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Urban Agriculture: A True Story from WWIIPrint

Food & Farming | October 6, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell

Detroit is eyeing urban agriculture as a development strategy, something that European cities embraced long ago.

My family here in Germany, where I’m visiting this week and next, has a favorite story about my great grandfather, Karl Bader.

After fighting in World War I, he stayed on the home front during the next war, taking care of his wife and two daughters. He did the best he could with a cellar for a bomb shelter and a garden for what food they could raise there, in the industrial city of Mannheim, on the Rhine, one of the most bombed parts of the country during WWII.

In the chaotic last weeks of the war, the Nazi government called on all older men not yet fighting to take up arms and defend the country. The story goes that my great grandfather said Hitler could just kiss his ass, and he started planting another garden that spring instead.

I think about this story whenever I hear about urban agriculture. I think about the hunger that is so real in war, and the power of small actions people can take to keep alive and sane. This is true whether the war is the kind with bombs and dictators like my German family experienced, or the long cold race war in America that drained its cities of investment and left so many people behind, with only junk outlets for food.

My great grandfather had previously saved the seeds he planted that spring: There were none to buy. He also knew how to plant a garden, and what to do with the food he raised there. Like many families, even in that densely settled industrial area, mine had a small yard behind their row house. They had always kept a garden and, before the war wiped out rations for people, let alone feed for animals, they also kept chickens, rabbits, goats, and even a pig or two at times.

Another thing that saved them was the farmland surrounding Mannheim. City people would go there with what jewelry or other finery they had to trade for food. Called the Pfalz, it is a region rich in fruit and vegetable farms. In fact, markets here are loaded right now with Pfaelzer potatoes, apples, grapes, and new fall wine. And fresh, local grapes from the Pfalz region are for sale right now throughout southwest Germany.

Pfalz demonstrates that, instead of building on farmland as its cities have grown, Germany keeps its land largely in agriculture and points most of its commercial and residential investment towards existing towns and cities. Europeans learned, through the ravages of invading armies, the value of protecting nearby food production.

Of course my family was still hungry during the war, even with the valuable addition of vegetables from my great-grandfather’s garden. Yet the small things they were able to do made such a difference.

We have many other stories-about the joy of opening a tube of cheese looted from a wrecked supply train, or the wonderful CARE packets of food that relatives from America sent right after the war. Knowing how to grow a carrot, and having access to a yard in which to grow it, were fundamental to survival and civility.

Rising interest and investment in urban agriculture across the United States and the world is, thus, essential not just for the food it can produce but for the understanding and capacity it can build.

And that can last for generations. I have pulled carrots from the same soil that my great grandfather planted that spring of 1945. I have eaten food from that garden in the same house where my great grandfather grew up at the turn of the century. I have listened to the stories and, with every bite of this family history, those backyard vegetables and Pfaelzer apples and grapes grow sweeter and sweeter.

Patty Cantrell founded the Michigan Land Use Institute’s entrepreneurial agriculture program in 1998. She now manages her own consulting business, Regional Food Solutions. You can contact Patty at her Web site, where this article first appeared.