Eat Healthier By Becoming A Modern “City Farmer”

And save money on your food bills

Fresh herbs: Sage, rosemary, parsley, basil, thyme (Photo by Photo by Matt)

“Only 2% of the population produces food for the world to consume.”

he world of food has changed drastically over the past 23,000 years. Only about 200 years ago, “90% of the U.S. population lived on farms and produced their own food to eat”. Fast forward to today and we’re at a global population of over 7.3 billion that needs feeding. And “only 2% of the population produces food for the world to consume”. Farming has been innovating at different time periods, in different places around the globe. Recent farming innovations include vertical indoor farming and the utilisation of unexpected spaces like a WWII bomb shelter. But the current reality is that making a living as a traditional farmer, without the assistance of technology and investment, is a tough landscape. We are also faced with food production challenges such as usage of harmful pesticides and, ironically, food wastage.

“70% say purchase decisions are affected by how food is grown and raised”

It’s become a growing concern that many people aren’t aware of where their food comes from. Research shows that consumers have become disconnected with the origins of their food but it is a subject that they think about regularly. A national survey from 2011 revealed that “70% say purchase decisions are affected by how food is grown and raised” which includes how chemicals and pesticides are used in farming.

In this article, I’d like to explore some ideas on how we can re-connect with farming in the twenty-first-century so that we can truly eat healthier. I would define “eating healthier” as having some knowledge of how your food is produced, where it comes from and what nutrition you’re actually consuming. Additionally, being a modern “city farmer” can also reduce the cost of your food bill.

What is a “city farmer”

Do you have a vegetable and fruit garden in your backyard? Perhaps you live in an apartment, do you have any herbs and/or vegetables on your patio? Alternatively you may have a community garden in your neighbourhood? These are all examples of urban agriculture. I’d like to refer to this practice as being a “city farmer”.

Over 11 years ago, I made a spontaneous decision to cut out all processed foods. This was just the beginning of a personal mission to live healthier. I was already a regular gym junkie, but I learnt that what I was consuming also effected my daily mental and physical performance. First, I stopped buying packaged food that had a long shelf life such as canned food. Then, like a snowball effect, I carefully read the contents of anything else that came in a package before purchasing it, including cheese, yoghurt, sauces, coconut milk and salsa. This also motivated me to purchase more raw ingredients such as fresh fruits and vegetables, dried lentils and fresh corn because it was simpler to just make it from scratch myself. A few years ago, I even started to make my own pasta. Then just over a year ago, my husband started making us fresh bread because majority of the bread from bakeries and grocers were made from low-quality flours, ultimately being less nutritious and flavourful. Now, we have some fresh herbs and vegetables growing on our patio because it’s more convenient and satisfying. We also started experimenting with fermentation because $12 and $21 for a jars of good-quality pickles and sauerkraut respectively is just a little outrageous. An important point that I’d like to highlight here is that it was a series of personal experiences and learnings, over a period of time, that influenced our household’s mindset of becoming modern “city farmers”.

My patio garden

For the purposes of the ideas discussed here, a modern “city farmer” is a person who lives in an urban area and is engaged in some form of farming, raising living organisms for food or raw materials. This includes, but not limited to, having a single plant (eg. basil), multiple plants (eg. apple tree, cherry tomatoes, etc), making your own wild yeast for baking sourdough, sauerkraut and/or kombucha. The core idea is going back to the basics to know what food goes into our bodies and having a better understanding of how foods are produced since the method could have a negative impact on your health.

Why become a “city farmer”

Ask a child or adult where the groceries in their fridge came from and they’ll likely say the “supermarket” or “grocery store”. Where our food comes from has become a mystery to many. The growing disconnect of our food sources means that we’re thinking less about farming. In particular, we’re not aware of or questioning what goes into the food during its production.

As a modern “city farmer”, the first-hand experience of growing any kind of food will prompt curiosity about the food itself and the quality of food when large companies compete to pump out large volumes of food. For example, after owning an organic cherry tomato plant for three months, I’ve learnt that the taste of a freshly picked, ripened tomato was more flavourful and more nutritious than the tomatoes bought from the local grocer. A 2012 study reported that “half of a tomato’s lycopene develops in the final stages of ripening”. This is means that eating ripened fruit is more nutritious than fruit that is harvested early and ripened after its been harvested. Additionally, I know that with my tomatoes did not use any pesticides or chemicals.

Unedited photo of an organic cherry tomato plant on my patio

For many companies, cheaper produce is better. This has created a fierce competition amongst the big companies and local farmers. Sadly, this is driving down the quality of the food we consume such as a lack of taste and nutrition. Time taken to grow good quality produce is not appreciated by companies because their priority is focused on increasing the speed and profits of food production. Harmful pesticides (eg. RoundUp) and fertilisers are used to speed up food production but also results in food wastage due to the fabricated cosmetics of how our food should appear. For example, many consumers have the perception that it’s not good to purchase “ugly produce”. Food today has evolved significantly and has raised questions about how healthy they really are. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of all this. This is demonstrated in the growing number of people buying organic and local foods. According to the Economic Research Service, retail sales of organic foods more than doubled from 1994 to 2014. A different another study showed that organic sales in the U.S. reached $50 billion in 2018.

Homemade organic sourdough bread (50% wholewheat, 50% unbleached white) by Marko

My husband started making his own sourdough bread last year. One of the many learnings from the past year of making our own organic sourdough and rye breads was that the nutrition of the flours available in a grocery store is significantly lower than the flours we sourced from elsewhere. It was also surprisingly difficult to source better quality flours such as emmer or einkorn flour. The majority of the nutritional value coming from wheat grains is striped out in most of the commercially bought flours. This results in a noticeable difference in flavour of store bought bread compared to the homemade ones. Also the cost to make the loaf yourself is approximately one-third the cost.

Aside from being more flavourful and nutritious, producing some of your own food also provides the following benefits:

  • Sustainability — encourages mindful consumption based on what’s ripe
  • Waste reduction — pick only what you will use; compost food scraps
  • Convenience — a few seconds to walk to your backyard or patio garden
  • Cost-saving — reduce what you need to buy at the grocer
  • Human wellness — therapeutic in addition to being more nutritious

More and more city dwellers are experimenting with ways of producing their own food. Instead of buying fresh herbs every time it’s needed, people are buying a bunch of herbs they frequently use and put them in a planter in their patio, window sill or backyard garden. For example, buying a common fresh herb such as basil is a once-off cost of ~$4 for the plant. If compared to ~$252 for multiple individual packs of basil (assuming you bought 6 packs at $3.50 per unit, each month for a year). That’s a savings of $240 in a year and ~$1,200 savings over 5 years. This assumes that you replace the fresh herb plants once a year. Now let’s do a comparison of the costs associated with purchasing some plants compared to buying it in the grocery store:

Cost of plants

  • 3 herb plants ($12)
  • 1 cherry tomato plant ($16)
  • 1 kale plant ($4)
  • 1 green onion plant ($2)
  • Total cost of plants = $34

Cost in the grocery store per month

  • 6x Fresh herb packs ($21)
  • 4x Cherry tomato pint ($20)
  • 2x Kale bunches ($6)
  • 2x Green onion bunches ($6)
  • Total cost of monthly groceries = $67

In a city like San Francisco, the plants above can grow all year round. That’s a savings of about 50% in the first month. Over the period of the year, you would spend about $800 for the above items compared to $34 which is a big difference. If you’re curious, you could go further like making your own pasta and sourdough bread, you’ll save even more. For example, buying handmade pasta from a nice grocer will cost about $8 for a serving of 4. To make it yourself, it would be about one-third the cost. Simply eating more “raw” (food in an unprocessed form) and growing your own fruits, herbs and vegetables can save you a lot of money.

Adopt a healthier way

Tobias’s rooftop garden in Berlin

The concept of a modern “city farmers” has already begun. People living in urban areas are hungry for the taste of homegrown fruits, veggies and herbs. Edible rooftop gardens have started popping up. In addition to the benefit of eating the “fruits of your own labour”, these rooftop gardens help to beautify your outdoor space into a private oasis for personal and entertainment uses with the added bonus of being environmentally friendly.

As of 2014, 2.07 million farms that were on 912 million acres of land. Imagine every household became a modern “city farmer, whether it be a patio, rooftop, backyard or shared neighbourhood garden. For example, each might have a few herb plants as well as one or two vegetables. They could then exchange and share surplus produce with neighbours, family and friends. Could we encourage hyperlocal sustainability where urban neighbourhoods became self-sufficient with common fruits and vegetables?

There is no exact amount of food that needs to be produced to be considered a “city farmer”. It all starts with growing just one edible of your own, whether it’s a little pot of basil in your window sill, keeping “the mother” alive, or turning an area of your backyard to a little garden of fruits, vegetables and herbs.

The need for real food

For many different complex reasons, many of us opt for the pre-prepared, made to order or “hot and ready” option when it comes to food. We’re busier than ever and the consumption of food on a daily basis has become a chore. It’s all about quick and easy food choices, with the exception of social events involving food. However, when we dine out, the restaurant businesses are all about streamlining the meal preparations too and making it convenient during service time. So how “real” is all the food that we’re consuming? Most of it can’t possible be the best possible quality, fresh and nutritious as it can be. At what point do we make a trade-off? The bigger question is what is the cost to our health tomorrow between eating high-quality, chemical-free food that’s freshly prepared/cooked compared to food that is ready for us to eat instantly?

Experts have said that cooking helps to improve mental health problems such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression. The idea is that this culinary therapy from planning the grocery list to preparing the meal helps to relieve stress, improve focus and advance social skills. Another study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that:

“those who frequently participate in everyday, creative projects like cooking lead happier lives.”

Personally, I feel more relaxed when I’m cooking or baking. I also feel good about what I’m eating because I know what’s in it. I’ve also witnessed the culinary benefits in my husband’s bread-making journey. It began as a challenge to “how hard could a loaf of bread be to make” and now making organic sourdough or rye bread is part of the weekly routine. My husband is constantly experimenting with different flours and looks forward to tasting each new loaf. There’s also a sense of reward when his friends and colleagues tell him how much they like the bread.

Whether you have a backyard, patio, balcony, rooftop space or just a window sill, you qualify to be a modern “city farmer”. That is enough space to get your little urban garden growing.

10 simple produce to get started:

  1. Cherry Tomatoes
  2. Basil (my personal favourite)
  3. Thyme
  4. Rosemary
  5. Sage
  6. Carrots
  7. Peppers
  8. Lettuce
  9. Kale
  10. Spring onions

Now the question is, what will be your first food item to grow or make?

Obsessed with technology, products & people | Founder of Interesting By Default | Director of Product at Cognizant

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