Vacant city lots may be fertile ground for a
new farming economy
by Genevieve Rajewski
Glynn Lloyd has long been interested in the intersection of local, fresh food and economic development. he founded City Fresh Foods, a community-based catering business, 15 years ago to offer culturally appropriate food to Latin and African American senior citizens. Today, the $5 million company provides more than 8,000 nutritious meals daily—all prepared in Dorchester—to senior nutrition programs such as Meals on Wheels, elementary schools, daycares and other institutional clients around Boston.
So it’s surprising that it took Lloyd, a visionary, so long to see the possibility for another food-related business that lies all around us.
Two years ago, Lloyd was driving through Roxbury, mulling over the challenges of finding locally grown produce for use in City Fresh meals, when he had a revelation: “We want to buy produce that’s really fresh. But local food production won’t reach its full potential until people can figure out a way to make it economically viable.”
As Lloyd’s mind wandered along these lines, his eyes began to focus on a possible solution apparent all along Harold Street. “I looked around and saw empty lot after empty lot,” he recalls. “I wondered, ‘Why don’t we start growing vegetables right here on vacant land?’”
And couldn’t those veggies in turn sprout a new local industry?
TILLING THE SOIL
After doing some legwork in the community, Lloyd hit on two properties that seemed to have farming potential: one a vacant, city-owned lot in Roxbury surrounded by neighbor’s eager for urban agriculture; the other a commercial property in Roxbury with an open-minded owner. However, he soon learned from the city that neither parcel was zoned for commercial agriculture.
A private partner with the right zoning stepped forward: the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester. The club had development plans for the unused parts of its property on Blue Hill Avenue, but those are at least a few years off from actualization. So in the meantime, the club has leased the land to City Growers—the new for-profit business put together by Lloyd and his partners, Bruce Fulford of Roslindale-based City Soil & Greenhouse Co. and Margaret Connors of Jamaica Plain—for next to nothing.
“Our work fits into the health mission of the club,” says Lloyd. “Kids get a chance to see what we are doing and learn about the many types of vegetables that can be grown in their backyards.”
In April of last year, the City Growers team laid cardboard over a quarter-acre of scrub land behind the tennis courts, covered it with a foot of healthy soil and planted a host of crops. Soon after, City Growers added another privately owned property in Milton. Under the care of Codman Square farmer Tim Cooke, the fledgling farms turned out a harvest that taught the City Growers team the hazards of overextending.
“We grew vegetables for sale to restaurants. If that wasn’t enough, we started a CSA. And if that wasn’t enough, we were selling vegetables retail. We ended up with three businesses with very limited resources,” says Lloyd. “At one point we were even delivering boxes of tomatoes [ordered by email] to people’s doorsteps.”
City Growers made $15,000 last year. “that was just an experiment; this year will be much more of a focused pilot,” says Lloyd. For the 2011 growing season, City Growers is dropping the CSA and selling only to restaurants and retails operations. City Feed and Supply, a specialty grocery store and cafe in Jamaica Plain, has committed to buying 100 heads of lettuce a week for use in sandwiches. City Fresh Foods will likely buy $2,000 worth of produce for use in its catered meals.
“We’re also expanding to a second urban plot on Lucerne Street in Mattapan that’s roughly an eighth of an acre,” says Lloyd.
The focus will be on “intensive relay” farming techniques—that is, getting at least three high-value crops from each bed per season. For City Growers, that means heads of romaine, Bibb, red leaf and oak lettuce, plus some arugula, beets and carrots.
City Growers will operate much like a farming franchise. Its co-founders will handle land acquisition, soil preparation, marketing, transportation and “back of house” operations such as accounting. Experienced local growers will be hired to manage individual plots. Nataka Crayton from A Village at Work—a community center in lower Roxbury with a farm stand selling produce from neighborhood gardens—and her husband, Bobby Walker, will tend the Sportsmen’s and Lucerne Street land.
“City Growers has an urban agenda,” explains Lloyd. “And we hope to come away from this year with data that shows a farming model where one grower can bring in $25,000 from a small plot.”
REWARDS FOR THE REAPING
The social and environmental benefits of turning vacant city lots are easy to understand. But from a business perspective, trying to wring agricultural income from such little land may seem counterintuitive. Roxanne Christensen, co-creator of SPIN-Farming, argues that small-scale farming can actually be more profitable than the traditional rural approach.
SPIN-Farming—a new commercial agricultural production system for plots of less than one acre—draws its name from “Small-Plot Intensive” farming.
The idea started with Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen, Canadian farmers in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The couple used to sell at a farmers market, raising the produce both at their home garden and at a 20-acre farm some 40 miles north of town. Over six years, their rural crops were perpetually threatened by wind and hail, insect infestation, rodents, deer and irrigation difficulties. Meanwhile, the urban garden had fewer pests, reliable access to the public water system, better protection from the elements, no need for an expensive tractor, and a longer growing season.
“They realized it was a lot more profitable and manageable to be a sub-acre farmer than a large, more rurally based farmer. So they sold all their [rural] acreage and started farming backyards,” says Christensen. The couple now farms 25 city yards in addition to their own; they rent the other spaces or barter vegetables for their use.
Christensen co-founded Somerton Tanks Farm in Philadelphia with Satzewich acting as her agricultural advisor. The half-acre demonstration urban farm served as the U.S. test bed for the SPIN-Farming method from 2003 to 2006. In its first year, the farm produced $26,000 in gross sales from 20,000 square feet of growing space. By 2006, gross sales had reached $68,000. An economic feasibility study funded by the state of Pennsylvania projected the urban farm’s income potential to be $120,000—all from under an acre of growing space.
SURVEYING THE LANDSCAPE
Urban farms certainly would enjoy access to a strong consumer base. According to Scott Soares, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, “Many [of the more than 240 farmers markets statewide] have sprung up around urban centers and are attended by farmers traveling in from more rural communities.”
Urban farming also has the potential to attract the entrepreneurially minded.
“Farming in many ways is simpler than other business start-ups,” says Soares. “You don’t necessarily need a storefront. you don’t need a truck unless you are moving product to sell it on a larger geographical scale. you don’t need a lot of infrastructure to grow your product. You just need good soil, water and sun. But that’s not to say farming is easy,” he cautions.
In Boston and other urban areas around the state, access to land presents an enormous barrier to new farmers.
“Unfortunately, Massachusetts is consistently among the top three states in the nation in terms of land values,” says Soares. “If you start to look at the more-urban areas around Boston, the fair market rate for land is extremely high. Unless land is donated or subsidized, it’s very difficult to raise enough volume of agricultural products on a small plot to make it pay for the real estate costs.”
Land represents the largest obstacle in City Growers’ plans, which Lloyd says need “to be subsidized coming out of the box.”
Lloyd thinks the number of green-collar jobs generated by urban farming will get exciting once City Growers reaches 10 or 15 total acres—and, by his estimations, close to a $1 million in business. But moving onto even long-vacant land has been difficult.
“One point that cities get hung up on—including here in Philadelphia—is redevelopment potential,” says Christensen. “Cities don’t want to put any activity on vacant land that is going to preclude or complicate future development, even though a lot of these lots have sat around undeveloped for 30 or 40 years.”
PLANTING THE SEEDS FOR A NEW SECTOR
The City of Boston owns more than 1,400 vacant lots, which are concentrated in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. As most of the parcels are far less than one acre in size, many of them presented a development challenge even before construction financing all but evaporated in recent years. Some properties have stood empty for several decades. Most lie fallow because their original owners found it more attractive to abandon them than to pay property taxes on land that couldn’t seem to generate any income.
Now, the city is looking at whether transforming some of these plots into farms can increase access to affordable and healthy food in underserved communities, while also promoting economic opportunity.
Late last year, the city announced its Pilot Urban Agriculture Project, which seeks to put four vacant city-owned properties in South Dorchester to productive use as commercial farms. Initially, each of the properties—which range in size from a quarter acre to a half acre—will be leased for $120 per year for a term of five years. Farmers for the plots will be chosen through a request for proposals (RFP) that includes incentives for farming that is responsive to community needs and interests. Leases may be extended if farming proves successful.
Still, Soares notes that starting farms “in highly populated areas can be challenging because surrounding residents don’t always understand what it takes to develop an agricultural business.” That seems to be the case in Dorchester, where local residents grew suspicious of the city’s intentions when the process for turning over the vacant land seemed rushed. The city had been moving quickly in hopes of making the parcels productive this growing season—which should have happened by April to give farmers the best shot at success.
“There’s some legacy of a mistrust for government in this community, which is understandable,” acknowledges tad Read, a senior planner at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
For example, when the zoning overlay initially proposed by the city allowed for small farm animals, rumors began to circulate that the city was planning to install large chicken farms in Dorchester. The city took farm animals off the table to reassure the community. But the issue likely will be revisited for other neighborhoods this summer, when the city kicks off a far-reaching rezoning effort to support many types of urban farming—including rooftop agriculture, aquaculture and vertical farming.
Another neighborhood concern was that a farmer from another part of the state or country simply wanting to make profit would come in to farm the Dorchester properties and offer no benefits to the community. Read says residents are hoping that urban farming can bring educational and training opportunities for youth, employment opportunities and low-cost produce.
Under Massachusetts laws governing the lease of municipal real estate, the city cannot limit prospective farmers to Boston residents or residents of a particular neighborhood.
“The city also has been careful to address that farming at this scale is not a highly profitable venture,” explains Read. “It has fairly narrow margins. So any farmer of this land is not going to have unlimited ability to make low-cost produce available. However, a for-profit farmer may be able to offer a portion of the produce at lower cost, and a nonprofit might be in a position to use grants and other funding sources to subsidize a low-cost CSA.”
With so many stakeholders in vacant plots, Lloyd says the public process means that “in many ways, it’s easier to work with private land owners” when it comes to urban farming.
After land costs, limited access to capital and know-how are the two constraints most frequently cited by wannabe farmers in the state’s farmer-training programs, says Soares.
Massachusetts offers grants of up to $10,000 to those who have worked in agriculture for less than three years. “new farm businesses typically don’t qualify for other state and federal funding programs, so we hope this little bit of funding can help smaller farms get over the hump of capital costs associated with a hoop house or rototiller.”
To help everyone figure out the know-how, City Growers and the Conservation Law Foundation are using a grant from The Boston Foundation to research the issues faced by urban farming. These include zoning for commercial agriculture, ensuring soil safety and establishing composting chains to provide and supplement soil.
“We are looking at a new sector—and a lot of the infrastructure isn’t there yet. It’s hard enough starting a business; we are pioneering a new industry,” says Lloyd. “Small businesses like City Growers, our nonprofit friends and the city have to be aligned and communicating if we are going to make that effort successful.”
A regular contributor to Edible Boston, Genevieve Rajewski writes about animal issues, food, science and passionate people. Read more at www.genevieverajewski.com