Introduction to Urban Agriculture

compiled by Jack Kittredge from writings by Tom Philpott in Grist, Dr. Caroline Goodson, Jane Jacobs, the Guardian, Brette Jackson, Tammy LaGorce and Winnie Hu in the New York Times, and others

A reconstruction of ninth-century gardens in the Forum of Caesar, Rome. On the right are rows of vegetables, on the left and center are grapevines, vegetables and fruit trees.

Urban agriculture, according to most definitions, is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city. That locational aspect is crucial to distinguishing urban agriculture from generic agriculture, which most people associate with taking place in rural areas. Urban agriculture projects include: community gardens established on vacant land that’s cultivated and maintained within an urban neighborhood; school gardens cultivated and maintained on school grounds, and factor into the curriculum; entrepreneurial gardens that grow produce and flowers for profit; backyard gardens, windowsill gardens, and rooftop gardens that provide vegetables, herbs, and flowers to individuals and/or small families.

Prehistoric Origins

But the rural association with farming has not always been the case argues Jane Jacobs in her classic 1970 book “The Economy of Cities”. In work more recently confirmed by scholars such as Danish economist Ester Boserup, Jacobs says that the prehistoric importance to human survival of trade meant densely populated sites focused on exchange formed even earlier than agriculture was adopted. Materials like obsidian for making tools for hunting were involved in a robust economy that only later included items like edible seeds and young animals – the keys to domestication and agriculture.

When organized agriculture began to flourish, these ‘exchange sites’ grew dramatically, both in population and complexity. Eventually some agricultural work migrated to land surrounding these emerging cities but much agricultural work remained within cities over the millennia.

In what is now modern Mexico and Central America, for instance, the precursors to the Aztec Empire were supported by urban garden plots as early as the 14th century BC.

In medieval Italy the real marker of political power was control of food resources. According to Dr. Caroline Goodson at the University of Cambridge, more than military force, legislative authority, or religious ceremony, the ability to secure food supplies meant wealth, social status, and legitimacy. Much productive land was actually urban and these lands were highly valuable and carefully controlled. Households farmed lands within city-walls and there is little evidence for commercial food markets of rural produce. Charters documenting property transfers of urban cultivated land — including domestic vegetable patches, independent fields within the city-walls, and orchards and vineyards between houses — appear in documents of the late sixth century, rising in frequency up to the late eleventh or twelfth centuries, when population pressures meant that most farming moved outside the city.

Kitchen gardens and fruit tree groves were sited within walled cities in Europe during the Middle Ages. Such areas were often established by monasteries to help feed the monks living within. Produce was also sold in local markets to supplement the monasteries’ incomes.  The plants and herbs they cultivated served both as food and medicine to their cities’ populations.

Cities Spawned CAFOs and Hothouses

Swill Milk

Coming into modern times, in 19th-century New York City dairy farming proliferated. According to the University of California at Santa Cruz sociologist and food-studies scholar E. Melanie Dupuis:

“By the mid-19th century, “swill” milk stables attached to the numerous in-city breweries and distilleries provided [New York City] with most of its milk. There, cows ate the brewers’ grain mush that remained after distillation and fermentation … As many as two thousand cows were located in one stable. According to one contemporary account, the visitor to one of these barns “will nose the dairy a mile off … Inside, he will see numerous low, flat pens, in which more than 500 milch cows owned by different persons are closely huddled together amid confined air and the stench of their own excrements.”

Here we find evidence that today’s concentrated-animal feedlot operation originated in cities.

Of course cities didn’t just innovate techniques that would later become associated with large-scale, chemical-dependent agriculture, they also incubated sustainable ones. The so-called “French-intensive” method of growing vegetables — in which large amounts of compost are added annually to densely planted raised beds — is one of the most productive and sustainable forms of organic agriculture used today. And guess what? It developed not in the countryside, but rather within the crowded arrondissements of 19th century Paris.


The French-intensive method hinges on a principle identified by Jane Jacobs, one that modern-day city residents (and planners) should take to heart: that cities are fantastic reservoirs of waste resources waiting to be “mined.” Like all cities of its time, 19th-century Paris bristled with horses, the main transportation vehicle of the age. And where there are lots of horses, there are vast piles of horse manure. The city’s market gardeners turned that fetid problem into a precious resource by composting it for food production and using it in beds and under large glass “clotches” to heat and fertilize vegetables. This recycling of the “transportation wastes” of the day was so successful and so extensive that the soil increased in fertility from year to year despite the high level of production. Paris’s market gardeners supplied the entire metropolis with vegetables for most of the year — and even had excess to export to England.

At the same time, in this country, farmers from all over the midwest would haul their hogs and cows to Chicago’s vast slaughterhouses, where they would be fed in pens while awaiting their fate. Operating for over a century, starting in the mid-1800s and not closing for good until 1971, this vast meatpacking enterprise at its height dominated the city. More meat was packed each day here than anywhere else in the world. According to the Chicago Historical Society, by 1900 the stockyards “employed more than 25,000 people and produced 82 percent of the meat consumed in the United States.” Started and owned by a group of railroad companies, the yards were where well-known meat-packing giants like Armour and Swift got their start.

Vacant Lot Gardens

1896 the Detroit Plan among the potatotes

The first community gardens in the United States were vacant lot gardens started during the economic recession of the 1890s. Detroit was the first city in the United States to create an extensive municipally sponsored urban gardening program using vacant lots in the city. Mayor Hazen Pingree started the program in response to the economic recession that began in 1893, which left many of the city’s industrial laborers, particularly recent Polish and German immigrants, unemployed and hungry.

Pingree developed a program to substitute labor for charity. He arranged for landowners to lend their properties to the local government, which were utilized by 945 families as gardens for produce—primarily, potatoes. The City invested $3,000 in “Pingree’s Potato Patches,” and showed a $12,000 profit a year later. Gardening became compulsory for those receiving government assistance. Soon cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York subsidized similar gardening programs.

In 1891, Boston inaugurated the nation’s first school gardening program. Children were taught agrarian skills for work deemed less draconian than earning wages in factories. Incorporating gardening in the curriculum was believed to instill a strong work ethic, and teach “appropriate social behavior to immigrants, delinquents, and the infirm”.

Women work in a World War I garden, 1918

At the start of World War I, Europe was in the midst of catastrophic food shortages and the need for food became the primary motivation for cultivating community gardens. Once the U.S. entered the war large tracts of land were prioritized for food to be exported overseas. To supplement food domestically Herbert Hoover, Director of the U.S. Food Administration, established a national gardening campaign. Americans enthusiastically plowed backyards, vacant lots, and municipal land. Slogans such as “Sow the Seeds of Victory,” rallied 5 million gardeners to produce an unprecedented $520 million worth of food. Gardening became a patriotic act.

The nature of community gardening changed with the onslaught of the Great Depression. Like vacant lot cultivation during the 1890s, the subsistence gardens in American cities during the 1930s were created in response to an economic crisis and intended to help meet residents’ immediate need for food.  They were often supported through partnerships between municipal government and community organizations. By 1934, 2.3 million subsistence farmers produced more than $36 million worth of food. In 1939 Roosevelt’s New Deal Program essentially exchanged federally supported gardens for USDA food stamps, regarded as a more “efficient” system to feed the hungry.

Victory Gardens

 First food stamp

First food stamp

When the United Sates entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many Americans participated in a grassroots effort begun to rekindle the patriotic liberty gardens of WWI.  At first the federal government was skeptical of supporting these efforts like they had before. Officials thought large-scale agriculture was more efficient. Citing the health, recreational, and morale-boosting effects of gardening, however, the government again supported a national gardening campaign during World War II.

After World War II — during which town and city gardens provided some 40 percent of vegetables consumed in the United States — city residents no longer needed to garden for their sustenance. The easy fertility provided by synthetic nitrogen fertilizer made the kind of nutrient recycling performed by Paris’s urban farmers seem obsolete and backwards at the same time that the rise of fossil fuel-powered transportation banished the horse from cities, taking away a key source of nutrients.

Food production became a “low value,” marginal urban enterprise, and planners banished it from their schemes. Supermarkets, stocked year-round with produce from around the world and a wealth of processed food, more than filled the void.

In urban communities throughout the nation, segregation laws placed a chasm between African American and white neighborhoods. The economic boom of the 1950s was the catalyst for “white flight,” as white urbanites retreated to the comfort and prestige of new suburbs. White urban communities shrank exponentially while African American communities swelled, eventually extending into abandoned white neighborhoods that were once off limits. Services in these areas, such as supermarkets, followed the White dollar, leaving only small grocery stores, offering a poor selection of produce, liquor stores, and fast food chains.

Across the country, the postwar urban manufacturing base began to melt away in the 1970s, as factories fled to the union-hostile South, and later to Mexico and Asia. Meanwhile, the highway system and new development drew millions of white families to the leafy lawns of the exurban periphery. As the jobs and whites left the cities, so did the economic base sustaining the private food system.

The importance of gardens and food production in inner cities was highlighted as grocery stores slowly abandoned those areas. The exodus of grocery stores from African American urban neighborhoods dates from the 1960s and ‘70s, when increasing violence and decreasing population prompted many businesses to flee. In the District of Columbia, for example, the number of chain grocery stores dropped from 91 in 1968 to less than three dozen in the 1990s. University of Connecticut agricultural economist Ronald W. Cotterill, who headed a 1995 study of the phenomenon, described the result of this process:

Youngstown depression garden

Youngstown depression garden

“…poor Americans often must shop in small corner stores that charge as much as 40 percent more and offer a meager selection of fresh food. The “grocery gap” examined in the District and 20 other cities also has policy implications: Food stamps and other federal nutrition programs buy much less than they would in more affluent neighborhoods where supermarkets offer less expensive, fresher products. In many of these cities we have two food distribution systems: one for people who have access to suburban outlets and one for those that don’t.”

Urban African Americans and Latins of low socioeconomic status thus live in areas that lack sufficient sources of healthful foods. These communities, known as food deserts, are defined as areas where residents have limited access to healthy fresh nutriments, particularly if they are poor and have limited mobility.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “low fruit and vegetable intake is among the top ten risk factors related to [disease] and mortality”. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that African Americans have a fifty-one percent higher instance of obesity than Caucasians, with Latinx following at twenty-one percent; both communities are also predisposed to type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, however, people and grassroots organizations have also come together to build community gardens that promote environmental stewardship and revitalize urban neighborhoods affected by disinvestment.

Gardens of Soul Food

Urban food production had been slowly taken up by a population of new residents who had come to the city during and after the World Wars, seeking economic and personal opportunity. Six million African Americans, part of one of the largest internal migrations in history, left the rural South and moved into Midwest and Northern cities between 1916 and 1970, with the largest flows occurring during and after World War Two.

These residents changed the character of northern cities, bringing in a new immigrant population with rural backgrounds and tastes in food. It did not take long for urban land to again sprout gardens, this time filled with “soul” food.

Adrian E. Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Suprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time”, explains:

“As people left the South, they did what any other immigrant group does: They tried to re-create home. If you think about immigrant food in this country, it’s usually the celebration of food of the old country. It’s not the day-in-and-day-out stuff, it’s usually the stuff they ate on special occasions that, now that they’re more prosperous here, they eat more regularly. That’s the story of soul food.”

In the Eight Mile-Wyoming area of Detroit, for instance, residents often raised chickens among their vegetable gardens. Corn was a common sight in the neighborhood, along with an informal system of community gardening. As one resident told a visitor, they had no trouble with people stealing from their garden because, “we just plant a little more than we need each year to take care of that.”  Alternately, “if we run low, we just get a few [ears of corn] off of somebody else’s. We all know that. We don’t care. We’re friends out here!”

Turning Spoiled Food into Compost

Will Allen atop a Growing Power compost pile

Will Allen atop a Growing Power compost pile

But titanic amounts of the food that enters cities each year leaves as garbage headed to the landfill — a massive waste of a resource that could be composted into rich soil amendments, as Paris’ 19th-century farmers did with horse manure. According to the EPA, fully one-quarter of the food bought in America ends up in the waste stream — 32 million tons per year. Of that, less than 3 percent gets composted. The rest, landfilled, slowly rots and emits methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The EPA reports that wasted food in landfills accounts for a fifth of U.S. methane emissions: the second largest human-related source of methane in the United States.

In 1993, a former professional basketball player and corporate marketer named Will Allen purchased a tract of land on the economically troubled North Side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Allen hoped to use the space to open a market that would sell vegetables he grew on his farm outside Milwaukee. But then, working with unemployed youth from the city’s largest housing project, nearby Westlawn Homes, Allen soon began growing food right in Milwaukee.

Eventually, that effort would morph into Growing Power, now the nation’s most celebrated urban-farming project. Milwaukee’s Growing Power has turned the urban waste stream into a powerful engine for growing food. Most urban agriculture operations today are net importers of soil fertility — they bring in topsoil and compost from outside to amend poor urban soils. Growing Power has become a net exporter. In 2008, as the New York Times Magazine reported in a profile of founder Will Allen, Growing Power converted 6 million pounds of spoiled food into 300,000 pounds of compost. The organization used a quarter of it to grow enough food to feed 10,000 Milwaukee residents — and sold the rest to city gardeners.

Growth of Community Gardens

In many urban neighborhoods around the country, community gardens have fiercely loyal protectors who have mobilized in recent years as their city has targeted gardens as sites for affordable housing, and private developers have also eyed them for high end development.

In 2017 the New York City Parks Department’s Green Thumb program — the nation’s largest community garden program — grew to 553 gardens, up from 501 in 2009. Most of the gardens sit on city-owned or other public property, and are maintained by community groups and a dedicated corps of 20,000 volunteer gardeners.

Global Urban Agriculture

Urban gardening in Havana

About 3.2 million New Yorkers, or 38 percent of the city’s population of 8.5 million, were born in other countries, according to an analysis of census data by Queens College. About half of those immigrants came from the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

A large percentage of the people involved in urban agriculture are the urban poor. Contrary to general belief they are often not recent immigrants from rural areas (since the urban farmer needs time to get access to urban land, water and other productive resources). Women constitute an important part of urban farmers, since agriculture and related processing and selling activities, among others, can often be more easily combined with their other tasks in the household. It is however more difficult to combine it with urban jobs that require travelling to the town centre, industrial areas or to the houses of the rich.

In much of the world urban populations who work in agriculture are significantly better nourished than their counterparts in non-farming households. In Kampala, where urban producers obtain 40 to 60 percent or more of their household food needs from their own urban gardens, children aged five years or less in low-income farming households were found to be significantly less stunted than children in non-farming families.

It is estimated by the UN that worldwide 200 million urban residents provide food for the market and 800 million urban dwellers are actively engaged in urban agriculture in one way or another. These urban farmers produce substantial amounts of food for urban consumers. A global estimate is that 15-20% of the world’s food is produced in urban areas.

Research on specific cities and products yield data like the following: in Hanoi, 80% of fresh vegetables, 50% of pork, poultry and fresh water fish, as well as 40% of eggs, originate from urban and peri-urban areas; in the urban and peri-urban area of Shanghai, 60% of the city’s vegetables, 100% of the milk, 90% of the eggs, and 50% of the pork and poultry meat is produced; in Java, home gardens provide for 18% of caloric consumption and 14% of proteins of the urban population; Dakar produces 60% of the national vegetable consumption whilst urban poultry production amounts to 65% of the national demand. Sixty percent of the milk consumed in Dakar is produced in/around the city; and in Accra, 90% of the city’s fresh vegetable consumption is from production within the city.

Over 26,000 popular gardens cover 2438.7 hectares in Havana and produce 25,000 tons of food each year; a total of 299 square kilometres of urban agriculture produces 113,525 tons/year. Urban agriculture to a large extent complements rural agriculture and increases the efficiency of the national food system in that it provides products that rural agriculture cannot supply easily (e.g. perishable products, products that require rapid delivery upon harvest), that can substitute for food imports and can release rural lands for export production of commodities.

From its beginnings in prehistoric time, agriculture has been a part of city living. It has its own set of problems and opportunities, distinct from those of rural agriculture. And in the United States often its practitioners are women, the poor, marginalized populations and immigrants. Yet the quest to provide for yourself, to experience the mystery of life that farming requires, and to create healthy, tasty, nutritious food for your community and your family are the same no matter what kind of growing you do.



Urban Farming and Cities

Editorial La Finquita Community Garden in Holyoke

Editorial La Finquita Community Garden in Holyoke

The growth of community gardens, educational farms, school greenhouses, college plots, backyard growers, rooftop gardens and container operations in urban areas of the US indicates the current breadth of interest in producing food by city residents. Such a flowering has not been seen in many years. The history of agriculture in cities, however, goes back thousands of years and may surprise some readers. We have traced that history here.

There are of course clear difficulties with such growing in contemporary America, especially issues of soil toxicity and access to land, on both of which we have articles in this issue. The larger strengths and weaknesses of urban agriculture are also addressed here from an agro-ecological perspective.

One of the most striking features of this phenomenon, of course, is how heavily it is the work of people of color, primarily African-American but also Latinx communities. The demographics of marginalized groups in American farming are traced in another article, as well as their contributions to the science, technology, and business aspects of agricultural success.

Our features, one on urban farming in a historically African-American community in Brooklyn and one on a CSA focusing on front-line communities and racial justice activists in Providence and Boston, both illustrate the realities of raising food for urban residents with a special concern for being led by, and serving, people of color.

Many NOFA farmers and homesteaders, of course, are white and primarily rural. Even our gardening and landscaping members are far more suburban than inner city residents. Yet the realities of our work with soil, seeds, tools and weather are closely aligned, wherever we farm. The issues of toxic chemicals, food safety, market regulation, economic viability, crop quality, even succession are very much the same.

It is our hope that with this issue urban, suburban, and rural growers will all see the common features that unite us. Such a consciousness, we feel, can help us forge an alliance in the work we need to do together to address the myriad ills of today’s food system.

Commercial Farmland Access in Urban Settings

by Johanna Rosen, Equity Trust and Kathryn Ruhf, Land For Goodc with contributions from Bob Wagner, consultant, Land For Good

Dorchester Community Garden

Dorchester Community Garden
photo by EcoPhotography

Urban agriculture is a broad topic with a range of issues. Here, the focus is on how farmers get and hold land for commercial farming in urban areas. An “urban area” is typically a densely built environment. Most urban areas are within city boundaries, but cities can include more suburban settings with significant open spaces. For example, Urban Edge Farm (UEF) is within the City of Cranston, Rhode Island. It occupies 20 acres, surrounded by scattered rural residences. While farms like UEF are subject to city ordinances, many of the other issues discussed here would not apply to UEF.

There are many types of urban agriculture. This article does not go into educational farms or training programs, community gardens, or backyard “self-provisioning” gardens. Operations that are not land-based, such as rooftop, controlled environment, and hydroponic businesses have different considerations, not covered here. Commercial farms are operated as businesses, typically by private entities. A commercial farming enterprise could be under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization that also engages in educational or other charitable programs.  In fact, nonprofit urban farms appear to be more common than private commercial operations.

Urban agriculture of all kinds offers many social, health, environmental, and economic benefits—all of which have been widely discussed.  Among the most substantial benefits are the positive impacts on community well-being, and expanding awareness of and engagement with food production and healthy food.

For commercial producers, urban settings can offer highly accessible and diverse markets, rewarding interactions with customers and neighbors, options for ancillary services such as educational programming, and an opportunity for urban dwellers to realize their farming goals. Commercial urban farms can range from small backyard plots to 10 acres or more.

Farming in urban settings presents some challenges distinct from rural farming. It requires sensitivity to the historical and current racial, socioeconomic, geographical, and cultural dynamics, often in complex, highly diverse areas. Other challenges are similar to those in non-urban settings, but with a different wrinkle. These can include soil quality concerns such as toxic contamination and rubble, theft and vandalism, and lack or cost of infrastructure such as water, fencing, and buildings. Urban farmers might also be concerned about air quality, equipment storage, and parking, depending on their location. Establishing a viable commercial urban farm requires creativity, determination, and diplomacy.

Land access is a common barrier for beginning and other farmers, and is uniquely challenging within urban settings. Availability, cost, parcel size limitations, specific location (e.g., proximity to markets or residence, neighborhood acceptance), and competing uses make secure tenure on appropriate urban parcels difficult. In general, most urban land is not affordable to purchase for most farm operations. And what’s affordable may not be suitable for farming. As with their rural counterparts, many urban farmers seek alternatives to buying land, such as leasing.

What are these land access and tenure challenges in urban settings? How can you as a commercial farmer get onto and hold land? What innovations mitigate these challenges and promote access to land for urban farming?

Finding land

Land availability varies greatly by city, depending in part on its history, current conditions, and density of development. Who owns the land will impact its availability to farmers and any resulting use agreement. Often, vacant lots are seen as attractive for urban agriculture. But what is a “vacant” or empty lot?

Technically, a vacant lot is a parcel of land that has no buildings on it. Often, it is a neglected or abandoned parcel that may have had a building on it at one time. Lots that have been repurposed for community gardens or play space may still be considered “vacant” if these open space uses are not recognized. In many neighborhoods, informal uses are important to residents, and pocket open spaces might not be available for production. In addition to vacant lots, suitable open spaces for production could be found as part of a larger parcel containing buildings, recreation areas, and/or other activities. Critical to the farmer’s tenure is who owns the parcel.

Land ownership can be divided into two main categories: private and public. Public land-holding entities can include municipal redevelopment authorities, housing authorities, parks departments, school departments, public utilities and transportation agencies, as well as state and federal agencies. Publicly owned land can also include historic sites, and land held by land banks.

Privately owned urban land may be held by individuals, investors, for-profit corporations, churches and other religious organizations, banks, private institutions such as some schools, colleges, and hospitals, and other charitable or educational nonprofits. There are also private utility and transportation companies that own urban land.

Finding available parcels and identifying their ownership may require a bit of effort. Some cities have land inventories that can be accessed online. For example, New York City maintains an inventory of city-owned land that is updated every two years. It identifies, among other variables, whether it is suitable for urban agriculture (of all kinds). Cleveland, Ohio has a Vacant Land Inventory for Urban Agriculture. Although they tend to be more community oriented than farm business oriented, support organizations in many cities, part of the Land Access Advocacy Network, have online tools for identifying vacant land, such as Lots to Love in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Grounded in Philly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and 596 Acres’ Living Lots NYC.

Farmers can call the city’s planning or zoning department to determine ownership, as well as to see if there are any easements or other liens on a parcel. Tax or property records will give you the owner’s name and possibly phone number and address. Most such records are online, but you may have to visit the appropriate office. Some private owners of vacant parcels may be absentee, and tracking them down may present a challenge. Consider asking neighbors for information.

Some cities have a land bank—a public or private entity that holds and disburses parcels, typically for future development. These are often vacant, abandoned, tax delinquent, or foreclosed properties. Many land banks are interested in selling properties they hold, sometimes at bargain rates. And while most land banks’ primary purpose is not related to agricultural uses, it may be possible to access property through a land bank for agriculture, possibly even with a dwelling and enough land for small-scale production.  For example, a couple in Lansing, Michigan rents a residential parcel from the Ingham County Land Bank. They raise crops and bees on this land. They’ve expressed interest in purchasing the property, but the land bank does not currently have a process for such a transfer.

In addition to land bank disposition, cities often sell tax delinquent property through a sheriff sale or auction. Some cities have side-yard programs to make it easier for residents to acquire vacant lots adjacent to their homes.

Locating a suitable parcel requires more than a drive-by and finding the owner. Zoning and other city ordinances will determine what is possible onsite. Not all municipalities or neighborhoods are receptive to agriculture. Read below for more information about regulations.

Holding land

Urban commercial farmers face many of the same land tenure issues as producers in rural and suburban areas. Can you afford to purchase the land you want to farm? If not, can you obtain an adequately secure and affordable rental agreement? Municipal ordinances may determine the kind of tenure available and under what terms.  As with rural farming, insecure tenure limits a farmer’s ability to make physical improvements, and puts farms at risk of losing not just access to the land itself, but also investments made in building relationships with neighbors, customers, and suppliers, improving soils, and installing infrastructure.  The two main categories of tenure are ownership and tenancy.

Ownership: Most public land-owning entities can sell land they hold, but the process can be cumbersome and regulations control what a specific entity is allowed to do regarding disposition of real estate. In most states, disposing of state-owned land involves a state agency declaring a property in its jurisdiction “surplus.”  This triggers a sequence of actions, starting with making the surplus property available to other state agencies, then county and town authorities, before it might be disposed of via a competitive bid process or public auction. This process can be lengthy. Similar procedures or other barriers may be involved at the municipal level. For example, in Philadelphia there’s “councilmanic prerogative,” which gives city council members the ability to make land use decisions, including disposition of public land, in their district, while in Detroit, Michigan, the city council must approve purchases over 10 acres. These practices give city council members power of discretion and may put farmers without political influence at a disadvantage.

Sanctuary Herbs of Providence at Urban Edge by Hmong farmers

Sanctuary Herbs of Providence at Urban Edge by Hmong farmers

In Boston, Massaschusetts, We Grow Microgreens submitted an application through the City’s RFP process to buy city-owned land in the Hyde Park area to build a greenhouse, a high tunnel, and raised beds. They are awaiting a response, and the long process has delayed the business’ plans to expand.

As mentioned, private land ownership by the farmer is less common in an urban context, but there are some examples. Urbavore Farm raises produce and poultry on 13 acres purchased by the farmers within Kansas City, Missouri. Karen Fresh Garden grows in the large backyard of the house the farmer’s family bought in Kansas City, Kansas.

Tenancy:  As an alternative to purchasing land, urban farmers can rent public or private land. With rented land, success depends on the lease or other use agreement, hinging on what is allowed, rent and other fees, and landlord-tenant relations. Baltimore, Maryland’s Land Leasing Initiative, for instance, provides for 5-year leases on pre-approved city lots. Eligibility is contingent in part on having at least one year of experience and demonstrating that the operation will be “profitable.” The lots, however, are for sale, so the lease can be terminated if the lot is sold.

As with most rental situations, it is strongly advised to get a written agreement when possible. Most of the terms in a general farm lease will pertain in urban settings. See Elements of a Good Farm Lease and other resources from Land For Good.  A short-term (1-3 years) lease offers flexibility and a trial period, but not a lot of security. Longer-term leases are more secure, but may not be an option with some landowners. Certain clauses may need customized consideration for an urban setting to accommodate the close proximity of neighbors, urban zoning specifics (e.g., prohibited uses), determination of fair rent, site maintenance, water or sewer charges, public access, or soil contamination, for example.

Some cities offer licenses or permits, rather than leases, for short-term use of public land. A license or permit is permission to use the property, rather than an actual leasehold interest in the premises. These are less secure for farmers, but may be the only legal or practical option. In a non-urban example, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ State-Owned Farmland Licensing Program makes state land available to farmers under 5-year licenses. These go out to bid, and are renewable.

Innovative models: Several innovative arrangements have been developed or hold promise to help urban farmers achieve secure land tenure. This is an emerging field; there are not a lot of examples and each effort is unique. These often involve nonprofit organizations. A nonprofit organization must have a charitable or educational purpose, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t engage in money-making activities such as selling farm products or collecting land rent.

For example, a nonprofit group can raise products that the organization sells commercially, along with its educational and training programs, food donations, gardens, and/or other activities. While this model doesn’t provide land tenure for a farmer, farmers could—and do—get experience and income from employment in these settings.

A nonprofit organization could acquire urban property for various charitable purposes and rent some or all of its land to one or more commercial farmers. One of the main advantages for the farmer is that the nonprofit is a “friendly” landlord. The farmer might also be involved with the organization’s educational activities or might benefit from the nonprofit’s clientele, marketing, and relationships with the neighborhood or city officials.

The Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont is a nonprofit that leases land to nine small to medium-sized organic farms, both mentor farms and incubator farms, which operate independently and benefit from the shared site.

A nonprofit could also act as an interim owner while a plan for the farmer to purchase the land is developed. Lewiston, Maine’s New Roots Cooperative Farm was founded by four graduates of Cultivating Community’s New American Sustainable Agriculture Program with support from the Cooperative Development Institute. Maine Farmland Trust purchased a 30-acre farm property within the city limits of Lewiston on behalf of the New Roots farmers, with a plan to develop an agreement with the farmers that will allow them to purchase the land at a future date and maintain secure access to the property in the meantime through a lease developed with support from Land For Good.

As an intermediary, a nonprofit can rent land from a public entity for its nonprofit purposes, and then sub-lease to a commercial farmer. In this way, the nonprofit is a buffer between the landowner and the farmer. It can, for example, negotiate the master lease, create supportive subleases (provided they are consistent with the master lease), and facilitate sharing among multiple site users.

The Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) has a 10-year ground lease from the State of Rhode Island on a 20-acre farm in Cranston. As the intermediary, SCLT subleases plots to several start-up commercial farmers at nominal rates. Cranston is a city, but the parcel is in a more rural setting. One attractive feature of this arrangement is that the farmers share equipment and infrastructure. Another is that they get support from SCLT.

Historically, community land trusts (CLTs) have focused on affordable housing, often by acquiring property and offering ground leases to homeowners. In a ground lease, the tenant rents a parcel of land and owns the home and/or other buildings upon it. While there aren’t yet examples of a CLT leasing directly to a commercial farmer in an urban setting, there are examples of CLTs providing access to land for nonprofits with commercial farm enterprises.

In Boston, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s (DSNI) CLT provides access to both affordable housing and land for food production. It leases land that it owns to The Food Project, a nonprofit with a commercial enterprise, for farm and greenhouse space. DSNI is also developing an additional farm site, mainly for farmer training, in partnership with Trust for Public Land and the Urban Farming Institute.

The Madison Area Land Trust (MALT) in Wisconsin is a CLT that also owns residential and agricultural land. In this example, MALT leases land to Community Groundworks, a non-profit that manages a commercial CSA.

In Olympia, Washington, South of the South Community Farm Land Trust purchased land and tailored their ground lease model for GRuB (Garden-Raised Bounty), a nonprofit with a commercial enterprise.

Two nonprofits in Pittsburgh, Grow Pittsburgh and Allegheny Land Trust recently launched a joint venture, Three Rivers Agricultural Land Initiative, using the CLT model to “provide long-term security for existing community gardens and urban farms, and ensure that future urban agricultural expansion will be planned and conducted on protected land.”

There are also examples of nonprofits that are not CLTs, but have related missions and can play a similar role in protecting land and making it available to farmers. These nonprofits own land in rural areas or less dense areas within city limits, and provide ground leases to the farmland with farmers owning the infrastructure.

Grow Food Northampton and North Amherst Community Farm, both in western Massachusetts, created new nonprofits to hold farmland and make it available to commercial farm businesses using long-term ground leases. Equity Trust assisted with these and other agricultural ground lease projects, some involving conservation land trusts.


City zoning and other ordinances govern what land uses are allowed and where. Until recently, agriculture was not even contemplated as a land use in most cities, so regulations may be vague or unfriendly to farming. Increasingly, urban agriculture is welcomed by cities, and laws are changing. For the most part, the changes pertain to educational and community gardening endeavors, rather than commercial agriculture. That said, more and more cities are seeking ways to foster urban agriculture, including commercial farms. For example, the Conservation Law Foundation has worked with Portland, Maine, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Central Falls, Rhode Island on ordinance revisions to support urban farming.

City zoning codes might prohibit certain farming activities such as keeping livestock or bees. They might limit the type, size, or location of farm-related buildings, signage, fencing, and compost piles, for example. They might allow commercial agriculture only in certain zones or areas of the city. For example, Boston’s Urban Agriculture Code, Article 89, allows all land-based farms up to one acre in any zone (i.e. residential, commercial, industrial) in the city, while land-based farms larger than one acre are allowed by right only in industrial areas and are conditional in all other areas.

Special permits or conditions might be required for certain farm-related activities such as product sales. The Somerville, Massachusetts Urban Agriculture Zoning Ordinance requires soil testing (with the results of the soil test clearly posted at the point of sale) for product sales, and only fresh, uncut, and unprocessed produce grown on the premises can be sold. In addition to municipal regulations, state laws related to water, agricultural nutrient management, and other relevant concerns also could impact urban land uses for farming.

Land protection

Removing the rights to develop farmland through a conservation easement or restriction has been an important tool in areas where good farmland is threatened with development. Conservation easements are less likely to be used in urban areas where the parcels tend to be small, and not a high priority for easement programs.  Nonetheless, they have been used in some urban agriculture projects. In urban areas, agriculture is often considered an interim use, and even in cases where the “highest and best use” of a parcel is not redevelopment, it may be necessary to find ways to protect the land for long-term agricultural use.

To protect the 12.5-acre Fairview Gardens, an innovative agricultural conservation easement was granted to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County at the time of the purchase that ensures active use as a working organic farm and educational programs under the nonprofit organization, the Center for Urban Agriculture. Fairview Gardens was a farm long before the area developed around it and the City of Goleta, California was established.

Another historic farm, Five Fridges Farm, located just outside Denver in the City of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, is privately owned by the farmer. Through a conservation easement held by Colorado Open Lands, the farm is protected for agriculture use forever: it cannot be subdivided or further developed.

Urban land also may be protected through outright (fee) ownership by a nonprofit land trust such as Neighborhood Gardens Association in Philadelphia (where the focus is on community gardens).

Site considerations

Infrastructure: Like their rural peers, urban farmers must consider their needs for water, storage, season extension, fencing, etc. Are these available on a parcel of interest? Can they be installed, and at whose cost? Are there any regulations that would hamper installation or use of infrastructure? What about parking and storage? Some municipalities, such as San Francisco, California and Philadelphia, offer a discounted water use rate for urban farms or waivers for storm water fees. Farms in these cities have received assistance to subsidize or cover the cost of hooking up to the municipal water supply for farm use. Other cities, such as Detroit, provide permits to access water via fire hydrants.

Soil quality: Soil quality in urban settings is one of the most critical considerations. It’s important to ensure that the soil is not contaminated on the farm site. Contaminants can include lead from pipes and paint, leaks from underground fuel storage tanks, and other pollutants from previous uses. There may be rubble from old buildings buried on the lot. Depending on the type of contaminant, remediation may or may not be possible. Some urban farmers cap the ground and use raised beds with imported clean soil. Innovative remediation methods include planting sunflowers or growing mushrooms. With that method, the toxic residue must be safely removed from the site.

There are many resources that address urban soil quality issues, including the Soil Safety Resource Guide for Urban Food Growers from The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Guidelines on testing and remediation can be found at www.urbanaglaw.org/soil or through your Extension service.

Housing: In urban settings, farmers are more likely to live off-farm unless they have a backyard farm. Affordable urban housing is addressed by many groups, programs, and policies, but access to affordable housing near the farm may be an issue for urban farmers. Living off-farm (for any farmer) may make emergency tasks, protection from theft and vandalism, and managing animals more challenging.

Scale and scaling up

NOFA RI holds workshop at Sidewalk Ends Farm

NOFA RI holds workshop at Sidewalk Ends Farm

Once urban growers are established, they may face a choice to stay at the same scale, expand within their urban setting or migrate to peri-urban or rural land. Seeking a larger lot within the city may present similar challenges as those experienced the first time around, only more so because larger parcels tend to be even harder to find. Farming on multiple parcels is another option that comes with its own set of logistical and other complications.

Farmers who want to move from tenancy to ownership, or onto ground independent of an intermediary organization will need to go through all the requisite research and negotiations.

Moving out of the city creates new considerations. Farmers who have been successful on urban plots will likely have to consider changes in their production practices, plant varieties, types of products, markets, equipment, and even residence. It may feel like starting over, with an additional learning curve. And obtaining land—and a new support system—outside of cities presents fresh challenges.

Sidewalk Ends Farm, based in Providence, Rhode Island, was founded on a 5,000 square foot lot through a handshake agreement with a private absentee landowner. After the first year, the farmers were unable to reach the landowner to explore protecting the land and increasing their security. They leased additional small, private urban and peri-urban parcels nearby. Farming multiple insecure urban lots proved frustrating to the farmers. After 3 years, they signed a 5-year lease for a small hayfield in nearby Seekonk, Massachusetts. This allows them to more confidently build soil and infrastructure, and grow more food for more markets.

Race, equity, and urban land access

Due to discrimination and structural racism, people of color and immigrant farmers may confront additional barriers to land access. Many communities are eager to welcome urban agriculture, but the dynamics can play out very differently based on who seeks to farm there, and who serves as gatekeeper. Racism underpins many interactions in our society, often below levels of awareness. White privilege, language privilege, and familiarity with vocabularies of development or gentrification can open doors for prospective white urban farmers that may remain firmly closed for farmers of color. The ability to communicate and earn trust within a community is crucial in establishing any urban farm; good relationships with neighbors and elected officials can mean more flexibility as a farm tries to get established and build out its vision.

As with rural farming, urban agriculture often operates through informal agreements and handshake deals, where land opportunities arise through social networks. Farmers with limited proficiency with English or comprehension of local norms find it more difficult to move through the process of accessing land without outside support from a relevant organization or champion. Thus barriers to land access are higher for people without language facility, the ability to “code-switch” in defense of their projects, or the social connections to make requests of authority figures.

Urban farming sometimes can lead to unintended and unconsidered consequences including gentrification. Urban agriculture is more likely to emerge in places with open and undervalued land such as post-industrial cities, poor/disinvested neighborhoods, and environmentally degraded urban landscapes. While properties in these areas might be more accessible, and farms might be an initial asset to the community, they can also be (in some cases unwitting) agents of gentrification. Such transformation can lead to the displacement of residents the farm purports to serve by raising property values, and stimulating competing interests for land. Gentrification may also eventually displace urban farms in favor of “higher use” development options.


Adequate land tenure is essential to the success and expansion of urban agriculture. Despite some unique challenges, commercial farming in urban settings can offer multiple benefits to farmers as well as urban communities. Public and private landowners can be important partners in creative and mutually rewarding transactions to make urban land available for farming. The examples in this article provide models to those who seek to farm in urban settings.

Incubating Farmers at Urban Edge

It is not surprising, to anyone who reflects on the matter, that the Ocean State should have the most expensive land prices in the country. Averaging $13,800 per acre, Rhode Island is comfortably ahead of New Jersey’s $13,000 average price.

Much of the state is either on or within sight of the ocean, driving up prices. Urbanization is also strong there. It shares with only one state, again New Jersey, the distinction of having more than 1000 residents per square mile. And only New Jersey and the District of Columbia equal its percentage of area in metropolitan districts — 100%.

photo courtesy Ben Torpey Ben Torpey and apprentice John McGarry check out the 2015 onion crop on their weekly field walk

photo courtesy Ben Torpey
Ben Torpey and apprentice John McGarry check out the 2015 onion crop on their weekly field walk

Pat McNiff, who raises cattle, pigs, layers, ducks and has a small garden on leased Ocean State land in East Greenwich under the name Pat’s Pastured, puts it succinctly: “There is no affordable private land in this state anymore. What there is of new farmers is either in the city on public land, or on a land trust piece.”

In Rhode Island the purchase of development rights, a measure designed to prevent land from being developed and keeping prices affordable for farming, may have met its limit. Pat lost the leased 50 acre “development protected” farm he was on when it was offered for sale at 7.5 million dollars.

Key players gather at Urban Edge Farm (UEF). From left to right: John Kenney (long term Urban Edge farmer who is just now buying his own land and planning a transition away from the farm), Rob Booz (Community Gardens Coordinator for the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) which leases the farm from the state and subleases it to the farmers), Choua Xiong (long term farmer who, along with his brother and sister-in-law were among the founding UEF tenants), Christina Dedora (long term UEF farmer who has developed an herb and flower business there), Ken Ayars (chief of the state’s Division of Agriculture), Pat McNiff (SCLT program director at the time of the purchase and now a private farmer on rented land), and Ben Torpey, (UEF farmer and host of gathering).

Key players gather at Urban Edge Farm (UEF). From left to right: John Kenney (long term Urban Edge farmer who is just now buying his own land and planning a transition away from the farm), Rob Booz (Community Gardens Coordinator for the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) which leases the farm from the state and subleases it to the farmers), Choua Xiong (long term farmer who, along with his brother and sister-in-law were among the founding UEF tenants), Christina Dedora (long term UEF farmer who has developed an herb and flower business there), Ken Ayars (chief of the state’s Division of Agriculture), Pat McNiff (SCLT program director at the time of the purchase and now a private farmer on rented land), and Ben Torpey, (UEF farmer and host of gathering).

“There are people,” he asserts, “who will buy that and put a couple horses on it. It is a nice coastal property. Real pretty. They’ll mow it, sell the hay and just look at it. There are no crops that I can raise which are legal that will let me write a note for 7.5 million dollars!”

It was this inflation of land prices, and the inability of a development rights purchase mechanism alone to counter that inflation’s impact on farming, which initially motivated a couple of prescient and strategically placed state administrators to take action.

In 2002 Ken Ayars, chief of the RI Division of Agriculture and Bob Sutton, Division of Development and Planning chief, bought Rhode Island a 50 acre farm on the outskirts of Cranston, a 30 square mile city with over 80,000 residents – the 3rd largest in the state.

“We bought it to own,” stressed Ken, “not just to protect. For awhile we had felt the need for better land access for farmers at DEM (Department of Environmental Management). The idea was to buy a farm with the idea of making space there for farmers to farm it who didn’t have access to land. The DEM had existing programs to buy land for state management in all sorts of areas, and we determined that we had the authority at our level to try this out.

“We sensed,” he continues, “that this was where we needed to go in terms of finding space for farmers in Rhode Island, based on the significant population in Rhode Island, many of whom have agricultural backgrounds, as well as the young farmers you see right here who are starting to come up through the system and are having trouble accessing land. The thought was it would be an incubator space and you, as a farmer, would eventually move on.”

Incubators are places where farmers can get experience with running proprietary farms without having lots of money to invest. The land is owned by a larger mission-based body, as well as many infrastructure pieces – greenhouses, walk-in coolers, sheds, irrigation and washing systems, heavy equipment – which are rented to the farmers on an as-used basis. In the 1980s forward-looking Vermonters had established the Intervale, one of the first farm incubators in the country.

There was not a lot of viable infrastructure at the Rhode Island farm, however, and the state was not in a good position to provide it. What was needed was a non-profit group that could lease the farm from the state, fix it up with money put together from foundations and other donors, and lease it to farmers, staffing the operation to make sure the farmers didn’t encounter huge barriers.

“We decided,” explains Ayars, “that the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) was the best choice. We came to an agreement and rented it to them for $1 a year, with a 20 year lease. It was a big experiment for both of us. I think it has turned out as good as we hoped it would. But there was a heck of a lot of evolution!”

McNiff, SCLT program director at the time of the purchase, was actively involve in that evolution.

“This was part of my masters thesis while I was at SCLT,” he says. “The division came to us with this and I visited the Intervale and other sites that were trying out these ideas. We had people at our community gardens wanting to get bigger and bigger, and we had the idea that we could create market garden spaces where they could move. So when we heard about this it was a good fit.”

McNiff recalls that NOFA/RI’s Mike and Polly Hutchison did an assessment of the land at the time of the purchase. According to him they said “Only folks from an urban organic farming organization could look at the place and see the potential in it. They can see the potential in an urban vacant lot!”

“This place,” he goes on, “was in really rough shape. It was a dairy farm, but was all in brush the size of trees and boulders the size of cars. They also killed turkeys here and slaughtered beef cattle for the Hmong community (a Southeast Asian group which has settled in Rhode Island).”

SCLT started raising money to clean the place up and build the needed infrastructure. During the first ten years of the program the land trust wrote about a million dollars in grants to make the farm suitable, extimates Christina Dedora, a farmer at UEF who worked for SCLT at the time.

The hoophouse and some of the equipment available to farmers at Urban Edge Farm

The hoophouse and some of the equipment available to farmers at Urban Edge Farm

“All the money for rock removal, greenhouses, equipment and farm renovation at Urban Edge,” recalls McNiff, “was all a grant by a private foundation that gives grants for capital improvements. That was a big chunk of change. Two other big sources for programming at the beginning were Rhode Island Foundation and some USDA grants we got. All those programs combined helped a lot. Over the years the place has grown up a lot. We had a lot of help from the Americorps, too. They would come our here and cut brush. I think we took out 30 dumpsters full of trash. The first year and a half was about brush-clearing!”

Having seven businesses on one property means there is a lot of activity at Urban Edge Farm, often seven days a week, often after dark. I met with some of the farmers running those businesses in January.

Choua Xiong, along with his brother George and sister-in-law Chang, were among the initial farmers selected for Urban Edge. They work in the evening, after they get off their regular jobs.

“I have been here from 2003”, he says. “I am Hmong and I grow vegetables which are popular for them –Asian vegetables grow well here if we grow the short season ones, not the long season ones. We have a small rice paddy up on our land, just for us. My wife says she enjoys that we are growing our own vegetables — she doesn’t care if we make money or not!”

Christina Dedora operates Blue Sky Farm, which leases two fields for a small CSA and an herbal and flower business. Originally there was a collective CSA at Urban Edge, but that broke into individual ones. Currently there are 4 CSAs on the property.

“I’ve been here for ten years,” she confides. “I had farmed in Massachusetts for a number of years, got into debt, gave it up and got out of debt, came back home, and saw this blurb in the paper asking ‘do you want to be a farmer?’ My full time job was working in Boston. But the commute was too much. So I got a job at the land trust as the director of operations. Because I was also a farmer here I had a little bit easier time.

“When I came here,” she continues, “it was amazing. You have access to land, deer fencing, irrigation, tractors, a community that was working together. I don’t think I would do things differently if I owned the land. I turned 50 this year and my energy is for this farm now. I don’t think I would like to start a new one, even if I owned the land. I’ll probably stay here until I stop farming.

John Kenney, who runs Big Train Farm, has been a certified organic grower since 2012. Some of his produce is sold to restaurants, grocers, and private customers as far away as Massachusetts and he finds they care whether or not it is certified. Even members of his CSA prefer certification, he says. John will be leaving Urban Edge shortly and buying his own 11 acre parcel with a line of credit from the Farm Services Agency.

“I have worked out a business plan with them,” he says, “that shows I can pay off the loan farming. Some of their loans have a low interest rate because they are for beginner farmers, which I am. I don’t think they count the years you are farming for other people, which is nice.

“My fiancé and I talked about moving out of state,” he admits. “But the idea of changing our markets so much was impossible financially. If I were to move somewhere I didn’t have a reliable market it would be hard. I built my business up stone by stone over years. If I tried to do it suddenly elsewhere, where other farmers are already selling, it would be hard financially. So I’d have to go and become a lumberjack for a couple of years. To make a smooth transition Urban Edge Farm has been critical.”

Ben Torpey in front of his greenhouse

Ben Torpey in front of his greenhouse

Ben Torpey runs Scratch Farm on two acres at Urban Edge. This is his fifth season there.

“I had a job in the city,” he relates, “but this opportunity came up and I quit my job to farm. I was doing adult education and not making all that much money. So going back to farming wasn’t too bad. Right now we gross $100,000 on two acres. You can make a living on that.”

In 2016 Ben is hiring on two workers at $10 per hour who had apprenticed for him in 2015. He figures his labor bill will go up, but he has grown the CSA from 80 to 120 members in the last 3 years and can afford it. He markets to restaurants in Providence as well as through the CSA and has no trouble selling whatever he grows. He tries to keep the prices affordable, even so.

“We sell on a sliding scale,” he says, “with a mid range of $500 for a half share and $750 for a full. But people can pay whatever they can afford within the range. It goes 25 weeks. We can do that because the soil has gotten better. We have been investing in the soil, putting down lots of compost each year. We work 40 to 42 hours a week, even at the peak of the season. That is a value we have kept important.”

Over the last 2 years Torpey has also started to sell seeds. The business grew out of saving his best adapted seeds for farm reasons, as well as being a passion for him.

“It has been a one-farm operation so far,” he says, “but we are thinking of collaborating with other farms on it. Different locations could help by isolating pollination. The brand is Small State Seeds — we think we can get seeds that are better adapted for our location. There is a strong winter market and people want to buy local here. I think people would like to buy local seeds for their gardens.”

Ben dropped organic certification a few years ago because his markets were all personal and he didn’t need to be certified. But now he is thinking of picking it back up because it would help with selling the seeds.

Although Urban Edge Farm is 50 acres in size, only about 35 of those are open and in sandy loam fields. The rest is wet, not accessible or needs work. All farming at Urban Edge needs to follow organic practices. One of the primary attractions there is the wealth of infrastructure. The farmers share a large propagation hoophouse, a barn with walk-in cooler, an irrigation pond with diesel pump and lines piped to hydrants in all the fields, a large tractor with bucket and many implements, and a tall fence protecting the fields from deer. The farmers do the simpler maintenance and repairs cooperatively, and pay for these services on an as-used basis.

“I pay about $1500 per year for everything,” explains Christina, “the hours I use the tractor, the square footage I use in the greenhouse, and the land fee. There is also an irrigation fee, and a rental fee for the barn. We all record our usage in a log. We have worked it out so that those who don’t drive tractors can be taught to do so by people who drive them. We got a grant to pay them. Or if I drive tractor for Chang for an hour, I get a free hour. That is comparable for us all.

“John has chickens so he uses a tractor more,” she continues. I’m trying to do a field no-till, so I use it less. I do cut flowers and herbs, so I don’t use the tractor for those, either. A few years ago there was a five thousand dollar expense for tractor repair, but this year we had minimal costs. We try to make sure that our fees are high enough so the money is there to get the repairs we need.”

For a while the land trust went through a lean period and cut back on staff at the farm. So the fees were less, based on the farmers doing a lot of the work rather than hired staff. But now SCLT is reaching out more and getting more involved, so they may be bringing more people out to the farm.

Michele Kozlowski discs land with co-op tractor

Michele Kozlowski discs land with co-op tractor

One other benefit of the collegial nature of Urban Edge Farm is the capacity of farmers to learn from each other. Ben, for instance, has learned from other farmers there to prepare his beds with a heavy mulch of leaves — but no tillage.

“We do a lot of use of agricultural tarps,” he says, “to cover the land for primary tillage. That way we’re not inverting the soil. We add compost and use a cultivator in the top two inches after that to finish the bed. We also use cover crops, and the tarps kill them. Our weed pressure has gone way down. We have also done broadcasting of spring carrots. I did a broadcast bed and a regular one. The broadcast one was wonderful. I’ve been very skeptical of this but I get it and I want to go there. The fungi are doing it because we’re not doing the wrong thing!”

The tarps Torpey uses are made of woven black landscape fabric. He hates to use so much plastic, but reasons it lasts maybe 8 years and much of it is already recycled. He gets leaves from landscapers for free.

“The leaf guy comes to dump,” Ben laughs, “and I just feel he is dumping a big pile of money on my land. He’s my favorite guy to see! And he say’s “thank you”. He has a big truck with high sides and a big blower. There is a shredder in his truck, so he can compress them. These are dense loads. We’re in the suburbs and people don’t want their leaves. It’s great!

“The no till thing has gotten easier for us,” he concludes. “We see a lot more aggregation in our soil now. I don’t need to use as much water as I used to. That is another advantage of being here, among other farmers. I learn faster.”

For the state of Rhode Island, Urban Edge Farm is a success.

“For us, this is a phenomenal result,” says Ken Ayars. “It is what we wanted to happen. We need more of it. If we had it to do over again I would do it, and get more land! But back when we started there were not a lot of farmers coming through who were trained and ready to start out on their own. A lot of programs have come onboard to make that happen.”

To protect the state there is a carefully worded lease agreement to give farmers the leeway to do what they need to do while keeping the land in agriculture. But the arrangement has some problems for the farmers.

For one, there is no potable water supply there, which means efforts to do most food processing are limited. Christina has developed a drying room in the barn for her herbs, but without the possibility of a commercial kitchen, most value-added products are not feasible.

For another, the state is sensitive to charges that they are competing with private agriculture.

When I was first coming out here,” Pat recalls, “there were complaints from other farmers that: ‘Oh, you are going to subsidize these people and we are going to have to compete with them. You are building them greenhouses…” Our point was that ‘Yes, but they are paying for them. They are not getting them for free.’ The underlying part of this is that everyone gets a leg up in agriculture in some way. Very few people come from absolutely nothing. This is a way to get them a leg up and see how they can do then. No one is making millions out here.”

“The thing that was important for us,” adds Ken, “is that this needs to be real life. You may be only farming 2 acres, but the costs associated with those 2 acres have to be proper. You have to pay market value for what you are getting – the land, the equipment, the greenhouse space. The land trust gets grants but they in turn charge rents and fees for the use of the improvements. It is meant to be replicating a real life environment. It has to be that way so the transition can be workable.”
Another worry about competition centered around the fact that RI Central landfill is just 2 miles down the road. They collect leaves from all the landscapers and charge $20 a load as a tipping fee. But the farmers want the leaves for leaf mulch. Several people at the land trust got the idea that if they could put the word out to collect the leaves and charge just $10 a load, they could build a business that would make money and support more programming.

“But,” cautions Ayars, “we are trying to find the line to draw for what are green activities. The land trust is thinking about revenue streams and the farmers are thinking about getting access to compost. But we said we didn’t think that was appropriate here because you are adding in a non-agricultural activity. There are other ideas like that.”

One other problem clouds the sparkle of farming incubators generally, and Urban Edge Farm is no exception. That problem is the one of a farmer’s long term relationship to the farm. This problem really has two faces: security while on-farm and capacity to transition or move off-farm.

The security issue comes when the overall lease for the farm, from the public to the non-profit, is nearing its end.

Ken lays out the needs of the state clearly: “We can’t have a farmer lease span our lease to the land trust or other middleman. The overall lease is meant to start and stop the whole process. The obstacle for us with “evergreen” or “rolling leases” which automatically renew if no one objects is that we can’t, by state law, give a lease beyond 20 years. No one can in the state. And since we don’t want to be in the position of kicking a farmer off the land we have to require that our tenants abide by that limit in their subleases. The state property committee is the group that has to approve all our land deals. That is made up of individuals who change and who knows in 20 years whether they will have the same perspective they do now. Our goal is to not have to go back to them except every 20 years.”

McNiff agrees that the passage of time changes people’s views, and says farmers worry about that too.

John’s chickens out on fresh oat grass in 2014

John’s chickens out on fresh oat grass in 2014

“The hardest thing,” he says, “about getting involved in these lease agreements are the ownership/control issues that are involved. Ken is a great leader and a very easy person to work with. We never doubted him or Bob Sutton. But when administrations change, you do wonder what else will change. Will attitudes change? In our state, unlike Massachusetts, Ken’s job is not an appointed one. So that protects us somewhat as farmers for however many administrations you go through in 30 years! But my business is my life and I need to know what is going to happen.”

“The big downside of planning a business for the long term,” he continues, “is that in year 19 of the state lease farmers can’t get more than a one year lease. That is a significant risk, and an incentive to plan for moving on. We have a great state for marketability of produce, but a horrible state for affordability of farmland. Vermont has plenty of affordable land. That is the missing piece in our state. For sustainability of an agricultural community, ownership is important. It gives you more stability. Without it, you pull your punches when investing in the land.”

The moving on part is problematic, however, because land prices are so high. Incubators are envisioned as a place where someone can farm four or five years and then buy their own land.

But, as Pat puts it: “The rising market raised a lot of boats over the last few years. I think the biggest challenge for a project like this is the next steps. The idea of an incubator is to get you started and then you move on. But we haven’t got that moving on business down yet. We need more policies which make land available to farmers at reasonable prices. It is happening slowly, as John and Michelle (another Urban Edge farmer who is moving on) have found out by buying their own farms. But it is not easy. And neither of them have actually left yet!”

Because of these private land prices, and the attractiveness of continuing on at Urban Edge, some question whether an incubator is really a good way to encourage a continuing stream of new farmers.

“I’d like to put in a word for the idea,” Ben interjects, “that an incubator model is not a good idea in terms of farms. I know there are a lot of people at the Intervale who have not left, are not going to leave, and serve as the anchors of that community. And if we are talking about building soil, I think it is a bad idea, unless something changes, to ask someone to invest in soil for five years and then walk away. Transitioning farms from one location to another can be very destabilizing. I think John and Michele are very wise to be taking it slow.”

“It is an interesting question,” he continues, “whether this is the most efficient use of state money. Is it better to buy up the development rights on individual parcels so I can buy a scrubby field and gradually be making it my own, or is it better to set up something like this on one piece of land and bring the funding to it?”

“That is exactly what we think about,” Ken answers. “We did the bond issue for purchasing development rights, but after 30 years of land protection not a lot of land was actually transferring to young farmers. So this was in part a response to that. But the biggest issue for us is making sure that farmers have access to land. There is a great culture in RI about farming and local food. That often keeps people here. So we need to marry that with land access.”

As agricultural programs go, Urban Edge Farm — and even the idea of farm incubators – is relatively new. Both parties to the lease, the state and the land trust, want to help farmers and are continuing to move in new directions. Some, to circumvent the land price issue, may encourage farming on smaller plots, raising more intensive crops.

“Right now,” says Rob Booz, SCLT staffer, “we are working to identify recent refugees who want to be farmers. That has a lot to do with USDA funds and who they want to target — there is money in their pot for training people for farming. I don’t think that will involve giving people two acres right off the bat, but maybe quarter acre plots. A lot of our growers are coming from urban plots. You can have pest pressure and soil fertility issues you don’t have in the city when you move out here.”

Ben agrees that perhaps doing more on less is an answer to Rhode Island’s farm access problem: “Some people leave here because they feel it is not enough land to make a living on. But when you are land limited you start thinking of how to do a better job on what you have. It is inspiring!”

Making a Living as an Urban Market Gardener

Groundwork Market Garden

Mayda Pozantides (in the hat) with neighbors at Groundwork Market Garden

A focus on goals, attention to planning, and a helping of luck got Mayda Pozantides off to a good start as a for-profit urban farmer in Buffalo. This despite no steady water source, ground so tough their BCS couldn’t break it up, and no clue what contaminants they might find in it when they did.

“I don’t know that I got into farming because I wanted to become a really savvy businesswoman, but doing a lot of this”—planning, prioritizing, balancing investment and income—”has helped me to be able to connect to the soil, connect people to the source of their food, and to make a living,” Mayda said.

Testing, sweat, and lots of organic matter
Along with her partner, Anders Gunnersen, Mayda owns and manages Groundwork Market Garden, one of 30 urban farms in Buffalo. They offer a wide variety of produce through their CSA, farmstand, and restaurant sales. “We focus on fast turnover and profitability, but also crowd-pleasers like our tomatoes.” Mayda spoke at the New York Winter Conference on “Making a living as an urban market gardener.”

A foreclosure auction made the land
affordable, but they couldn’t test
the soil before the sale

In 2014, they bought the land, two acres a few miles from the city center, for $1800 at a foreclosure auction. “Foreclosure is a very affordable option, although that affordability comes with the land not being ready for agriculture.”

They were not allowed to test the soil before the sale; luckily, once they could test, they didn’t find any significant contamination with lead, PCBs, or other toxic chemicals common in urban soils. Had they found any, Mayda said, their plan would have been to follow model guidelines from Boston (see Resources and Links), using geotextile fabric to cover the existing soil and bringing in clean soil to grow in. “We would have started smaller,” she said, but would still have proceeded.

soil preparation got underway

The farm site in year one, as soil preparation
got underway

They spent the next year organizing their business, planning, and building soil. They rented a tractor to break the ground, brought in many yards of compost and other organic matter—“whatever we could get”—and planted sorghum-sudan, whose roots will penetrate tight soils.

Urban gardens are all different, she stressed, and the success of every enterprise will depend on matching your efforts to your situation. Mayda recommends beginning planning by focusing on your major goals—why do you want to do what you are doing? The “how” and the “what” flow from those, she says. For Mayda and Anders, the goal was to provide healthy food (they are now certified organic) at a fair price while making a sustainable living. “And not just financially sustainable, but sustainable for our mental health and for avoiding burnout.”

“As urban farmers, we are in someone’s neighborhood,
and might not look like
our neighbors. We need to get buy in.”

And importantly, she added, they wanted to be rooted in their community, and to bring the neighborhood in to make the farm a resource for the community. “As urban farmers, we are in someone’s neighborhood, and might not look like our neighbors. We need to get buy in.”

Their first growing season was in 2016. That summer was marked by drought and high temperatures, and their only water source was a hose snaked through a broken window in an adjacent building.

“That was definitely a learning experience,” she deadpanned. They have since invested in a steadier water source. She also found that her crops were a salad bar for the local wildlife. “Naively, I thought when I moved to urban farming the pests might disappear, but we’ve got them all—groundhogs, deer, insects.”

Nonetheless, they persevered, and Mayda still treasures a picture from that year—of a modest but attractive array of vegetables, left from an early market—as an emblem of their farm.

A focus on goals, and numbers
The following years brought more success—“We’ve done some things right,” she said. Each year, she sets three to five “SMART” goals, an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, which helps focus all the activity on the farm.

“Surviving this past year was a major accomplishment.” At the beginning of the season, before the pandemic, they set out to increase their financial goals, and as many farmers found, the demand was there in spades. While they lost many of their restaurant customers, they increased their CSA shares, including by adding half-shares that kick in mid-summer, when production is in full swing. (Editor’s note: very cool idea—might try that myself!)

Mayda calculated their start-up costs at about $28,000, including the land, compost, tools, equipment, permits, tests, and seed. Their yearly expenses are $63,000, the lion’s share of which is payroll for Mayda and their one seasonal full-time employee. Thy are expanding again this year, adding a second high tunnel.

In addition to income from direct sales, Groundwork brings in money from corporate partners who sponsor some of their CSA shares for low-income customers. “They have the money, and they need to improve their image,” she noted.

Mayda said it can be a challenge to match the promises of six-figure sales on tiny urban lots that one might hear about on YouTube. “That may work if your customers are high-end restaurants in big cities, but you need to know who you are selling to.” Buffalo is not Manhattan, she pointed out. “As urban farmers we are expected to provide good jobs and good pay, and give food away for free, but those things don’t quite add up.

“But because we are urban, we have an opportunity to really bring people right to the farm. Doing that can build trust, and create a sense of being a resource for the neighborhood. Bringing people in can only make you stronger.”

One of the sad paradoxes of urban farming is that something as vital for communities as locally grown food can be fraught with uncertainty over whether the soil it grows in is toxic. Recently, urban growers in Buffalo, in cooperation with region’s Food Policy Council, came together to develop the Greater Buffalo Urban Growers Pledge to increase consumer trust in the health and safety of urban-grown produce. The pledge commits the grower to, among other things, regular testing of soil and compost, mulching to reduce dust and soil splash, and “avoidance of synthetic insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fertilizers, GMOs, chemically treated seeds, toxic materials, and sewage sludge.” The full pledge is available in the Resources and Links.

Resources and Links
Groundwork Market Garden: www.groundworkmg.com
Boston Urban Soil Guidelines: bit.ly/3bZWClu
Buffalo Urban Growers Pledge: bit.ly/2XYxzH1
Contact: groundworkmg@gmail.com