There are few upsides to the U.S. recession that left people across the country without jobs, and in some cases, homes. But if we had to pick one good thing that emerged from the economic mess, it would be the vacant land that is now being used to create a new urban agriculture revolution. In a new report, PolicyLink highlights the projects and policies around the country that are bringing urban agriculture to lower-income communities of color—and some of the big challenges that they’re dealing with.
When done well, urban agriculture initiatives can offer access to healthy food in areas that formerly had little, provide jobs and skills development, and provide a sense of community. Getting to the point where that’s possible isn’t easy, however. Among the hurdles that nascent urban agriculture projects have to overcome: water access, land use issues, inadequate business training, and insufficient income generation.
One big problem stems from the lack of help from the USDA’s Farm Bill, according to Judith Bell, the president of PolicyLink. The current bill provides all sorts of assistance to farmers and agricultural projects—but only those in rural areas. Even though a new bill will likely be passed by the end of the year, that aspect probably won’t change. "Challenges in business training and marketing could be helped by the USDA program," says Bell. "It’s a challenge in that there’s expertise and should be resources available but the doors are closed."
Another major challenge: Soil in urban areas is often contaminated. That’s an easy one to work around, though; many urban farmers simply use raised beds or hydroponic growing methods. "Most people tend to be cautious. They very much believe in providing quality food," says Allison Hagey, one of the authors of the report.
Land issues can seemingly be easy to work around in blighted areas—after all, can’t farmers just take over vacant land for themselves? It isn’t quite that simple. Farms and gardens created on vacant land run the risk of being decimated if a developer decides they want to buy. And in one survey cited by PolicyLink, just 5.3% of gardens located in 38 cities were privately owned.
In Chicago, the city is tackling the issue with a land trust called NeighborSpace, which can buy properties to preserve as open land and reissue them to outside organizations, like community gardens. It’s a win-win for the city: Studies have shown that once a farm or garden is planted in a space, crime in the surrounding area goes down.
Water access, too, is not easy to come by. In Cleveland, the city is dealing with the issue by letting people use fire hydrants for agricultural purposes, at least until land rights issues can be resolved to the point where farmers are willing to invest in tapping the city’s water main.
Cleveland is actually home to what will likely become a thriving example of urban agriculture: Green City Growers Cooperative. This employee-owned cooperative, part of a larger group of co-ops (the Evergreen Cooperatives) in Cleveland, is planting the first seeds in its 3.25 acre hydroponic greenhouse by the end of November. Led by CEO Mary Donnell, the employee-owned co-op will hire from the community and provide leafy greens (about three million heads of lettuce and 300,000 pounds of fresh herbs each year) to local institutions, including hospitals and educational facilities.
Despite having support from the city, the federal government, the larger group of Evergreen Cooperatives, and foundations, Donnell still says the co-op faced hurdles in launching. "Financing for a startup is challenging, and finding construction in a city is more expensive," she says. "The Evergreen vision certainly helped open the doors but it takes persistence and problem solving."
Even though it hasn’t yet launched, other urban agriculture initiatives are looking to Green City Growers as a model. "It’s an example of what urban agriculture can do with resources, investment, and infrastructure," says Hagey.
For more on the benefits and challenges of urban agriculture, check out PolicyLink’s report.