Strategic Questions

How Will Land Be Secured for Farmers?

Although this is the central question to be answered by a land tenure model, we do not expect that there will be a single answer. Indeed, as we suggested in the previous section, land may be secured differently for farmers who have different levels of experience.

Before securing land for particular farmers, however, there is the question of how to protect land for agricultural use. This could mean transferring publicly- or privately-owned land into a land trust, which then provides leases to individual farmers or urban farming organizations.

Whether land is leased by a land trust or a public agency, it makes sense to have different terms for different types of farmers. Nonprofit urban farming organization could be eligible for long-term leases, up to 98-year renewable leases for the most well-established organizations. Such leases would ensure long-term agricultural use, and provide security to urban farming organizations committed to being an ongoing resource for a neighborhood.

For individual farmers, a renewable short-term lease could have performance measures negotiated by the farmer and the leasing entity, with input from community members. This would mean that farmers could work their way into long-term security of tenure, by demonstrating their ability to not only pay the (below-market) rent, but also provide community benefits.

How Will Land Be Made Affordable?

If urban farmers are to have any hope of success as a going concern, their costs for land access should be roughly on par with rural farmers. Thus one reasonable target for affordability would be to have urban farmers devote the same percentage of the cost of inputs to land as do rural farmers. For rural farmers, this proportion will depend on the crop, whereas urban farmers will be more likely to have a more intensive and diversified growing strategy.

How Will Land Be Used?

What type of land will be appropriate will of course depend on how growers plan to use it. Will they grow in greenhouses, hoop houses, or outdoors? Will they be growing flowers, herbs, or vegetables? Will they set up the types of composting facilities? Land use will of course depend not only on growers’ desires, but on what zoning and other regulations allow.

Who Will Be the Farmers?

As has been discussed, a land tenure model must be responsive to different types of farmers. These range from job trainees working on nonprofit urban farms and new growers testing their business models on incubator farms, to independent growers with just a few years to decades of experience. A tenure model can also help encourage community-engaged urban agriculture by minority-run firms, and by prioritizing access to land for growers who will grow in their own neighborhood.

What Type of Support Will Farmers Need to Be Successful?

The level and type of support will vary widely based on the experience of the farmer, issues relating to the land, and challenges in accessing the local market for their produce.  But focusing just on land-related issues, farmers may need support for soil remediation, installation of infrastructure (water and electricity), construction of agricultural buildings, negotiating favorable property tax assessments (where they are the landowner), and in some cases zoning changes.  Once again, in most, if not all cases, it will require the support of a team of people and/or organizations to address all these issues.

How is Success Defined?  What Expectations Are Realistic?

In defining a system for land tenure, people will have to grapple with what a successful urban farming sector looks like. Although nonprofit urban farms have been demonstrated to be effective sites for youth programming and job training, most cities have yet to see a large number of small for-profit urban farms that create substantial numbers of well-paying jobs. If communities or government officials expect that urban farms will be a major vehicle for job creation in the near-term, those expectations may turn out to be unrealistic.

A successful land tenure model would support land remaining in agricultural use over the period during which urban farmers are testing out for-profit and non-profit business models. It will take some time for farmers to learn which business models provide an acceptable mix of economic return and community benefits. Along the way, as is normal with small businesses even in established markets, some farming businesses will fail. Rather than taking this as a sign that land should not be preserved for agricultural use, a successful land tenure model would quickly provide access to a new grower.

Who Should Be the Landholding Entity?

A number of different types of entity could hold land for urban farms, ranging from government agencies and land banks to land trusts, agriculture cooperatives, land trusts, or even private firms. Around the United States, people are increasingly looking to land trusts as an entity suited to holding land for urban farms and gardens. However, when considering whether a land trust should itself hold title to land, or instead manage lands held by public entities, potential property tax issues are an important initial consideration; market-rate property tax assessment can make land unaffordable, even for a nonprofit land trust.

How Will Landholding Entity Relate to Community Members?

Whether land is held by a nonprofit land trust, a government agency, or some other entity the relationship between the landholder and community members will inevitably be a key question. Are community members included as board members of a land trust, and if so, how? Are they consulted by the decision makers in a city landholding agency or a county land bank, and if so, by what process?