What’s the Difference Between a Garden and a Farm?

What to eat. What not to eat.
Feb. 12 2014 8:17 AM

What’s the Difference Between a Garden and a Farm?

It’s a tougher question than you think.

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Does Riverpark, the second stop on the Manhattan farm tour, meet the USDA threshold? “Oh, I’ve got that,” Pickens says, explaining that the farm, which grows exclusively for the restaurant, tracks what it provides using prices equivalent to what it would pay to specialty purveyors or at local markets—where microgreens, for example, can sell for upward of $125 per pound. To Pickens the difference between farming and gardening is clear. In farming, he says, “You’re practicing agriculture in order to make money.”

That act of making money—not just producing, but selling—determines the difference between gardening and farming, for the USDA and most farmers, too. Even those who farm with the primary goal of improving the environment or building community believe that a financially robust enterprise is fundamental to the mission. As Richard Wiswall, author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, argues, true sustainability includes making a profit. At Riverpark Farm, says Pickens, “We want urban agriculture to be successful. We want people to see this and say it makes sense from a production and an economic standpoint.”

But not all places called farms make money. Does that mean they aren’t the real thing?

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On a visit to New Roots Community Farm in the Bronx, N.Y., it certainly appeared that way to a fortysomething aspiring farmer from New Jersey who took one look at the half-acre site and said: “This sure doesn’t look like a farm.” With a few small beds for individuals to use as they wish, it looked just like a community garden. But according to program manager Kathleen McTigue, New Roots has a mission different from a traditional mission of community gardens, such as improving neighborhood aesthetics or providing space for public activities. “The goal really is to use it as a training site for food production,” she said. The farm is a program of the International Rescue Committee; its purpose is to help resettled refugees translate their agrarian backgrounds into job skills while addressing food-security issues in the neighborhoods in which they now live.  

New York City Housing Authority, which runs all public housing in the city, has similar aims. Last year, in partnership with the nonprofits Added Value and Green City Force, NYCHA (which already has more than 600 community gardens for its residents) opened the first “large-scale urban farm” on its property, at the Red Hook West housing development. In these examples and others, activists and organizers want to grow food and set up markets in the service of providing greater access to healthy produce, improving education and health, conducting job training, and eradicating poverty.

They want, in short, to change America's food system. And to do so, many choose the word farm over garden because of its connotations. As Ian Marvy, co-founder and executive director of Added Value, says: “It’s the metaphor to explore issues of sustainability, scope, scale, financial concentration, community control, equity, environmental degradation, global warming.” (It also doesn’t hurt that “It’s more cool to call it a farm than an educational garden,” says Pickens, who interned on an Added Value farm.)

Naming is an act of power. Calling the vegetables growing in a fancy hotel or in a private windowsill a farm rather than a garden may sound crazy, but that may be the point. The marketing potential of the word farm is significant—having a farm attached to one’s business can raise its profile as well as its profits. But for many growers, calling their site of production a farm, no matter how small, no matter what form that production takes, no matter whether they sell at a profit or give food away for free, is much more than good business or smart branding. It’s a deliberate attempt to change public perception, policy, and the paradigm of food production.

Agriculture must expand, many farmers, activists, and policy experts agree, if the planet is to feed its growing population while confronting climate change. At the USDA, Deputy Secretary Harden told me by email, “[W]e are excited about what the next generation of farmers is bringing to the table. Never before in the history of American agriculture have we seen so many different types of farmers.” As agriculture starts to look more like Riverpark restaurant and the farms in New York City’s public housing, that needed expansion is well underway.

At Red Hook West Urban Farm, when someone says, “Let’s go over to the garden,” Marvy gently corrects them. “Yeah,” he says, “let’s get over to the farm.” He will not need to correct me. But, given where I come from, I must draw the line at Park Avenue: I don't think I’ll ever be able to call the Waldorf Astoria a farm.

Andrea Crawford is a New York City-based journalist, writer, and former magazine editor.