expanding the production potential of UA can have a significant contribution to food security where it is most needed. To illustrate this we refer to the report “Cultivating the commons” http://web.pdx.edu/~ncm3/files/Cultivating_the_Commons2010.pdf, which identifies in Oakland’s food desert neighborhoods about 400 hectares of abandoned public land. If in this land UA agroecological design and management plans were to be implemented and scaled up, UA yields could reach at least 5 kg of fresh biomass per sq.meter/year. If all 400 hectares ( 4 million sq. m.) were put into agroecologically based UA, total production would reach 20 million kgs. If each person consumes 45 Kg per year of fresh vegetables, the total UA production in 400 hectares could potentially feed 400,000 people/year. Although we assume that the land would be available and the people would be willing to take on the task of scaling up UA, the data nevertheless shows the power of agroecology to pull thousands of people out from an insecure situation that they find themselves in.

Quantitative and qualitative measures of short term success (i.e. adoption levels of agroecological practices and productivity increases) will be determined by entry and exit surveys of urban agriculture practitioners that participate in the project. Numbers of farmers participating in the intensive short course, cross-site visits and open field days, and numbers of farmers adopting agroecological practices and observing- yield differences due to adoption of such practices will be used as performance indicators. The successful publication, distribution and readership base of the urban agroecology online and printed manual will also serve as an indirect indicator of the public’s interest in this project.

Complementing existing work

During fall of 2013 we conducted a pilot participatory research project involving forty community farmers from a variety of groups, including Transition Albany and Berkeley, Merritt College, Albany Farm Alliance, Albany Community Garden, Albany Children’s Center and Occupy the Farm gathered at the Gill Tract. Participants had the opportunity to learn about agroecological horticulture by dividing the group in 10 teams of four participants each — assigned a plot of 15 rows, 6 meters long — where participants designed their own crop arrangements, deciding which plants to grow and testing various plant associations, mulching techniques and organic fertilization methods.  Throughout the season, participants assessed pest and disease incidence and soil quality,   and estimated edible biomass and yields determining how much food was produced in each plot. The groups were able to visit each other groups’ plots, observing which crop mixtures or agroecological techniques work best and thus learned from others.

This initiative allowed us to build capacity on UA among participants and has served to form the basis for the proposed project and expanding the participatory research and outreach involving more UA organizations, researchers and new community members. Many of the participants of the GT project will play a key role in the proposed urban farmer field schools and farmer to farmer activities.

Read the Project Report

A Lesson in Urban Agroecology