Getting Down to Business

Urban farming’s non-profit roots run deep. Grants were always plentiful. Making money was an accident or an afterthought. Actual farmers were rarely involved.

When the pandemic brought lockdowns and panic buying, the practice of urban farming took on new significance. Governments went from viewing it as a low-priority, feel good, quality-of-life exercise to seeing it more as basic infrastructure. Those who started growing food found enough paying customers to turn their garden-size plots into a source of income.

Since then academics, researchers and policymakers have been digging into the economics of urban food production. What’s becoming obvious is that when even a small percent of grocery dollars are redirected to city-based farms and food businesses, it delivers significant impact. The case is also being made for cities to redirect some of their own food procurement spending to local suppliers. Schools, prisons and food banks represent sizeable and dependable markets for city-based farmers.

While those inside the status quo are finding compelling new reasons to figure out how to support local farms and food businesses, the old conflict between development and farming is taking on a new twist. Suburban sprawl began over 70 years ago when groups of people sought to escape the crime and pollution of cities and fled to greener pastures outside of them. Housing developments, malls and office parks were built to accommodate them. This turned into a mass exodus, and more and more property development paved over more and more farms that had existed for generations. Small family farms began their inexorable march towards extinction.

What suburban sprawl left behind was an abundance of vacant lots. In some cities they number close to, or even exceed, 50,000. Some of them were turned into community gardens by nearby residents, but it was never an officially sanctioned use and those who created them were regarded as squatters.

Over time land bank programs were created to put these lots back in productive use. All adhered to the guiding principle of “highest and best use”, meaning something bricks and mortar that generates tax dollars. Community gardens, no matter what their health and recreational value was to those who tended them, or the positive environmental impact they had on neighborhoods, just didn’t earn their keep.

Now urban farmers are ushering in a different reality. Even though their businesses are garden-size, the activity that occurs there is not to grow food for private use. It’s to produce food consistently, in bulk at commercial grade to sell to others. They are the new developers, and they are looking to stabilize and expand their businesses. This is a scenario city officials understand and are equipped to deal with. They also now have the type of facts, figures and analysis to show that a significant amount of new income can be captured from a local food industry. Farmers, and the ad hoc grassroots food supply chains they are a part of, are valuable assets they can work with to both make their populations more secure, and diversify their economies to provide new revenue streams.

Andrew Davis, is a commissioner for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, which includes 3 cities: Bonner Springs, Edwardsville and Kansas City. He recently told the local NPR affiliate that the county land bank is changing its policies after being contacted by urban farmers wanting to acquire land. Currently, selling land for single family housing is the priority. “I don’t think we have to choose,” he says. “I think there’s a way in which we can see gardens and farmers thrive in KCK all while still having that aggressive movement for single family homes.” He knows it will be a challenge to get his colleagues on the commission on board, since many of them would rather have houses that generate property taxes.

“Where I’m comfortable pushing the conversation is saying, ‘Well, in the meantime, while we’re trying to get the rooftops, can we expand access to healthy food, to fresh food in a different way?’ This change of thinking is finding fertile ground in a leading agribusiness state where thousands of acres of grains define much of the farming there.

The move towards legitimizing urban farms is coinciding with the availability of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money to strengthen local and regional food systems across the US. The work is rapidly moving to the practical implementation stage. The official tools available to make cities more farming friendly are overwhelming – agriculture districts, tax incentives, special zoning overlays, farm parks. National models will be trumpeted, best practices will be sought, further research and studies will be conducted, progress will happen in fits and starts. But 2 important breakthroughs have already happened.

Suburban sprawl dramatized the long-standing battle between farming and development, but the type of farming found out in wide open spaces is much different than what is now being practiced in cities, where farms are a fraction of the size of a traditional farm, largely unmechanized and adhere to easy-to-live-with growing practices. After decades of conflict, compatibility with the built environment is a new way to define farming.

The second breakthrough is that urban farmers are starting to be acknowledged as the professionals they are and accorded the status they deserve. To make continued progress, top-down policies and resources need to sync with bottom-up community-based farm businesses. Both farmers and government officials will be pushed beyond their comfort zones. But now what unites them is mutual self-interest and the understanding that they can accomplish more by working together and getting down to business.