Urban farming practices developed in France in 1850 still are used in cities today

Many people believe the practice of growing vegetables in hoop houses in urban locations is a new phenomenon. History, however, tells us otherwise. The French were feeding residents of Paris from year-round urban gardens more than 150 years ago.

Let’s investigate the urban food system in France during the period between 1850 and 1900. Eliot Coleman, author of The Winter Harvest Handbook writes of market gardening in France. “La culture maraîchère (market gardening) in Paris during the second half of the nineteenth century was the impressive result of years of improvement in both protected and outdoor vegetable production. The earliest developments in season extension (using primitive predecessors of the cold frame) had begun in the 1670s and ’80s.”

Today, local food advocates urge, “eat as local as you can.” Michigan State University Extension promotes urban farms and community gardens as methods that city dwellers can utilize to obtain fresh, local food. Writes Coleman, “The cultivated land of the Parisian growers covered up to one-sixteenth (6 percent) of all the land within the city limits of Paris. And the produce selection was remarkable.” Coleman continues, “This system fed Paris all year round with the widest variety of both in-season and out-of-season fruits and vegetables. Hotbeds heated with decomposing horse manure and covered with glass frames allowed the growers to defy the cold and produce fresh salads in January and early cucumbers and melons in May and June.”

Hoop houses (also known as high tunnels) are modernized versions of the cold frame devices used in France in the 19th century. Cornell University and the Regional Farm and Food project published, “High Tunnels,” a useful resource guide for hoop houses. It says, “High tunnels are inexpensive, passive solar structures designed to extend the growing season and intensify production. By protecting crops from potentially damaging weather conditions (frost, temperature fluctuations, precipitation, wind, or excess moisture that delays planting or cultivation), high tunnels also reduce risk and enhance the quality of the harvest.”

One example of the replication of France’s techniques can be found in Baltimore, Maryland. The Real Food Farm utilizes hoop houses to get locally grown food directly to low-income Baltimore residents who have limited access to fresh produce. You can see in an on-line rendering of the farm, that hoop houses play a major role in carrying out this mission. In Michigan, urban farms such as Food Field in Detroit and the Lansing Urban Farm Project are successfully utilizing hoop houses to extend the growing season and increase production.

The success of the gardeners of France, from the late 1600’s through the early 1900’s, established urban gardening practices that endure into the 21st century. While the technology has changed from those early gardens in Paris, the outcome remains remarkably similar; year-round urban gardening helps to feed the people of the city.

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