Agriculture presents common ground for rural, urban people

November 15, 2002

Blacksburg, Va., Nov. 15 2002 -- The diverging attitudes of urban and rural residents concerning how each fits into the national way of life troubles Diane Relf.

"We need to actively pursue connections between urban and rural people, because that will increase understanding," Relf said. "The fact is, this isn't an us-them issue."

A professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech, Relf joined with colleagues from around the country in authoring Urban and Agricultural Communities: Opportunities for Common Ground. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, or CAST, released the report earlier this year.

Strange as some people may find it, Relf said a unifying, though largely unrecognized, factor in American society is agriculture. What the report documents is something that many associated with agriculture understand intuitively.

"Agricultural science impacts people's daily life in the immediate urban environment," Relf said. "Agriculture is not only about food and fiber, as important as they are. It's also about such things as the green industry's role in urban revitalization, economic benefits to cities, and even reducing crime in cities. Rooftop greenery helps with heat control, it provides runoff benefits, and it cleans the air. There are numerous areas where there are beneficial impacts."

In addition to food, fiber, ornamental plants and forestry production, the report defines agriculture as including major components that range from food safety technologies to natural resource programs and to the people and organizations involved in agricultural policy, public education, and related agricultural service industries.

The report provides an extensive discussion of the ways that agriculture already contributes to urban communities, such as storm water management, air quality, and economic benefits, as well as community and human health and recreational opportunities. It also proposes initiatives that the agricultural system, higher education programs and governments must undertake jointly to remain relevant to society. Research, extension and educational opportunities are addressed for each initiative described in the report.

"The green industry is a major sector of agriculture," Relf said of agricultural operations concerned with landscapes, plant nurseries, gardening and lawn care. "It's the fastest growing sector of agriculture. And it's centered largely in urban areas."

In addition to the direct economic benefit of agricultural activities, there are synergistic economic benefits for urban and rural areas. Agri-tourism makes regions more appealing for visitors. Niche agricultural products and farmers' markets tie rural and urban areas together. Urban centers provide a focus for regional economic activity.

Relf, who specializes in horticultural therapy, sees a great opportunity for rural areas and the urban-centered segment of agriculture to add to the health and well being of city residents.

"Just the presence of plants can confer benefits in terms of health," she said. "With an aging population, there is a definite role for horticulture for such things as providing healing landscapes at healthcare facilities. Horticulture is also important for interior landscapes, plants inside buildings that help clean the building's air, and for the effect landscapes have on worker productivity."

The report suggests four initiatives within which agriculture can play a significant role:
The full text of the report is available at the CAST Web site at along with many of CAST's other scientific publications.

PR CONTACT: Stewart MacInnis (540) 231-5863
Faculty member: Dr. Diane Relf, 540-231-6254

Virginia Tech

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