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Urban farming may sound like your hipster cousin's latest hobby, but, in fact, it is transforming the way Utahns grow and buy their food. Over the past several years, the benefit of locally grown food is becoming more apparent.

According to a study by Envision Utah, only 2 percent of fruits and 3 percent of vegetables in Utah are produced locally, and these percentages could decline significantly as Utah's population and land development increases. This has led to a huge demand for urban farming solutions that support both growers and consumers in the community.

Whether you're a long-time "locavore" or a newcomer to the world of urban farming, there are plenty of reasons to jump on this produce wagon and get involved in your local urban farming programs.

1. Support the local economy

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of buying and eating local is the economic value. Spending money at your farmer's market or through membership in a Community Supported Agriculture organization puts those funds back into your community. A study by the research firm Civic Economics found that 48 percent of money spent at a local independent business is directly or indirectly recirculated into that community — compared with less than 14 percent of purchases at chain stores.

By supporting your local producers, you help protect their livelihoods and improve the health of the local economy. Good for you, good for business, good for the community.

2. Access fresher, healthier food

But urban farming isn't just about business and economics. There are wonderful health and quality benefits for the consumer, too. For instance, food often travels hundreds or even thousands of miles from the source to your plate. In order to transport produce over such great distances, much of it is harvested before it is ripened and is highly processed with preservatives. This leads to less nutritious and less tasty food by the time it reaches your table.

In contrast, local produce is often picked that day and avoids some of the harsher processing and handling methods that detract from the taste and quality of the food. Plus, you have the added benefit of buying directly from the grower, so you can ask them questions about how they grew and handled the produce before it reached you.

Programs like the Salt Lake County Urban Farming program were created in part to facilitate these benefits and interactions. Program Manager Supreet Gill explains, "Increasing the local food supply is one of the biggest things that’s needed, so we connect farmers with available land," which in turn connects the local community with fresher, healthier food options while supporting local family farms.

3. Improve the environment

Locally sourced food also has environmental benefits. One of the most obvious and oft-acclaimed advantages is transportation. Because local food is produced right in the area, it doesn't have to travel as far to get to the consumer as traditional, mass-produced food. With fewer miles to travel, locally grown food tends to create a smaller carbon footprint.

But that's not the only environmental effect. Supporting the growth and development of local farms has numerous benefits to the local ecosystem. Urban farming and gardening adds much-needed support to local bird and insect populations, particularly bees, which have been declining in numbers over the past decade. As people cultivate rich and diverse gardens, bees will have greater sources for pollination, which benefits the bees and the growers. Not a bad deal for the Beehive state.

4. Bring communities together

One of the most rewarding benefits of urban farming is the community impact. Through programs like Salt Lake County's Parks to Produce and Commercial Farming initiatives, people living in cities and towns across the state have the opportunity to connect more closely with their food, their land and their neighbors. From participating in a CSA, cultivating a plot in a community garden, or buying food at the local farmer's market, urban farming provides multiple ways for people to interact with fresh local food and each other.

5. Empower individuals and families

When communities prioritize local food production, they empower individuals and families to increase self-reliance and sustainability. Gill explains that one of the main obstacles in her county is the lack of available, farmable land. The demand for local food is high, yet local farmers often don't have the land resources to produce enough food to meet that demand. Fortunately, a lack of available farmland is not the case in many Utah communities. And as the community works together to provide those land resources to farmers, and other public spaces for community gardens, people will have greater opportunities to provide for themselves and their families, and make food choices that will benefit their lives and the community.

Urban farming has grown in popularity over the years and with so many benefits, it's no wonder why. If you're interested in getting involved in urban farming but aren't sure where to start, Gill recommends purchasing a share in your local CSA, shopping at your farmer's market, or, if you live in the Salt Lake valley, participating in one of the four county community gardens.

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