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Policies needed to support urban farming

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/07/09 @ 10:51am

Cleveland's blossoming, for-profit urban agriculture economy has plentiful opportunities (of the $7 billion in food purchased every year, less than five percent is locally produced) and barriers (demand for local food is currently outstripping supply), the Plain Dealer reported yesterday.

The article points to a need for government policy and scaling ideas being tested by nonprofit groups and farmers working on scattered sites. Another barrier to bringing local food to scale is the cost of converting brownfields to ready-made farmland. One recent estimate put the cost of cleaning contaminated land and preparing it for farming (putting in fencing, water lines, etc.) at $40,000 per acre in the city. Raised beds and 'permaculture' techniques like lasagna mulching (pdf) can reduce some of those costs.

Costs are one concern, permanent status of land for farms (instead of development) are another. One of the conclusions of the ReImagine a More Sustainable Cleveland study-which is being used as the blueprint for urban agriculture-identifies key policy areas where the city and county (and maybe technical consultants like land conservation organizations) can deal with the vagaries of farming on city land if its doesn't have protected status. To see the complete list go here, but two worth mentioning are:

  • Prioritize agricultural land uses in the city through the creation of a new land-use category for urban agriculture to aid in long-term planning and land security for urban farmers and community gardeners.
  • Establish strategies for controlling use and new models for holding land (i.e. re-zone to urban garden district, transfer ownership of land to community land trust, long term land leasing with ability to fence and secure).

Some other questions to consider:

1. Is it possible the successful model of conservation easements used by land conservancies can be adapted to urban land to protect it for permanent, large-scale farms?

2. The City of Cleveland is hiring a coordinator for a new urban farming/re-greening vacant land program. Among this person's many tasks will be figuring out the economics of bringing urban agriculture to scale. For example, what is the ideal sized plot of land and what are the highest yield products that can be grown in the city to make it profitable?

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