A Land Trust for Commercial Urban Farms?

Holding farmland in trust serves as a potential complement for for-profit, entrepreneurial urban farming models. Foundation officials in particular are interested in the potential for the urban farming sector to move beyond nonprofit business models that are dependent on grants. In 2015, a few Chicago foundations created a joint program called “Food:Land:Opportunity,” which is funding a NeighborSpace-led effort to develop a land tenure model that could support for-profit commercial growers in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood. (Food:Land:Opportunity 2015)

This potential new role for NeighborSpace, or for a new landholding entity, responds to a problem likely to arise thanks to the growth of programs focused on training new commercial urban farmers. In 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the Farmers for Chicago program, which committed the city to helping to find land for farmer trainees from organizations such as Growing Home. The Chicago Botanic Garden and Growing Power have since developed “incubator farms” where beginning urban farmers can refine their growing skills, test out their business models, and sharing equipment and distribution facilities. (Chicago Botanic Garden 2013; Growing Power 2013) Yet when the incubation period ends for these new farmers, the questions remains where they might go to establish their farming businesses. Will they be able to afford land at market rates in the city, or will they have to move to the country to find land?

The planning process funded by Food:Land:Opportunity is aimed at figuring out a way for for-profit urban farmers to afford land in Englewood. As of late 2015, there were many things yet to be worked out. If land could be made affordable by holding it in trust and leasing to farmers, is that something NeighborSpace could do, without revising its mission? One option that participants in the process have discussed is the possibility of creating a nonprofit growers’ cooperative that would lease land from NeighborSpace or another land trust. The members of the cooperative, in turn, could then incorporate using the business form of their choice, whether as nonprofits or as some type of for-profit entity.These discussions, which are still underway as we write, have also involved questions of whether it might be better for land to be held by a community land trust based in Englewood, with leadership that is more rooted in and representative of the majority African-American population of this and other South Side neighborhoods. However, there is some question whether city officials would be willing to transfer land to a new landholding entity, having already established an ongoing relationship with NeighborSpace.