The Need for Affordable Land

The high cost of urban relative to rural land poses a major problem for would-be urban farmers. Unlike rural farmers, they are competing for land with a multitude of other potential users, which in turn creates inflationary pressures on land prices. In Wisconsin, for example, cropland rents for rural land averaged $228 per acre in 2015. This is a small fraction of the price an urban farmer would have to pay for an acre of tillable land at market rates in Chicago. Yet food grown in cities must remain price competitive with food grown in rural areas. Few if any crops can be sold at prices that would cover the higher land costs, and urban growers are not able to simply add a premium to reflect the value of the contributions they make to their neighborhoods.

This squeeze between the price of their produce and the cost of land drives many urban farmers to look for free or low-cost land. This search often leads to the parts of cities where the market value of land is most depressed. These are neighborhoods with the all-too-familiar histories of disinvestment connected with the flight of white – and, increasingly, nonwhite — residents to the suburbs. They are neighborhoods where industry has also fled, moving jobs overseas and often leaving contamination in their wake. These factors moderate the pressures that would in more healthy economic, community, and environmental circumstances drive up the price of scarce urban land. But at the same time, they present both challenges and opportunities different than those farmers face in rural settings .

The Need for Tenure Protections

Over the past fifteen years, urban agriculture has been increasingly recognized as a subject for urban planning in the United States. Results from Google Scholar show an exponential increase since 1999 in books and articles mentioning urban agriculture together with urban planning. During the same period, there has been a slower but steady growth in works mentioning urban agriculture together with land tenure and urban planning.

These trends reflect a move toward seeing food production a beneficial feature to integrate in an urban landscape on a long-term basis. There may be a move afoot to see urban farms as more than scraps of field on the urban fringes destined for development, or an interim use for undeveloped lots in the city center. City planners increasingly recognize the many benefits associated with urban food production; some also acknowledge that it could take decades for depopulated neighborhoods to return to anything like their former density — if ever. City planners and elected officials have started to write master plans, amend zoning codes, and rethink other regulations in order to encourage and protect urban farming.

The prospect of long-term land tenure creates opportunities previously unavailable to urban farmers. It makes it imaginable to apply for organic certification, a process that often takes at least three years to complete. And it justifies new levels of investment infrastructure and soil remediation, which for growers operating on a year-to-year basis is not economically feasible.

Of course, high land costs and market pressures stand out as the greatest obstacle for long-term land tenure for urban farmers. It is hard to debate the fact that other forms of development can yield far higher rates of return for investors, which forces urban farmers to make the case why they deserve to have access to otherwise undeveloped land at below-market rates.

Admittedly, long-term tenure may not be the end goal for all farmers or every neighborhood. Very long-term leases or outright ownership may often be the best fit for nonprofit agricultural organizations that provide farmer training, or for for-profit ventures run by highly-experienced farmers. But new farmers graduating from training programs may need a few years to experiment with business models or recognize the reality versus the romance of urban growing. Since many may not continue to farm beyond the first few years, short-term leases may be a good match.