Urban Agriculture: A True WWII Story

My family here in Germany, where I’m visiting this week and next, has a favorite story about my great grandfather, Karl Bader. After already 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 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 the 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 has drained its cities of investment and left so many people behind with only junk outlets for food.

My great grandfather had saved those 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 would raise 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 all around Mannheim, where city people would go with what jewelry or other finery they had to trade for food. The Pfalz is a region rich in fruit and vegetable farms; markets are loaded right now, for example, with Pfaelzer potatoes, apples, grapes, and new fall wine.

Fresh local grapes from the Pfalz region are everywhere for sale right now in southwest Germany.

Fresh local grapes from the Pfalz region are everywhere for sale right now in southwest Germany.

Instead of building on farmland as its cities have grown, Germany has kept this land largely in agriculture and most of its commercial and residential investment in its existing towns and cities. Europeans have 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 it was those small things they could do that 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.

The rise of 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.

All of which 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.