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Land Values Lynchpin to Large-scale Adoption of Urban Ag

February 28, 2012 |

The following is a guest post from Dan Allen, the CFO of Farmscape Gardens, a Los Angeles-based organic garden installation and maintenance company that since its founding has become the largest urban farming venture in Southern California.

In a guest post for Seedstock on Friday, Roxanne Christenson argues that urban agriculture must professionalize if it is to keep growing, creating jobs, and providing quality food for urban residents. Her observation is a good one, as even a casual survey of urban farming ventures reveals that non-profits outnumber for-profits by a wide margin. And I agree with her conclusion regarding the potential benefits of urban agriculture training programs:

“The time is ripe for the professionalization of urban agriculture. It will then not only deliver the social and environmental benefits touted by the advocates, but it will also be an industry that generates significant economic benefits as well.”

However, I take issue with Roxanne’s prescription for how we get there. She argues that the missing link is business training, along with financial and management strategies to pair with agricultural expertise.

I think this misses the mark. In most urban centers high land values are the biggest obstacle to large-scale adoption of urban agriculture, not a lack of professionalization. High land values translate to rent or mortgage payments that eat into margin and leave precious little revenue for the farmer. For example, even an optimistic gross profit projection of $6,000 per month is barely enough to rent half an acre in Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, much less pay a farmer a living wage.

As a result, the crop of current urban farming ventures is led by those who creatively circumvent the high cost of land by using rooftops (like Gotham Greens in Brooklyn), backyards and schoolyards (like we do at Farmscape) or temporarily vacant lots (like Riverpark Farm in Manhattan). What is saved in rent shows up in the paychecks of farmers and bankrolls the growth of these ventures.

The growth of urban ag shows that the upside of these ventures is high, but it would be even higher if land values did not restrict the location and scale of these projects. What if each neighborhood was home to not just backyard farms and a community garden, but also a professionally-managed market garden that provided those without the time or expertise with access to the highest quality, locally-grown, and verifiably organic produce? If land costs were lower, companies such as ours would be racing to set these up, and urban agriculture would experience an unprecedented wave of professionalization.

Of course, high land values are not a bad thing. After all, they indicate that a city is prosperous and are the main source of wealth for most middle-class Americans. But if we view the integration of small-scale urban farms into communities as vital to health, nutrition and food security, we need to figure out how to provide urban farmers with access to cheaper land, even in prosperous cities.

The good news is that there is at least one potential solution. As suburban sprawl began to encroach on rural farmland, “land trusts” have been used to protect these farmlands from development. Land trusts are non-profit organizations with a conservation mandate. In this context, trusts are buying farmland and guaranteeing that it will be used for agricultural purposes indefinitely, even if they could make more money by parceling it for apartments, malls, or office parks.

In the urban context, such land trusts could purchase a series of lots throughout the city and designate them for agricultural production. To be effective, the city would have to pair such efforts with urban farming-friendly zoning code that would permit small-scale agricultural production and sale. In concert, these steps would ensure greater access to local food, substantial growth in urban farming jobs, and rising land values, as residents would value proximity to these operations.

Professionalization is vital to the growth of urban agriculture, but to truly experience the upside of such efforts it must happen in conjunction with efforts to lower the cost of land for urban farmers.

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Read Roxanne Christensen’s guest post here: http://seedstock.com/2012/02/24/the-professionalization-of-urban-agriculture/

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